Basketball Without Borders

Chomche talks BAL, representing Cameroon and future prospects

STANDING at 2.11m (6ft11), Ulrich Chomche towers over almost everyone on the basketball court. But it’s not just his statuesque figure that makes him a rising star in the game. His incredible talent, dedication to his craft, and humility has seen him grace some of the biggest stages. 

The Cameroonian-born baller is among the young top prospects at the NBA Academy in Senegal and given his experience at a young age, the road ahead looks promising. Seventeen-year-old Chomche already has two Basketball Africa League (BAL) seasons under his belt having played for home club Force Armees et Police (FAP) last year and Rwanda’s REG this year.

Last year, he scooped the Defensive Player Award at the 2022 Basketball Without Borders camp in Cairo, Egypt. At home has his talent has not gone unnoticed, as he suited up for Cameroon in major qualifying tournaments. 

In this interview with The Big Tip Off, Chomche talks about his journey to the NBA Academy, his goals, and wearing the red, green and gold of Cameroon.

Ulrich Chomche second picture
Ulrich Chomche has played in two seasons of the BAL. Picture: The BTO

Mentorship and Coaching

Chomche’s basketball story started in the small village of Bafang, situated in the West of Cameroon. Like many youngsters on the continent, he enjoyed playing soccer with his friends, a sport he still enjoys. But the shift to basketball occurred when one of his coaches saw that his height would be more valuable on the court than the soccer field.

This brought about the opportunity to join the NBA Africa Academy, which had recently opened in Saly, Senegal. Chomche was thrilled to be selected for the academy, as it offered him an opportunity to reach his full potential as a basketball player.

Of course the opportunity to leave home for Senegal initially excited Chomche. He was taking a step to realising his dreams. However, this excitement was tempered by the realisation that he would be leaving his mother as well as his siblings. “Leaving my family to join the NBA academy was a mix of excitement and difficulty because it was my first time leaving my village to go somewhere else and I was very young.”

Fortunately, the weight of the huge decision did not deter him. He promptly continued to work with his two coaches, Jordan Atangana and Goodlove Cham, until he left for the Academy in Senegal. Under their guidance, he developed his skills and honing his game in all aspects in preparation for what was still to come.

The value of international competition

Chomche’s experience at the NBA Academy has been nothing short of transformative. He has had the opportunity to learn from some of the best coaches and trainers in the world, and he has also had the chance to showcase his skills on multiple stages across the continent and abroad.

“Competition in Africa is different,” he said. “The rules are not the same. In Africa we play at a faster pace, as compared to the US where the game is a lot calmer. There is a lot of 1-on-1 or Iso Play in the US whereas in Africa there is a lot more team play. Both have contributed to my growth as a basketball player.”

In addition to his work at the NBA Academy, Chomche has also benefited from his participation in Basketball Without Borders (BWB) camps. At the BWB Global camp in Utah, he had the opportunity to learn from and compete against some of the best young players in the world.

Chomche’s experience in the BAL Elevate Program has been another important step in his development as a basketball player. This past season, he played for the Rwanda Energy Group (REG), which was also the host team of the Playoffs. REG fought hard, but they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by the eventual champions, Egypt’s Al Ahly. However, this outcome did not damper the teen’s spirits too much as he used the games as a litmus test for his abilities.

“It was a great experience, and I learned a lot from those games. For me, it was more about learning how basketball is played at that level and understanding how the skill set that I developed at the academy can transfer into the game with experienced players.”

Chomche’s performance during the BAL season was impressive. He averaged 4.5 points, 1 steal, and 1 block in 19 minutes per game. His performances on the court garnered attention from former NBA star, Joakim Noah. He is also on the radar of some NCAA Division I colleges.

Chomche roaring with the Indomitable Lions

Chomche’s journey is just beginning, but it has already led him back to where it all began: Cameroon. He recently received his second national team call-up for the Olympic Pre-Qualifiers, held in Nigeria in August.

“Representing Cameroon on the stage of the Olympic qualifiers was an incredible honour,” Chomche said. “It was a moment of immense pride for me to wear my country’s jersey. The experience was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking as we faced strong teams, all vying for a spot at the Olympics.”

