Samkelo Cele

Can Cape Town Tigers roar into contention for BAL title?

THE Cape Town Tigers are a young club on the African basketball scene. They head to Season 4 of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) as hosts of the Kalahari Conference, where they hope to improve on their past performances. The Big Tip Off previews the South African team ahead of the BAL.

Team: Cape Town Tigers

Country: South Africa

History: The Tigers are one of South Africa’s youngest clubs. Founded in 2019, the team has garnered much attention for its success in the past four years. They will be making their third appearance in the BAL.

The Tigers have won two South African National titles, one Basketball National League (BNL) title and two Road to BAL Division East Championships.

Florsheim Ngwenya
Tigers coach Florsheim Ngwenya is a proven winner and is well-versed in international basketball. Pictures: FIBA

The South African side has had its fair share of stars adorn their roster, with most recently having former OKC Thunder player Josh Hall and Zaire Wade, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Dwayne Wade, suited up for them in Season 3 of the BAL.

But the Tigers have not managed to get past the quarter-finals in their two BAL appearances. Can the third attempt be the charm for them?

The Tigers secured their spot in Season 4 of the BAL through Road to BAL. The South African Champions went undefeated in the tournament and defeated the Oilers in the final game.

Coach: South African coach Florsheim Ngwenya will lead the Tigers in their quest to become a title contender in their third BAL appearance. The experienced Ngwenya previously led the South African National team from 2007 to 2011 as head coach.

He has also won multiple BNL titles as the Head Coach of the Egoli Magic club, making him the most successful coach in BNL history. Ngwenya led the Tigers to two Division East Road to BAL Championships and one BNL title.

Star Player: Samkelo Cele is a standout player on the South African team. As a small forward and guard, his athleticism and high motor impact both ends of the court. He can quickly shift the game’s momentum in favour of the Tigers.

Despite coming off the bench, Cele leads the team in most statistical categories. Cele has averaged 13 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game during the Road to BAL. He was among the best defenders in Season 3 of the BAL and earned a place in the League’s All-Defensive Team.

 

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Cele talks being a role model and starring as a sixth-man for Tigers

IN the final game of the Road To BAL Elite 16 Division East between the Cape Town Tigers and City Oilers (Uganda) – won by the Tigers last Sunday – the DJ played a familiar tune synonymous with victory in certain sporting quarters, Nkalakatha by Mandoza.

The popular Kwaito classic marked the national rugby team’s – the Springboks – Rugby World Cup triumph in October.  Now courtesy of the Tigers’ third Basketball Africa League qualification, basketball got to enjoy Mandoza’s timeless banger.

Amidst the music and posing for team photos, Tigers’ star player Samkelo Cele went courtside to catch up with former teammates and friends.

He also took a few minutes to engage with some teenage fans before heading to the changeroom to take more team photos. Once there, they popped open and sprayed celebratory champagne. Whilst the celebrations continued in the changeroom, head coach Florsheim Ngwenya, his assistant Vincent Ntunja, team manager Elvis Ukpong, and other Tigers players sprinted to half-court.

As the changing room emptied, Cele was among the last few to leave. After freshening up, he caught up with The Big Tip Off to discuss his role at the Tigers, the support he got upon returning to South Africa, being a role model to younger players, his Elite 16 experience, and how the Tigers can improve their chances in Season 4 of The BAL.

Samkelo Cele celebrating at the Elite 16
Samkelo Cele has embraced his sixth-man role at the Tigers. Pictures: FIBA

Twenty-five-year-old, Cele was impactful at both ends of the court during BAL season 3 and the recently concluded Elite 16. He positively contributed every time he was on the floor, despite taking the sixth-man role – one he fulfilled at this year’s BAL Season 3.

Prior to joining the team, the former Durban High School (DHS) student met with the coaching staff, who explained their expectation of him. He knew he had a much bigger role to play on the team. And even when he is having a bad game, Cele is still the go-to guy.

The electrifying small forward contributes to the bulk of the scoring in most of the games they play. He intimated that he was not concerned about not getting a starting role.

Cele, a former University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma Drovers player, knows he has to continue doing a good job on the court. 

Playing in an arena where you could hear a pin drop on most days, Cele could not help but notice the cheers from a handful of fans who trickled in to watch the Tigers’ games. Whenever the former All-American made a steal, shot from deep, or even threw it down for an electrifying dunk, it drew cheers from the small crowd.

