Newsmaker – Thabo Sefolosha: NBA’s tall Thabo brings it home

2013-09-01 14:00

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Meet the basketball star with a big soft spot for SA

On paper, he is a Swiss national and speaks French, Italian and English. But Thabo Sefolosha’s soul remains South African.

Sefolosha has scaled the highest ranks of basketball as an NBA star playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But he feels as at home in the Moretele mountains around Mamelodi – the township his father comes from – as he does in the Swiss Alps, which provide a scenic backdrop to the town of Vevey, his place of birth.

His father, musician Patrick Sefolosha of Malopoets fame, escaped the horrors of the apartheid-era Immorality Act to Switzerland with his white Swiss wife, Christine.

Sefolosha has never forgotten the land of his father.

He uses his success and status in Oklahoma City to make a difference in the lives of young people living in Mamelodi.

Earlier this year, he and his Cameroonian-French wife, Bertille, hosted a gala dinner, A Night For Africa, raising funds for his after-school basketball programme in the township east of Pretoria.

It was a night of fashion where local designers like David Tlale paraded their wares and South African wines were sampled. About $50 000 (R513 000) was raised and the couple topped it off with $30000 from their purse.

They met nine years ago at a French salon where Bertille braided Sefolosha’s corn rows. They have two daughters, Lesedi (5) and Naledi (4).

We meet in the posh surrounds of Rosebank’s Park Hyatt hotel, where he towers above everybody. He greets in Sesotho: “Dumelang. Le kae?” A promising start. But, alas, that’s as far as he can go.

Sefolosha, known for his tough defence and three-point shooting on the court, is in town for the Basketball Without Borders programme.

He doesn’t really see himself as a socialite, nor does he fancy seeing his wife make an appearance on the popular Basketball Wives reality show.

“I like to interact with people and share my background, but I keep my private life private. So I’m a big socialite to a certain extent, but I don’t open my doors to cameras,” he says.

Sefolosha’s life revolves around travelling and being physically fit as part of the highly competitive NBA league.

And he says he has seen gains on the local basketball front.

“Basketball is growing in South Africa. The first time I came over 10 years ago, we were just looking for players and leagues, and there was nothing going on. Now, to see NBA televised and real tournaments staged, it feels like basketball is on the map.”

Sefolosha sees his family in Mamelodi whenever he visits. He has three uncles, seven aunts and cousins.

He first visited South Africa when he was 17 – he is now 29 – and immediately got attached.

“I’ve always had a connection with South Africa. We grew up listening to South African music and having people from here coming to stay with us and talking about what was happening. It was great to come here for the first time and finally put an image to all those things we heard.

“At first I was surprised. I didn’t think Mamelodi could be that big. When I thought of a township, I didn’t think there could be a million people living there. I like the energy and being with the family.

“As soon as I went back, it was important for me to bring something and help the children and the community.”

Switzerland is hardly a breeding ground for basketball players either. Sefolosha got hooked on hoops watching a neighbour in Vevey. Being tall and scrawny, he found refuge on the court.

“Every time you’re a little taller or awkward, especially at a young age, people will make fun of you. But basketball helped me. I found a purpose with that size. I was pretty good early in basketball and that helped me get over that stage.”

He started out playing soccer, but experienced a growth spurt that changed his future.

“My legs got so much bigger and so I thought it would be a good bet to try basketball and see if it’s for me. My maternal grandfather was tall, so the genes come from there.”

He is more than 2m tall. His height and talent had him playing for the Chicago Bulls before he moved to Oklahoma City. Carrying an unusual name by Swiss and American standards has been a distinguishing feature.

“It’s been a beautiful thing. It’s a reflection of who I am, my roots. I’m proud of wearing this name. It’s not always pronounced the right way in Switzerland or America, but it’s a subject of conversation.” He laughs.

Being born in Vevey, the headquarters of Nestlé and Häagen-Dasz, Sefolosha was bound to have a sweet tooth, something he readily admits. His biggest weakness is meringue.

While here, Sefolosha says he’s indulging in house music. He’s a big fan of DJs Cleo and Ganyani. He could be a local bloke.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5fe4mcTcjM

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