Ulrich Chomche third picture
Ulrich Chomche playing for the NBA Academy during the BAL Elite 16 Qualifiers. Picture: The BTO

Cameroon punched their ticket to the qualifiers after beating Senegal. Next year (February) in Paris, Chomche and his teammates have to overcome another Olympic qualifying hurdle. It’s a challenge he looks forward to as he is always proud represent the Indomitable Lions.

“Being part of the national team allowed me to showcase my skills at an international level. I have also competed against some of the best basketball players in the world,” Chomche said. “The atmosphere, the pressure, and the sense of national pride were all incredibly motivating.

Cameroon has produced a few big names in the game. So, a path has been set for Chomche to follow. He has a good structural support and with his country rooting for him, it could be a matter of time before Ulrich Chomche ascends to the pinnacle of basketball, the NBA.

“My first ambition is to continue to grow as a player. I am always working with my coaches at the NBA Academy. The work I put in will show every time step on the floor. My big brothers Joel [Embiid], Pascal [Siakam], and [Christian] Koloko have shown us young Cameroonians that it is possible. I believe in hard work and I’m ready to follow in their footsteps and make it to the NBA,” concluded Chomche.

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Whall hoping to break into new realms in basketball

IN the realm of South African basketball, where the sport often takes a backseat to more traditional pursuits, one player is rising through the ranks and in the process, blazing her own trail.

Meet Suzannah Whall, a Grade 12 student from Herschel Girls School, who took up basketball in Grade 8 – a time when many of her peers were just getting acquainted with the sport.

What started as an exploration prompted by her Cape Town-based school’s offering, quickly transformed into an immediate passion. As she dedicated herself to the game, Whall realised that there was more to the game than just the thrill of competition. It offered a strong sense of community.

“I fell in love with it from day one,” said Whall. “I just love the community part of the game. Also, everyone plays because they love the game and want to teach the game to others.”

Whall’s passion has propelled her to many successes, which included the U17 National Team selection to represent South Africa in 2021.

This year another international door opened when she got the chance to participate in the prestigious Basketball Without Borders (BWB) camp, where her talent and determination caught global attention.

With an unwavering commitment and a string of triumphs, she stands as a beacon of inspiration, defying adversity and embodying the spirit of a true student of the game.

Suzannah Whall taking pointers
Suzannah Whall, second from left, takes pointers from former NBA player Hashim Thabeet. Pictures: Supplied

Experiencing both victory and adversity

This year kicked off with her participating in a tournament at the American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ). Her high school (Hershel) team finished third after losing to Sacred Heart College in the semi-finals by one point. The team met a similar fate at the St Peter’s Tournament where they struggled in the semi-finals after losing by three points and clinched the third position.

Reflecting on the two adversities she faced, Whall says the losses brought about a tenacity and grit, which allowed them to show up and play.

“We know how losing feels and we’ve learnt from it even though it hurts”, she explained.

Following these two losses, Whall competed against the top schools in the Western Cape alongside her teammates where they won the tournament and Whall won the MVP award. She then went on to compete alongside her club team, the Hot Shots in the African Grassroot Hoops Tournament held in Cape Town where they too won.

Whall credits the support structure in the form of her teammates, who also play similar sports.

“It helps that a lot of my teammates on the school team are part of the same club team too. So we helped each other out. The club makes sure that practices and matches do not clash. I also have an awesome support system at home.”

Valuable lessons picked up from BWB

The 19th edition of the Basketball Without Borders camp (BWB) was a much-anticipated event by everyone in the South Africa. Like many other hopefuls, Whall had heard about the camp and inquired how she could secure an invite.

Whall recalled the moment when she found out that she was selected as one of the top 80 prospects who would be participating in the camp that was held at AISJ.

A day prior to the start of camp, which took place at the end of July, Whall received 10 unexpected missed calls from her former high school coach. “Coach Theslin (Davids) never calls me. I was like what’s going on?”, she recalls. After returning her calls within the next three hours, Whall was on a flight to Johannesburg to attend BWB.

Despite the crazy turn of events, Whall had an understanding of what she could expect during the camp.

“I was expecting fast paced games, talented players, high energy, pressure, and that is definitely what I got.”

