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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