This energy reminded Cele of his DHS days and made him feel at home. However, this time around, the support was a little different.

“When I played here in high school, I never felt the support and now I see it, I feel it and I am trying to embrace it as best as I possibly can,” said Cele who averaged 23 points and three rebounds per game during the Elite 16.

 

 

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He recognized familiar faces and voices from his days at DHS amongst the crowd. One, in particular, was Dali Dzingwa, the general manager of the Basketball National League (BNL). Dzingwa is also his high school best friend’s father.

Cele shared: “Sicelo (Dzingwa) is my best friend and was a teammate in high school. His dad used to be very involved in our games and would talk to us from the sidelines. For the first time in years, when we played the NBA Academy, he called my name from the side and was coaching me again. It felt like high school all over again.”

Cele appreciated the support he received and recognized the impact it had on aspiring basketball players. Reflecting on his journey, he acknowledges the lack of role models for him to follow. Now he is grateful to be in a position where he can inspire and guide the next generation.

“I think that it is good for the kids coming up to see me being one of the main guys on the team. Them being able to interact with me has been cool,” said Cele.

In preparation for the Elite 16 competition, Cele and the Tigers faced a scarcity of scrimmage games, especially at the BAL level. Instead, they only played a few games against local clubs, which they won by a large margin. Although this seemed like a risky strategy, Cele believes it brought the team together.

“There is a saying that you’ve gotta stay ready to get ready, and I feel like all of us were always like that. We just had to adjust on the fly, and the more games we played, the better we became,” said Cele. Despite the lack of high-level competition, Cele doesn’t believe it impacted their readiness for the Elite 16.

The team’s reliance on each other and ability to adapt to different situations helped them bond. It ultimately made them one unit. As Cele put it, “I doubt it affected us, but it did force us to be a team. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but we moved the ball a little more than the previous times.”

Two days before the Elite 16 tournament, the Tigers faced off against the NBA Academy in an exhibition game. The young prospects surprised the Tigers with a win over the South African champions. However, Cele didn’t seem too concerned about the loss. He believes it wasn’t significant as they beat the Academy in their final group game later that week.

Samkelo Cele in action at the Elite 16
Samkelo Cele says winning rebounds will be key if the Tigers are to succeed at next year’s BAL.

According to Cele, “It was just an exhibition game, so we didn’t take it too seriously. We saw how they played in the first game and made the necessary adjustments in the second game (Elite 16), which we won.”

“We treated it as a game against the kids… To help them improve, because they represent the future of our continent.”

The Elite 16 final was a showdown between well-acquainted opponents. The Tigers and Oilers faced each other in last year’s (Elite 16) semi-finals and group stages of BAL Season 3. Having secured their tickets to next year’s BAL, the battle between the two teams was for bragging rights.

“When you play, you always wanna win so the final did matter. You always want to be able to say how many times you beat a team. When they had the chance to beat you – they couldn’t,” said the former Marist College Red Foxes player.

Regarding their victory, Cele recognizes its significance for setting the standard of preparation for the Kalahari Conference in South Africa.

Reflecting on the Tigers’ performance last season, he pointed out the team’s lack of rebounding as a major issue.

“I think that both times we lost, it was due to rebounding. The more we rebound, the better our chances are. I feel like we can play against any team on the continent,” said Cele.

Cele recalls the experience of playing against Stade Malien, who eliminated the Tigers in the quarter-finals. “I feel like talent-wise, they did not match up to us, but they out-hustled us and won every 50/50 ball. They out-rebounded us on both ends of the floor, so it’s rebounding,” says Cele.

“Most of the games we won were where we were good at rebounding. We give ourselves a chance if we rebound the ball well.”

Cele and the Tigers have ample time to fix their deficiencies and by the time the Kalahari Conference begins next year, they should be ready to roar.

 

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Cele chose education route over going pro early

Tigers will require more from Cele in bid to qualify for Kigali

From the time South Africa’s Samkelo Cele caught the basketball bug, he saw the sport as a gateway for him to turn his big dreams into reality.

KwaZulu-Natal-born Cele, who followed in the footsteps of a handful of talented South African hoopers that had their game nurtured in the United States, has returned home after a productive time in college across the Atlantic.