Despite the language barriers that she faced communicating with the other players, the camp truly lived up to its name. with the game of basketball defying the language barriers and eliminating borders to bring the campers together.

“Everyone was so friendly and you all understand the game of basketball. I connected so well with some players on both on and off the basketball. We couldn’t speak one another’s languages, but basketball connected us. So, I really enjoyed that,” said Whall.

The BWB was graced by NBA superstars Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat), Jonathan Kuminga (Golden State Warriors) and respected coaches like Darvin Ham (LA Lakers). Those are names that give any kid stars in their eyes, but Whall was more inspired to learn from former WNBA players.

“For me, I was thrilled to see the women basketball coaches because they are more relatable. When you see women succeeding in basketball, you can easily see yourself in them. You can think to yourself, ‘it’s actually possible, and I can do this’,” said Whall.

One of the players Whall had the opportunity to learn from, was four-time WNBA champion and legend, Sheryl Swoopes. The youngster says she was impressed by the three-time Olympic gold medalist’s approach to the game.

“I was lucky enough to be apart of the team that she (Swoopes) was coaching. It was such a privilege because you can see how hard she has worked and how much she has been through. Also, you can see how much basketball has given back to her.”

Whall was among the campers who won the individual awards. The shooting guard clinched the three point trophy at the camp.

“Shooting is one of my strengths. It was a goal of mine coming into the camp, but you never know on the day. You only get two chances. Sometimes your shots just don’t fall but they did on the day and I am grateful.”

The 18-year-old will never forget the moment she was announced as the winner, and the subsequent media attention she received. It was a truly memorable experience for her. Whall is ready to share all the valuable lessons that she has learnt from some of the greats.

“Always put in that extra effort because no matter how good you are. It’s such an easy thing to do, you don’t have to train effort, you just have it,” said Whall.

Whall’s Mountaineers ambition?

With the WBNL season recently wrapping up, Whall was supporting her former teammates, back-to-back Champions, the Western Cape Mountaineers.

“I played for the Mountaineers last season and for them to win back-to-back was so incredible. I was supporting them all the way and watching them play was so exciting.”

Suzannah Whall was excited learn from Sheryl Swoopes
Suzannah Whall, learnt important lessons from Sheryl Swoopes, pictured, during the Basketball Without Borders. Picture: The BTO

The young Whall hopes to journey abroad to further her studies.

“The goal is to go and play in America and hopefully study there as well,” said Whall. “The level of basketball there is insane. Also, getting that kind of exposure while also getting a great education is exciting.”

However, Whall is in no rush and hopes to rejoin the back-to-back WBNL Champions next year for a potential three-peat.

“I would definitely want to play for them. The competition is so good and the exposure that it brings to South African basketball is amazing.”

Equipped with the lessons learnt from the greats, a strong work ethic, and willingness to be coachable, Whall is determined to reach the next level of her dreams. The flame of desire that lit in Grade 8 when she picked up a basketball still burns and hopefully, the best is still to come from Suzannah Whall.

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Gilchrist riding the crest of the wave in basketball

STORM Gilchrist has a distinguished family legacy in basketball. Walking the pathway laid by his legendary father, the teenager is prepared to take the mantle and fly to a different stratosphere.

The son of Craig Gilchrist, one of the South African game’s greats, has seen doors open for him this year. Firstly, he’s completed another season in the Basketball National League (BNL) with the team his father played for and now coaches, KwaZulu-Natal Marlins.

Gilchrist also got a chance to learn from NBA elite players and coaches at the Basketball Without Borders (BWB) camp, which ended on Monday. Soon, he will bid farewell to South African shores to further his game in the United States of America.

The St Charles College pupil reflected on the journey that first saw him start as a rugby player, a sport his father and grandfather also played. Gilchrist explained to The Big Tip Off that while he had a “deep love” for rugby, it was basketball that would eventually steal his heart.

“Most people don’t know this. My father played for the under-19 Sharks (rugby) team, and my grandfather also played for a bit. So, it’s in the genes. I have a deep love for that sport (rugby), but I have a deeper love for basketball,” said the 18-year-old.

Once he committed to basketball in grade eight, Gilchrist’s father showed him the ropes. The road would, however, present some challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic and a knee injury stalled his progress.

