NBA Academy

Neto talks Elite 16 and helping Angola reclaim their glory

AGINALDO Neto and his NBA Academy teammates closed out practice with a free throw drill. When a couple of players missed their shots, the entire team had to sprint the length of the court. Of course, the budding prospects must complete their sprints within seconds and under the watchful eye of coach Alfred Aboya, who keeps count.

After a few more misses, they again have to sprint, this time, to the half-court, back to the baseline and then the length of the court. Much to the relief of some tired players, some already hunched over with their hands on their knees, South Sudanese centre Khaman Maluach scores the free throw to end the Friday practice at the Mandeville Sports Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Aginaldo Neto at NBA Academy practice
Aginaldo Neto has had a smooth transition into the NBA Academy. Pictures: The BTO

Neto, who spoke to The Big Tip Off ahead of the Academy’s Road To BAL Elite 16 Division East participation (21 November – 26 November), says this is the norm in their practices.

“This is something we are used to – running after we miss shots, no matter who is watching, this is what we do,” said Angolan-born Neto.

The 17-year-old point guard joined the Senegal-based Academy after last year’s FIBA U18 African Championships in Madagascar. Neto feels privileged to be part of the Academy setup and says he was undaunted when he left home to chase his basketball dreams.

“It was an easy process (joining the NBA Academy) because I lived in an academy before I left Angola. I always call my family on weekends. I talk about my experiences, and we share jokes. It’s been easy because I have support from my family and the Academy,” said Neto.

“I am feeling blessed to have (joined the Academy). It shows that hard work pays off. If I did not work hard, I would not be here. I feel like I am one of the best point guards on the continent. I also have the best teammates in Africa and the world.”

 

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The Academy players are playing in the Elite 16 to showcase their talents for the 12 teams playing in the Basketball Africa League (BAL) next year. According to Neto, who was part of last year’s Academy exhibition team, there is much to play for at the Ellis Park Arena.

“We always want to win even if we are here to participate. This mindset never changes. We are here for business,” said the floor general. “Some of our alumni, Ruben (Chinyelo) and Thierry (Darlan) played in this competition. We learnt from their experience and we want to put on a show.”

The young prodigy also reflected on representing Angola at the junior continental competition in Madagascar last year.

“It was a great experience. I was one of the youngest players at 16 and playing against 18-year-olds. Also, everyone is here to support you, from the federation, coaches and teammates,” said Neto, who averaged 4.9 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists in the island nation.

His present situation in West Africa is a stepping stone to opportunities. Neto also walks on the shoulders of giants in his home country of Angola.

The golden generation of Carlos Morais and Kikas Gomes, who won multiple AfroBasket titles, are an inspiration to Neto. While the duo spent most of their careers in Angola, Neto on the other hand has cast his vision beyond the shores of his country of birth.

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Aginaldo Neto says he and his Academy teammates are for the Elite 16.

“I dream of being one of them and more. My desire is to play overseas, in the NBA or take my talents as far as possible. I want to be greater than them,” said Neto. “They inspired me when I started playing. I used to watch how Carlos Morais executed his pull-up jumpers and how he drove to the rim. Kikas Gomes is a great centre.

“They inspired me to work hard. Because of them and many others, we have 11 Afrobasket championships in Angola.”

Since their last AfroBasket title in 2013, Angola has experienced some lean years, but Neto feels he will be part of the generation that turns the corner.

“We want to be better. I believe my generation has a lot of talent and people should look out for us. We will work hard to reclaim our place on the continent,” concluded Neto.

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Kita: A selfless servant of the African basketball community

“DOC brought in the leader of a basketball organization from South Africa, who told us that, in his community, people constantly reached out to anyone who was in need.”

This is an extract from former NBA legendary sharpshooter Ray Allen’s biography From The Outside: My Journey through Life and the Game I Love. The shooting guard was reflecting on one of the catalysts for their title-winning season at the Boston Celtics in the 07-08 season.

The leader and two-time NBA champion Allen was referring to in his autobiography was Thierry Kita Matungulu, a respected coach in the South African basketball scene. Commonly known as Kita, he was the co-founding director of Hoops 4 Hope, and had spent time working in the United States. 

Kita was also part of the inner sanctum of the Doc Rivers-coached Celtics, where he introduced a concept that helped hoist a 17th NBA championship banner in the team’s rafters at TD Garden.  

From Lubumbashi to starring in the PBL

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kita, had travelled to South Africa in the 90s with the raw skill of basketball in tow. At first, Kita saw the country as a stop gap to his ambition of studying in the United States. Fortuitously, his stay in South Africa extended and as his game refined. He’d go on to have professional career in the defunct Professional Basketball League (PBL). 

