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SWINGING FOR THE FENCES
Rick Reilly
January 29, 1996
SOWETO'S TALENTED YOUNG ATHLETES ARE STRIVING TO EXCEL, BUT THEY ARE HINDERED BY THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID
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January 29, 1996

Swinging For The Fences

SOWETO'S TALENTED YOUNG ATHLETES ARE STRIVING TO EXCEL, BUT THEY ARE HINDERED BY THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID

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On Lekang's outdoor basketball court, more than a hundred kids were gathered in two layup lines—one for shooting, one for rebounding—sometimes waiting 10 minutes for a brief flirt with the basketball. Another hundred kids sat beyond the sidelines, waiting to go on. The court surface was good, but one of the rims looked as if it had been used in a chin-up contest. The free throw line was only nine feet from the rim, and the three-point arc was only 15 feet out.

We asked the volunteer coach if he didn't have more basketballs for all these players. "Oh, yes," he said. "We have many basketballs. We just don't have any needles to inflate them."

Percy shrugged. This business of becoming a world sports giant is a very complicated thing.

Outsiders come to Soweto, see the barbed wire and the kids—that's what you take from the township, the memory of those unsinkable children playing against a backdrop of dread—and they can't wait to help, can't help but help. But the visitors' money rarely seems to get all the way through the wire to the kids. Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo visited South Africa in 1994 with an NBA goodwill contingent that pledged money and licensed equipment for children in underprivileged areas. But for the five million people of Soweto, there are still only about 20 courts: 40 hoops, almost half of them bent.

"The infrastructure was never there for sports," says Junior Ramovha, head of a volunteer organization called the Soweto Sports Council. "These townships were like prison camps. The white government felt no need to build sports facilities. That's why we excel only in soccer and track and boxing. For those you need so little."

But there are sprigs of change cropping up. There is a young wannabe sports czar named Larry Gresham, who quit his job working for his father's Johannesburg record-producing company and decided he would become the Dr. Naismith of township basketball. So far, working with funds from Nike and Coca-Cola, Gresham has built five courts in Soweto. He says he was almost killed doing so.

It happened at Lekang, actually. It was a Saturday, and the sun was getting low, and that is almost never good for a white man in Soweto. But Gresham needed to oversee things. The previous time he had built a court he returned from lunch one afternoon to find that laborers had planted a basket pole smack in the middle of the center-court jump circle.

Anyway, late that Saturday, Gresham looked up to find himself surrounded by three men and a handgun. They took his car, his cellular phone, his plans and his wallet. He called friends in Johannesburg on the school's phone, but the friends wouldn't come to get him out of Soweto. The cops wouldn't come, either. Finally Lekang's principal gave him a ride home.

Yet Gresham stays. He comes back to Soweto every day—including weekends—to build more courts, to bring organized basketball to one of the greatest untapped pools of talent on the planet. We saw some good players in the township. The best of them might make only average junior college players in the U.S., but they ran and jumped so gracefully, you couldn't help but see the possibilities. They need work on their trash talk, though. They speak in their tribal tongues, except when they woof.

"I am going to drop you down," said one skinny 13-year-old in English as he dribbled against his man.

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