Ngobeni reflects on US journey and Mamba moment

… also sees the bright side despite losing two BNL finals

THE name Tsakani Ngobeni is synonymous with basketball in South Africa. So, it’s hard to imagine the country’s game could have seen his talents lost to other sports. Thankfully a growth spurt, and coaches of alternative sports deciding he was too tall, he went on to have a fulfilling career in basketball.

Soweto-born Ngobeni’s journey took him across the Atlantic to the United States on a scholarship. He also got to where the green and of South Africa in continental competition. When the Basketball National League (BNL) launched in 2013, many fans saw him show out firstly for Soweto Panthers and then Duzi Royals, who no longer exist.

The 39-year-old spoke to The Big Tip Off during a Jr NBA clinic held for 500 kids at the Klipspruit Sports Centre in Soweto on Youth Day (16 June). He gave some insights into his playing career and also used the opportunity to express his joy at sharing some pointers of the game with the kids during the clinic.

“We have kids here who are getting to learn the basic skills needed to play basketball. Passing, shooting, dribbling, communicating and life skills as well. Some of the things I have mentioned are the foundations of life,” said Ngobeni.

“I am happy that these kids have shown up, especially on this day [Youth Day]. For me, it’s special because I get to celebrate teaching a sport I love.” 

Tsakani Ngobeni giving out pointers
Tsakani Ngobeni shares some pointers at the Jr NBA clinic. Pictures: The BTO

Ngobeni also enjoyed the day with his son, who was among the kids participating in the drills.

“He chose the sport, and now he gets to enjoy himself while learning and doing the skills I mentioned earlier,” said the small forward.

The love for basketball

The former South African international player explained his journey into the game. 

“I discovered basketball when I was young. Also coaches of other sports said I was too tall,” said Ngobeni. “Basketball allowed me to be versatile and play multiple positions. It gave me the freedom to express myself, and coaches also gave me the space to do so.”

The American Dream

The 6ft6 (1.99m) Ngobeni got an opportunity many in his position could only wish for or dream of. A scholarship paved the way for Ngobeni to pursue education and basketball in the United States. 

He says the chance to go to the US came through a clinic like the one held by the Jr NBA. The journey had an initial hiccup. A hand injury would test Ngobeni’s resolve, but his determination ensured the door to the US remained open.

“Funny enough, it happened in a similar setting like this in Soweto at the Elka Stadium. Mike Finley spotted me and was impressed with some of my attributes, especially my height. Unfortunately, I had a broken hand, so it delayed the process,” said Ngobeni. 

“After my hand healed, I wanted to prove to him (Finley) that I could still ball. I showed up, and he felt I had something they could work with. That’s when I got the chance to attend St Anne’s Belfield School in Virginia and then the scholarship to study at Hamilton College.

Tsakani Ngobeni
Tsakani Ngobeni had successful college career in the United States.

The 2007 All-American explained that one of the main requirements for players to put on a playing vest is to do well in the classroom. Ngobeni says it is an aspect that is often not talked about.

“It was challenging, and one has to produce in the classroom to play. So, I spent time in the library and many late nights up. It’s another part that people do speak enough about – you need to show up academically,” said Ngobeni, who holds BA in Commutations. “You need good results, and on the court, you have to fight for your minutes because there is always someone to replace you. Always!

Clearly Ngobeni made the most of his playing time and he left an impressive legacy at the NCAA Division III college. A legacy that saw him score over 1000 points. Apart from being named an All-American, he was also an NABC first-team All-East region and the Liberty League Player of the Year after the 2006-07 season.

“Those years were a lot of hard work and fun when I look back. While I was doing it was something else,” said Ngobeni. “You need to show up. When you do that and compete at that level, good things happen. 

“I always strive to be in the top three in everything I do on the court. That is scoring, rebounding and cheering on my teammates. If you top three in those things, there is no way the coach can’t play you.”

The BNL … Close, but no cigar

In the inaugural season (2013) of the Basketball National League (BNL), Ngobeni, one of the stars of the league, was part of an exciting Soweto Panthers team. He would also spend two seasons at the defunct Duzi Royals, which also had high calibre players.

Those teams (Panthers and Royals) surprisingly fell short of expectations. As a Panthers player in season one of the BNL, Ngobeni would see his team suffer a semi-final loss to four-time BNL champions Tshwane Suns. The following two seasons at the Royals, Ngobeni would help lead the team to consecutive finals, but the KwaZulu-Natal team saw the Suns and five-time BNL champions Egoli Magic curtail their ambition.


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Despite those disappointments, Ngobeni chose to see the bright side.

“Yeah, man… Close, but no cigar. It’s always been fun. The one thing I enjoyed about Duzi was the practices. They were the most competitive [practices] I have participated in. Credit must got to Kevin Mabanga and his ownership group for putting that team together,” said Ngobeni.

“At the Panthers, we had me, Thabang Kgwedi, Nyakallo Nthuphing and Jonathan Van Der Bijl. Those guys were some of the top-tier talents in this country, and I enjoyed playing with them and trying to win alongside them.”

The Mamba moment with the national team

Ngobeni played for the national team for over a decade and represented the country in four AfroBasket tournaments. While results have never gone South Africa’s way continentally, Ngobeni has always enjoyed donning national team colours.

“I loved it. To be among the top 12 in the country has always been an honour. To wear the green and gold is one of my proudest moments. Also, I enjoy that my peers are alive to tell my son about the good and bad games,” said Ngobeni. 

“I also enjoyed the friendships I made during those times. We have been through trenches and fought a lot of battles. I also learnt a lot about myself while representing the country.”  

In 2017, Ngobeni had one of the most outstanding games by a South African player. The national team faced Zimbabwe in a two-legged tie, and at stake was qualification for the AfroBasket tournament of that year.

In the first game at home, South Africa found themselves 20 points down in the second half, and Ngobeni explained to that he had his Mamba moment. What was also significant for him, was the sneakers he had on.

“I like to call it my Mamba Moment, and I happened to be wearing Kobes that evening. In that game, I played the role of a facilitator, but we had our backs were against the wall,” said Ngobeni, who finished that game with 20 points in South Africa’s 74-67 victory. “I realised I needed to show the guys how it’s done. I hit a couple of twos and threes. It had a ripple effect as Neo (Mothiba) and Lebesa (Selepe) also started making their shots. I am the guy most people remember, but it was a team effort. Once the ball started going in, my teammates also stepped up because a lot was on the line. 

“Those are the kind of games you want to have, where your family and friends watch you do what you love and help to inspire your team.”

South Africa and Zimbabwe split the series 1-1, but South Africa qualified for the 2017 AfroBasket because of a better points differential.

Tsakani the commentator

Ngobeni has since retired from the national team, and he now turns out for the Jozi Nuggets. He has also carved out another avenue for himself in the game. These Ngobeni can be seen giving expert analysis behind the microphone in local BNL games and continental qualifiers. He explained at first that he got a rude awakening and realised there is more to the profession than meets the eye.

Tsakani Ngobeni the commentator
Tsakani Ngobeni next to co-commentator Nompumelelo Ramatsoga during the 2021 Road To BAL qualifying tournament.

“It’s been challenging. You think these guys just show up and talk. A whole lot of preparation goes into it. You have to know the players, the coaches and be objective. When you watch the game, sometimes you can sometimes be a fan. So one has to learn to be objective,” said Ngobeni. 

As his playing days wind down, Ngobeni says he is getting comfortable being more on the TV screen and sharing his thoughts than being on the court.

“It’s about the body I have… And the one I have now, I would rather be behind the mic,” quipped Ngobeni.

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