When he hung up his sneakers, he became a selfless servant of basketball and contributed to its growth in Mzansi. And throughout his involvement in basketball, he has not put a ceiling on how far he can go.

Thierry Kita Matungulu second picture
Thierry Kita Matungulu has invested most of his life in basketball. Pictures: The BTO

Speaking to the Big Tip Off during the Royal Bafokeng JR NBA finals in Rustenburg, South Africa, Kita gave a light chuckle when asked about himself, a sign of his easygoing nature.

“I got into basketball at a late stage in Lubumbashi. There were signs of me becoming a young prospect in Congo. When I came to South Africa, I started flourishing,” said Kita, who joined the All Stars when he first arrived in South Africa. “Initially, when I came here (South Africa), I was transiting. I was preparing to go and study in the United States. Unfortunately, the visa process did not work out and I stayed.”

While the door to attend school in the United States closed, the opportunity to play in the new South African league opened for Kita. While the notion was that South African basketball was picking up only during the PBL era, he dispelled that.

“Basketball (in South Africa) had picked up. The league had enough competitive South Africans, including NBA players and European players. We had Craig Gilchrist, a great South African player, Sam Vincent and Lewis Lloyd, who were NBA players. So, it was a remarkable time,” said the former Egoli Magic player. “It (the PBL) did not need to pick up. It was already at the highest level.”

Becoming coach Kita

The former power forward’s next transition was coaching. During Kita’s time as Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s men’s first team coach, from the early 2000s, the program was a force in the Western Cape. 

He also had a stint as the national team coach of the South African men’s university team and achieved one of the country’s best results at that level, at the World University Games in Daegu, South Korea.

“Those were terrific times. I was able to mould young players, who were in their teens at the time. The likes of Vincent Ntunja and Junior Ongenda grew right before my eyes. I am proud of what they have become and done with their lives,” said Kita, a former senior men’s national team coach. 

“I also coached South African teams in four world student games. One of the best results we had was a second-round appearance in 2003. In that team, we had the likes of Neo Mothiba, Quintin Denyssen, Vince Ntunja and Mthoko Madonda. It was a great team. I don’t think any team has surpassed its achievements.”

 

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Kita brings Ubuntu to the Boston Celtics

The United States finally called for Kita. In the US, he spent his time coaching in elite youth camps. His timing of transitioning overseas could not have been more impeccable. 

During a fundraising event at the youth camps, the pathway to contributing to the Boston Celtics’ successful 07-08 season was in the works.

“After my experience in South Africa, I took a coaching role with Boston Celtics. I was there for ten years working as a guest coach and helped to conduct camps. I used to work at Five-Star and the Eastern Invitational Camps. These were the best camps in the US,” said Kita. 

“From there, I was fortunate enough to sit at the same table as Doc Rivers and Larry Brown during a fundraiser for an organization I co-founded, Hoops 4 Hope. It was also a chance for me to engage with them about working with their teams.”

Kita had built a good rapport with Rivers and this created a pathway for him to integrate into the Celtics’ set-up. There, he introduced the African concept of Ubuntu: ‘I am because we are’, which proved to be a masterstroke.

“I got along well with Doc Rivers. Using this as a basis, I could present the team with the concept of Ubuntu, the idea of togetherness, which they later adopted and won the championship,” said Kita.

“To this day, the word Ubuntu is engraved on the Celtics championship rings.”

Thierry Kita third picture
Thierry Kita Matungulu played an impactful role in the 07-08 title success of the Celtics. Picture: Supplied

The NBA Africa front-office

Nowadays, Kita serves as Director of Basketball Operations at NBA Africa. His current role involves a lot of travel across the continent doing developmental work.

Kita says one of the reasons he is in his present position is because of the work he has done locally. He also credits Rivers, who had since moved to the Clippers, for helping to broaden his horizons. 

“While working with Doc Rivers, I built a lot of contacts and relationships within the NBA. I am also one of a handful of people who has attended all 19 Basketball Without Borders Camps. I have  contributed to their success,” said Kita. 

“So when the NBA opened its office in South Africa, I was hired by Amadou Gallo Fall, because of the work I was doing in the basketball developmental space. And with that opportunity, I knew I could have a greater impact because of their (NBA Africa) reach.

“Also, there is no ceiling of what your production will be. Working in South Africa with the various national teams, it was a new level. Of course, there was the experience with the Celtics. When Doc Rivers moved to the Clippers and was president of basketball operations, I learnt how things are done in front offices. So, I never stop learning.”

With all his transitions in the game, what has been Kita’s big takeaway? And does he have any regrets?

“Maybe I could have played in Europe given the skillset I possessed, but I don’t dwell on that. I always look forward to the next step in life and focus on making that a success. I have given a lot more than I have received, which has put me in a good place. So, I am happy,” concluded Kita.

