Tonight on the eve of our departure to Zambia to preach and minister I thought I would like to write an article for the james tembo web site. From the web site they could link to this article on basketball with an assist from Tom Cunningham.
My daughters and I went down to the local basketball court in Mazabuka sometime in December after landing in Mazabuka in November. It was a cement court with two rickety backboards with one rim about 6” lower than the other. White girls on the basketball court was quite the novelty but soon they were pushed aside so the young men could properly exhibit their basketball skills. I met several decent players that day with Africa being the only face I can clearly remember along with a young man whose name I cannot remember but was like the official trainer at the time and came and went over the years from university in Namibia. They began to tell me about their team at Saint Edmond’s High School.
The basketball season stretches from February to October. There are several tournaments and each district has a shootout to determine which team will represent the district at these tournaments. St. Edmond’s lately was always losing to their arch rival Chickenkata (English mispronunciation). Chickenkata was a Salvation Army Hospital and private High School that attracted some of the best students from all over the nation. Since St. Edmond’s did not take boarders that would be enough right there to give them an advantage because of the smaller pool of potential students. They let me know what the real reason for their defeat was because Chickenkata had a white American coach. I laughed, but they were very serious because now I was surrounded by about 20 kids. The follow up question was: Would I be their coach? I really wasn’t thinking and assumed there was no possibility of me being their coach but I said yes if the headmaster asked me.
Later that day I had about 20 kids come to my house to let me know that the headmaster had said I could be the coach. I could hardly say no at that point. It was after Christmas that another group of boys came to the house and wanted to know when we would start practicing. January is hot and humid with rains that could come at a moment’s notice. Much to their delight I said right away, so we set a time and on the following day I showed up to the court. They were scrimmaging, but what was peculiar was the fact that most of them had only one shoe on or were barefoot. I didn’t want to say anything to embarrass them so I just watched to see what kind of team they had (later they would explain to me that they rotated their shoes so they would last and they only wore both on game days).
Their offence consisted of all five of them being on the perimeter taking turns driving in and rather shooting or passing back out for someone else to drive in. They had a basic
2-1-2 lazy man’s defense. This is when I met Bright Mubika our future camera man. Now 8 years later, let me see if I can remember the names: Sabwila the most talented with a vertical leap that enabled him to easily dunk from a standing position. Sebo the tallest and the team facilitator. Eventually Matapi would join us (he is the brother to Bwalya in the film) he turned us into a powerhouse. Bright and Grief were the two guards. Bright was a natural leader and enjoyed the strategy part of the game.
In the first tournament of the season Chickenkata missed the shootout. We were an OK but were handily beaten by Canisius the Catholic powerhouse from outside Monse. The next shootout was at St Edmond’s where we and I would meet the terrible Chickenkata squad. They were big and their best player was very good. It was rumored that he had been given a scholarship to play basketball in the US. Ted, there American coach was visiting the states. We eventually got a lead and were able to win more to their poor play than (one of their players would keep trying 3’s and missing). They made a comeback of sorts with their best player stealing the ball and going down the court for two dunks. The second dunk had one of our players at his feet so he hung onto the rim for a second. The whole backboard came down. We caught this on film. These kind of events become very African. Another excuse for mob action. The mob of students surrounded him, our players defended him the last picture in the film is the backboard being taken up the path towards the school by a large group of folks. We were so far ahead with only minutes to play that we were rewarded the game.
That year we beat Chickenkata a second time where I was able to meet Ted the teacher/pastor/coach and husband of Bella the main doctor at the hospital. They became good friends and I believe they are now in the Dallas area working their ministry with the Salvation Army. It was very close and they should have won. We had one last match with them that year. We traveled to Chickenkata. Ted, who was now a friend, was taking this very serious. They were not use to being beaten by St Edmond’s. One of the reasons for our success was our 1-3-1 defense. It proved to be difficult for most opposing teams to work against. But, Ted had our # now. We changed the positions of Bright and Sabwila on defense. Bright with his competiveness and knowledge we moved to the wing where he would have to box out and battle one on one for the rebound from any shot from the other side of the court. Sabwila took the point with the understanding that we were going to look for him to break away and get a layup when we could get an easy rebound and pass. He was under strict orders to lay it in and not dunk (his fancy dunk that failed almost cost us a game). We won a very tight contest. Ted’s team played great. Ted complimented us afterwards by saying that we played one of the best games he has seen since coming to Zambia.
I ended up coaching for 6 years. The 5th year Bright was my assistant and the sixth year I was his assistant. During those years we had two great teams. Two medium teams and two poor teams. That first year they beat Canisius while I was not with them. I was told by the headmaster that we were to play for the championship. When we arrived to play, we were informed that even though we had won the game, Canisius had scored more points in the tournament there fore they were playing the championship game. We did our best to keep a right spirit but it was a repeated lesson in Africa: justice can take a back seat to the powers that be. I loved the social events of the tournaments where all of the schools would travel in open trucks. They would play basketball, football (soccer), volleyball, netball, and chess. At the end of each season we would watch the NCAA championship together at my house with hamburgers and cokes. It was a piece of America that I enjoyed right there in Zambia.
PS. Ted’s teams did dominate those years we had poor teams.