The court is surrounded; not by tall buildings, traffic lights or loud streets, but by rolling hills, broken school windows and barbed wire fences. This is playground basketball, South Africa style. Last week, ESPN profiled the dying legend of playground basketball across the United States. If this version of the sport is on the downward spiral in the US, it sits at the opposite side of the curve in SA, clawing like a lion to be let out of its cage.
The scene is set at Sukuma Primary School, where PPI staff are busy preparing for an LDP clinic. Mthembu and Njabulo arrive late, because they had to walk over an hour to get to the school on this particular Saturday morning. Unlike in the US where playground basketball was popularized because of the relevant minimal needs to play the sport, mainly a hoop and a ball, that’s not the case in SA. Mthembu and Njabulo don’t have a ball of their own, a court to play on, or even shoes to play in, but that hasn’t diminished their passion for this incredible game.
Scene 2 is set at Albert Park – a park located in downtown Durban, right across the street from the Grand Chester and Park Gate apartment complexes, both of which have seen better days. The park is home to a beautiful outdoor basketball court built by PPI-SA and the NBA a few years back. Unfortunately, like many of its cousins in the US, Albert Park is no longer used for fear of violence.
Scene 3 is located on the other side of Durban. Hoy Park is home to no less than 10 outdoor basketball courts, 2 baseball fields, and 3 soccer fields. Yet, most afternoons the only people you’ll find at the park are security guards and maintenance workers. The city places a huge emphasis on keeping the park safe and clean. This means it is closed to the general public unless one makes a reservation, which is no easy task considering one must go through the parks and recreation department to do so.
Despite all this, basketball has never been more popular in Durban. With the Basketball National League (BNL) in full swing, and Durban being home to two teams from the BNL, the sport is constantly talked about. At the same time, I can’t help but feel like the sport is having its legs pulled out from under it. With limited resources, PPI-SA serves 500 youth a year, using the sport as a way to bridge divides and teach life skills. Hundreds more participants sit on a waiting list to join teams.
Unfortunately, this isn’t enough. Unlike the States, migrating indoors isn’t an option. If like at one time in the US, basketball and its outdoor courts are to become “safe havens” for people of all ages, it’s going to take a concerted effort from all parties here in South Africa. It’s going to take the city of Durban making it a priority to open up its public parks and policing those parks located in rougher neighborhoods. It’s going to take local professional players spending time giving back in the cities and provinces that raised them. And it’s going to take the continued work of organizations like PPI-SA teaching and coaching youth and raising awareness of the sport.
If all this were to happen, it would be a great first step in creating Durban’s own playground basketball culture, where the game of basketball becomes more than just an event where one team wins and one team loses, but instead a place where youth, professional players, and senior citizens alike can come together as one community over the shared love of basketball.