“I had my first practice with my father as the head coach. That is when I thought, ‘this (basketball) is going to be lots of fun’. But Covid-19 ruined a good part of the season. Unfortunately, when we were allowed to play sports again, I blew out my knee in my grade 10 year playing rugby,” said Gilchrist. “I tore my MCL (medial collateral ligament) and PCL (posterior cruciate ligament), and I was out for another 14 months.”

Storm Gilchrist honing his skills at BWB
Storm Gilchrist says his father is a key mentor for him in basketball. Picture: The BTO

Gilchrist credits the support structures around him for providing morale support during the recovery stages.

“It (recovery) was not fun. I was in a weak mental state, but thanks to my friends, I pushed through. My mom and dad played an important role, so I am thankful to them too,” said the Marlins centre.

Hooping with the Marlins

Now a matriculant, Gilchrist has grown with the Marlins and helped them make it to the semi-finals of the BNL. While the Marlins fell to eventual champions, the Cape Town Tigers, he enjoyed his match-up against Pieter Prinsloo (Tigers captain).

He also felt that because of his youth, many underestimated him throughout the BNL season.

“It is one of the most fun experiences I have ever had. Going into games, everyone thought, ‘he is just a kid, and we can push him around’, but I locked in and played hard defence. So, I caught them off guard,” said Gilchrist. “I have so much respect for Pieter. He wants to mentor me to become like him. He’s played (NCAA) Division 1. He is a true professional. So, it was a learning experience for me.”

Gilchrist discussed his father’s impact in his debut BNL season: “It’s a great privilege, especially having my father as my coach. He has so much knowledge, especially in the position I play. When something doesn’t go right for me, he helps me keep my cool. He taught me how to get to the rim and when to kick out. He shares a lot of knowledge with me.”

 

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Rubbing shoulders with the NBA stars

Gilchrist’s game IQ has probably shot up 10-fold after participating at the Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg. Gleaning insights from superstar players like Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat) and respected coaches like Darvin Ham (LA Lakers) is an opportunity of a lifetime.

The youngster recalled that he had been on holiday when, close to midnight and in deep slumber, he was woken up by the life-changing call.

“We had just won the St John’s tournament and were on holiday to Scottburgh Beach. The St Stithians coach (Roland Andingdou) called me at 11 at night, and he goes, ‘I just put your name through to go to the BWB. You must be ready for the call’,” said Gilchrist. “I was excited, scared … And experienced every feeling known. I did not know what to expect.”

“Now that I’m here, I have made friends with players from countries like South Sudan and Nigeria. We have been teaching them some South African slang during the team building exercises.”

He also shared some of his reflections after learning from some of the best in the business. 

“Looking at some aspects of my game, I feel, I did not shoot the ball well. So, that area needs work. I think I got better on defence, especially after working with Bam Adebayo. He is one of the best defenders in the NBA,” said Gilchrist. “I learnt how to close out without contesting the ball too much. He taught me a lot of defensive tricks.

“Coach Ham can read the game so well. He can draw up a play from his head because of what he sees on the court. Watching him draw up a play and trying to understand how he came up with it was a fun experience.”

Chasing the American basketball dream

After the BWB experience, Gilchrist will have little time to put his feet up and relax. In just a few days, he’ll head to San Antonio (United States), on an eight-month scholarship to further develop his game at the Strength N Motion Academy.

Storm Gilchrist third image
Storm Gilchrist says he enjoyed bonding with other campers at BWB.

Gilchrist says the academy scouted him after he posted some highlight reels in the digital space.

“I posted a highlight reel on YouTube. So they scouted me from there. They told me they needed a big guy who could rebound and score. I am so excited because here in South Africa, you train three times a week,” said Gilchrist. “Over there, I’ll be training three times daily and playing against nearby colleges. I feel that by the time I come back, I’ll be a better player, and I could become a professional.”

Having honed his skills from some great minds of the game, starting with his father and exceptional NBA players and coaches, Gilchrist goes to the spiritual home of basketball with refined skill sets. He is far from the finished product, but his trajectory is promising. Storm Gilchrist is a name to look out for in the future.

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