Whitbread talks adversity, education and the BAL

DYLAN Whitbread describes finding basketball at 13 as a life-saving moment for him, especially as he was experiencing great adversity before entering teenagehood. 

As a nine-year-old, his mother held the fort when his father left the family, but a young Dylan needed an outlet to cope with his sense of loss. So, when basketball came into Whitbread’s life, then a King Edward VII pupil, it gave him a second family and would later open avenues beyond his wildest imagination.

“I was blessed to have a mom who did her best for my brother, sister and I. My dad left when I was nine, so finding the game gave me a sense of refuge,” said 29-year-old Whitbread. “When you have your four teammates around and the rest of the squad – you feel like you have a family that supports you and it gives a space to forget about the problems at home.”

The Cape Town Tigers player says his mother is his inspiration. He also credits her for instilling a strong work ethic, which helped him chase his dreams.

“When my dad left, she could have easily given up, and it would have altered our lives. She woke up everyday to go to work and came home late. It was just to put food on the table… and put her kids through school. So I gained that work ethic from her and I also want to make a difference in the world,” said Whitbread.

Dylan Whitbred in action for Tigers
Dylan Whitbread says the BNL’s success hinges on buy-in from players and fans. Pictures: The BTO

As things on the home front stabilised, he experienced an upward trajectory in basketball. Whitbread got to captain the Under-18 Gauteng team and also played for the Under-20 South African team. Another feather on the cap for Whitbread was being part of the 2011 Basketball Without Borders (BWB) class that launched the careers of NBA MVP Joel Embiid.

Whitbread says the experience at the BWB taught him to be ready when opportunities are presented to him – even at the drop of a hat.

“I got the call quite late. I could have done a little more preparation if I had known sooner. It taught me to be prepared and not to wait for those moments to get ready. But I will say it was great getting advice from professional coaches, and you understand what it takes to get there,” said Whitbread. “The NBA is so far away, and the closest you got to it was watching two games a week at 3 a.m. So when you experience something like that (BWB), you can dream and understand what it takes to get there.

“That is why I am excited for the youth because they have the chance to see professional teams, the NBA Academy and the Basketball Africa League (in South Africa). So they have some examples and they can dream big and go for those opportunities,” said Whitbread.

In terms of dreaming big, Whitbread also decided to pursue an education and play basketball in the United States. While the playing part is the most exciting thing for most, Whitbread, who graduated with a BSc in Physics at New York-based Colgate University, is an advocate for education.

Whitbread, a walk-on player at Colgate, understood that sport could change an individual’s economic conditions, but he emphasised being in a classroom can open a myriad of opportunity.

“Any chance you get to travel in life helps change your perspective. It opens up your worldview. As I said earlier, I was at BWB, but when you get to the United States, you learn that basketball is a different machine, and you must understand how that machine works,” said Whitbread.”

“My college experience was great and I went to a fantastic school. I got a good education, and I graduated. I am a big supporter of education because it opens many doors.

“Even for the kids that watch us play… Yes, sport is important. It can be a way out of poverty and other situations, but education is just as important, if not more. I would not trade that experience for anything.”


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Since returning to South Africa, Whitbread has continued his playing career in the country’s Basketball National League (BNL). In his spell in the BNL, he turned out for Egoli Magic and later the Tshwane Suns, where he won his first league title last year.

Earlier in the year, he found a new home at the Tigers – a move that broadened his playing horizons. Whitbred got to experience the BAL Nile Conference in Cairo and playoffs in Kigali.

He also won a second BNL title with the Cape team. He reflected on the ups, downs and potential solutions with the league. 

“If you play basketball, it is a gift you have. You have to utilise it. I was initially of the mindset that those challenges were keeping me away from the game,” said Whitbread. “When I spoke to my family and people close to me, they asked me, ‘What are you getting from stepping away’?

“By persevering through those moments, it has given me another opportunity. The frameworks here will improve, but you need buy-in from people. The top players have to play in the league, and that is how it will improve.”

Whitbread also spoke about his first championship at the Suns. “It was fantastic, but I was thinking what is next. I can tell you the novelty of winning a league title wares off quickly. But it did means a lot in terms the work I put in over the years to get to that level,” he said.

Dylan Whitbred in action at the Road To BAL.
Dylan Whitbread feels the Tigers will bring intensity at the BAL next year. Pictures: FIBA

The move to the Tigers, earlier in the year, coincided with the team’s second appearance at the BAL. The competition was, as Whitbread reflected, an “eye opener”. The continental experience has also helped Whitbred change his approach to the game.

“Initially, I was recruiting guys to come join Suns. I had no intention of joining the Tigers, but I got an invite to work out with some of their guys,” said Whitbread. “I think my work ethic was what won the management over. And they were like, ‘listen, why don’t you give it a try’. As someone that wants to grow I would be remiss not to take that opportunity.”

“It (the BAL) was an eye opening experience. Watching it on TV and being there is not the same thing. I wish I had more time to prepare, even though I don’t know what I could have done. After that I went back to the drawing board. I am working with a skills trainer and working on my body.”

Looking ahead, Whitbread and the Tigers will prepare for another BAL adventure next year after they qualified with a 5-0 record at the Road To BAL Elite 16 in November. This time, the expanded tournament sees South Africa hosting the Kalahari Conference.

Whitbread, looks forward to the competition, but he took a pragmatic tone because a lot of change tends take place ahead the BAL. The volatile nature of international basketball has seen players come and go, and this impacts team chemistry.

“When there is a lot of time between when we qualified and when the tournament starts, things can change. We have seen it before where import players return and some don’t. So it’s on us as individuals to stay ready,” said Whitbread. “We will always bring intensity, effort and professionalism. So, wherever we play, I think South Africans will be proud of how we represent the country.

“We want to put South African basketball on the map. I think that is starting to happen. We want to play with pride and as a band of brothers.”

The adversity of his life has shaped him for the challenges of life, the game has and continues to teach him to stay ready and he can be proud of himself for staying focused and reaching for his dreams. 

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