The swingman is now in the professional ranks and signed for two-time South African national champions Cape Town Tigers for their Basketball Africa League Nile (BAL) Conference campaign underway in Cairo, Egypt. Before speaking on the BAL, Cele shared how he fell in love with the sport.

He explained that while channel surfing, he stumbled on a Los Angeles Lakers game featuring the NBA franchise’s late legend Kobe Bryant.

“I was scrolling through TV channels and caught a Lakers game around late 2010 going to 2011. I think Kobe was playing in it. After that, I asked around my neighbourhood about basketball teams I could join. The Clan was my first team and I have never looked back since that time,” said Cele, speaking to The Big Tip Off last Friday.

Samkelo Cele
Samkelo Cele has always dreamt of playing basketball in the United States. Picture: Supplied

From that point, Cele also honed his game at Durban High School and local club APN. The Phenomenal Phenoms would be his last stop before heading to America to further his education and playing ambition.

“When I learnt that it was happening, I felt … Finally! It has always been a dream of mine to go and study in the United States. So, when it eventually arrived, I told myself, ‘This is what you wanted and dreamt about, so it’s time to go and be about’,” said Cele.

“It was a life changing moment, and I appreciate the people that helped me get to that point.”

During his time in the United States, Cele began his journey at Bull City Prep Academy (2018) in North Carolina. In the 2020-2021 season, he moved on to junior college, where he played for the Southern Jaguars in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Cele says the adjustment to his new environment was challenging, but on the court, it took one game for him to find his feet.

“The hardest part was leaving my family behind and going to a new country. The US was different to what I am accustomed to in terms of lifestyle and basketball. It was hard because I also did not see my parents for a couple of years. I settled, but I still experience difficult moments,” said Cele.

 

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He also reflected on his first playing experience: “One of my best memories was my first good game. Before that, I did not perform to my standard. I would say I was average. In my second game, I was really good. That is when I put my name on the map. That was in North Carolina. It was one of my fondest memories.”

The following season (2021-2022), he had a stint with NCAA Division One college, Marist Red Foxes, the Alma Mater of his Tigers captain Pieter Prinsloo. Cele would eventually suit up for the NAIA team, University of Science and Arts Oklahoma Drovers. During the spell with the Drovers, he graduated with Business Administration and Sociology degrees.

The 6ft6 Cele says he could have gone pro earlier, but he felt it paramount to complete his studies as it was a part of his plan when he left South Africa.

“That was the most important thing, because I used basketball as tool to create a better life. If the NCAA did not pan out, I could have just said, ‘forget about school’.  I also had offers from some pro teams. But education is important to me, so that is why I chose to stay an extra year. I also have to look beyond basketball and try to set myself for life.”

Samkelo Cele understands his role for the Tigers.

While he achieved success in the classroom, Cele’s talents on the court also saw him receive Third Team All-American honours with the Drovers, something he was proud to have achieved in his college career.

“Honestly, whatever awards or accolades you get … You appreciate them because they recognise you, but that is not what I play for … To be an All-American, ” said Cele. “You play to the best of your ability and put your best foot forward. It’s all the hard work I put in, and it was a great honour to receive that accolade.

“My coach at the team helped me to be in that position. He told me early in the season where he saw me, and funny enough, it came to fruition.”

On his journey with the Tigers at the BAL Nile Conference, Cele has been impactful for the team, coming off the bench. His 11 points and five rebounds helped the Tigers earn an opening 75-68 win against Guinea’s Seydou Legacy Athletique Club (SLAC).

“When I arrived at the Tigers, coach (Rasheed) Hazzard explained his plans and how I fit into them. So, the best way to respond was to trust, accept and be the best off the bench guy possible,” said Cele, reflecting on his role. “It was exciting because it was my first professional game, and I look forward to more. I am a tenacious player. I will do what it takes to get the job done. If I am needed to score or defend. I’ll do those things. Wherever the coach puts me, I’ll try to get the job done.”

The Tigers will need more from Cele to secure a playoff spot in Kigali, Rwanda. After their opening victory over SLAC, they have suffered three consecutive losses. Defeats to Petro de Luanda, Nile Conference hosts Al Ahly and Ferroviario da Beira have made things tricky for the Tigers. The Cape side still occupy the fourth spot in their Conference, but they cannot afford a slip-up against an 0-3 City Oilers team in their final game on Saturday.

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