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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.”

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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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Maluach reflects on his mercurial 2023 basketball journey

SOUTH Sudanese teenager Khaman Maluach brims with confidence when he speaks about his achievements in basketball and is single-minded about his aspirations in the game.

Given the year Maluach has had, it is understandable why. The giant centre has seen his stock rise in the game, all this happening before his 17th birthday last month.

The path to a successful 2023 so far began in the Basketball Africa League (BAL) for the 2.18m (7ft2) centre, who was part of AS Douanes team that fell short in the final against Egypt’s Al Ahly.

In late July, Maluach was among the 80 players (40 boys and 40 girls) selected for the Basketball Without Borders Camp in Johannesburg and at the end of that camp, he cantered off with the MVP title.

The crowning moment of his young career saw him join South Sudan’s FIBA World Cup campaign between August and September in Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. 

Khaman Maluach at the FIBA World Cup
Khaman Maluach was proud to represent South Sudan at FIBA World Cup. Pictures: FIBA

In a Q&A with The Big Tip Off, Maluach reflected on his mercurial journey and what the future could hold for him.

The BTO: How has being part of the NBA Academy in Senegal helped you grow as a player?

KM: It’s been great. I have had a lot of good life experiences at the NBA Academy. They helped to develop my body and skillsets. Also, being among my brothers has been great for me.

The BTO: The Academy features African players from diverse backgrounds. How have you experienced one another’s differences?

KM: In the beginning, it was hard because of the language barrier, but learning one another’s languages has connected us. It has made us brothers forever. The lessons we are learning are much bigger than basketball.

The BTO: You were part of the AS Douanes team that made it to the BAL final. How did you experience that moment?

KM: I was the youngest player to start a BAL final! That was a milestone for me. On the playing side, we did not have the best start. We lost the first two games, and everybody thought we were out. Eventually, we won our next three games and made it to the final. My big takeaway was to believe in yourself before everyone else does. No one expected us to make it to the finals, but we knew we could, and we did.

 

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The BTO: You participated in this year’s Basketball Without Borders (BWB). How did you experience that camp and walking away with the MVP award?

KM: It was great to play against players I had never met. We were together for a couple of days at the camp. In that time, I formed some friendships with players from other countries. Winning the award was a great achievement. I went there determined to win it. Now, I look forward to BWB Global.

The BTO: You were part of the South Sudan team at the recently concluded FIBA World Cup. How did you experience that tournament?

KM: It’s something I take pride in, playing for my country and showcasing my talent on a big stage. South Sudan was the youngest country to participate in the tournament, and me being the youngest player there was unbelievable.

The BTO: What lessons did you learn while you were with South Sudan at the World Cup?

KM: Basketball at that level is different. As a player, you have to adjust to the situation. Luckily, my team has professionals who have played for many years. That helped me a lot. To learn from the professionals and how they work. They pushed me during practices and kept me on the right path. It was amazing. 

Khaman Maluach in action at Basketball Without Borders
Khaman Maluach was the boys MVP of BWB Africa 2023. Picture: The BTO

The BTO: South Sudan finished 17th at the tournament and qualified for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris. What did that moment mean to South Sudan and yourselves as players?

KM: It’s something big and not for ourselves only… It’s for South Sudan as well. I think our achievements on the basketball court have brought our people together. We have been at war for the past couple of years. That was the image the world had of us. Through basketball and what we have done, the world has a different view.

The BTO: Can you talk about Luol Deng’s impact on basketball in South Sudan?

KM: Without him (Luol), this would not be happening. Luol Deng had the dream that something this big could happen for South Sudan. It has changed the lives of people. So what he has done is a big deal.

The BTO: Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?

KM: I hope to become a professional basketball player. Hopefully, I can be a part of a championship team. That is the vision I have for myself.

The BTO: When you look at your achievements so far, what would you say to the Khaman, who picked up a basketball as a 13-year-old?

KM: I would say he believed in himself. And that impossible is nothing. Hard work always pays off, and the results will always show.

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Kalala takes his game to new heights

A LATE bloomer! That is one way of describing Aristote Kalala’s arrival to basketball. Despite his late start to the game, a strong work ethic unlocked his potential and opened new doors for the 21-year-old, who came to South Africa as a refugee many years ago.

Kalala, who recently started community college in the United States has no recollection of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country of his birth. His earliest memory is arriving in South Africa as a four-year-old with his family and journeying to Cape Town. The Mother City would be where the basketball journey for Kalala would begin.

“The only memory I have is arriving in Joburg and the train ride to Cape Town. Apart from that, I do not remember much,” said Lubumbashi-born Kalala, speaking via Zoom last Friday.

He also spoke briefly about his time in South Africa. “My life in South Africa was good. That is home for me. I had a few challenges here and there because I was a refugee, but it did not stop me from working towards my dreams.”

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Aristote Kalala, right, poses with a teammate at the NBA Academy in Senegal. Pictures Supplied

While he does not recall much from his early days, Kalala’s journey to playing basketball has been a  fascinating one. For starters, the former Camps Bay High School pupil never took a liking to the game. Football was his preferred choice as a scholar. Unfortunately, the quotas for football at the time were full, meaning Kalala had to choose another sport.

“I started basketball around 2017 at the age of sixteen. To tell you the truth, I never liked basketball at first. I wanted to play football, but the spaces in our school team reached capacity, so I switched to basketball,” said Kalala, who explained what changed his mind about the game. “There was one match that I grabbed 18 rebounds. The excitement of that made me come back to practice. Since that moment, I fell in love with the sport.”

The decision would pay dividends for the 6ft7 player as he enjoyed a meteoric rise. From the year he started playing basketball, Kalala earned provincial colours, and in his second year, he was champion for the Western Cape in the Interprovincial Tournament.

 

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Kalala also realised that he could play at a higher level and that the game could take him places.

“That same year (2017), I went on to play provincials and in 2018 as well. The first year we came fourth in the national tournament a year later we came first,” said Kalala, a former Trafalgar High School pupil. “After that, I realised I do have potential and felt like I could get somewhere with basketball. So, that’s when I started playing with whoever I could find on the court. I played against guys who were better than me. I also watched YouTube videos because I am more of a visual learner. I’ll either watch videos or sit on the side of the court and watch how other guys play the game.”

After completing high school, Kalala opted not go the university route. He spent two years honing his skill under the watchful eyes of Giovanni Freeman, a director at African Hoops for Hope, and Victor Shakineza, a former coach in the Pretoria basketball circuit. During the two year break, Kalala also had a stint in the Basketball National League (BNL), but his big break was when he left for Senegal to join the NBA Academy in the West African country.

“People like Giovanni Freeman helped me with shooting form because, at the time, it was not great. I also met Victor, who watched me play and told me, ‘you have the potential to play this game at a higher level’,” said Kalala, who reflected on his solitary BNL season with Western Cape Mountaineers. “That experience was amazing for me, playing against guys in South Africa. I learnt that there were guys in the country who really could play. It’s not Cape Town and Joburg that have talent. Guys in other parts of the country can play as well. So, it was a great experience for me.”

The move to Senegal last year came as a surprise for Kalala. He says Frank Traore, who had been tracking him, was impressed with what he had seen.

“For me, it was something unexpected . I continued working on my game during the off-season. Then I was told that there was interest in me from the NBA Academy because I showed great potential. I was excited about that. I met coach Frank from the academy who confirmed that I do have potential to get to the next level, but it was up to me to grab it,” said Kalala, who experienced a reality check in West Africa. “When I got the opportunity to attend the academy, in my mind, I thought I was going to be the tallest person there. Instead, I went from being the biggest guy that everybody knew to the smallest. Everyone at the academy was humongous and super athletic.”

 

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Aristote Kalala,right, with Angola legend Carlos Morais

From that point, Kalala had to re-evaluate his position on the court.

“I knew my role had to change from being an inside player to playing on the perimeter. The change meant I had to develop a three-point shot. My three-point shot was always there, but it was not consistent. So, I had to work on it because I was now the shorter guy,” said Kalala, who went through rigorous training.

“My biggest takeaway from that experience is how they care for you at the academy. Regardless of where you are from, they treat you with dignity. It’s a loving environment. The coaches push you to your maximum and out of your comfort zone. I did not know that I was in my comfort zone until I got there. I would question the coaches and ask why they were so hard on me and not other players? They explained that those players are going to high school, and I am going to college.”

Kalala’s coaches were right to push and were not off the mark about his potential. The youngster recently earned a scholarship to Ranger College, a junior school in Texas.

The feeling of being in the US is still unreal to him, but he aims to make the most of this golden opportunity.

“Sometimes I wake up and ask myself: ‘am I really in the States?’. I am close to getting a D1 offer. If I perform well, there is a chance for me to enter the NBA draft. It’s happened in a short space of time, so I am still processing it,” said Kalala, who is majoring in general studies, but hopes to still pursue film and media, academically. “I am definitely grateful to be in this position. There are a lot of guys back home who are trying to be here. So, for me to be in this position, I am grateful.”

Kalala’s story truly reflects that it does not matter what road you travelled. When opportunity meets preparation, even the sky is no longer the limit. We will be watching the space as he climbs to even greater heights. 

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