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We all know about sport's power to inspire, the way it unites people from different backgrounds and across different cultures. But, in talking to three of South Africa's most exceptional athletes, all top Wheelchair Basketball players, we are reminded of sport's incredible power to change the lives of individuals.
SA National Team Player Danie Smith was a dance champion and star athlete when he was involved in an accident at the age of 16. But he didn't let his new reality as a paraplegic get him down. A year later, he was introduced to Wheelchair Basketball, and within six months, he'd made it onto the Gauteng Junior Team.
'Basketball pushes me to perform.'
Wheelchair Basketball, he says, has helped him through the years to stay motivated and to push himself to perform. 'After the accident, I didn't know what I was going to do. But every time I went through a bad patch, basketball was there for me. When you're on the court, you can't think about anything else. There are a lot of people relying on you, so you have to perform, and you're motivated to work really hard.'
An all-round sportsman
It's an incredibly competitive sport, Danie says - if you don't work hard on and off the court, you just won't cut it. To stay on top form, Danie gyms at home, trains with the team twice a week, and plays games most Saturdays and Sundays. He not only plays for a Pretoria club - he is also on the Gauteng Provincial Team (which won the Vodacom Challenge National Men in 2015), was on the 3-on-3 Action Ball team that won Gold for Gauteng in the tournament last year, coached the National U23 side for three years, and is now the Gauteng Development Manager, taking Wheelchair Basketball to schools around the country to recruit new players and to share the joy and pride that the sport has given him.
And, as if all of this doesn't attest to Danie's drive and sporting prowess, he's also won a National Championship in a totally different sport - in 2010, he took Gold for Single Skull rowing.
Allen currently lives in a dorm at the Mandeville Indoor Sport Centre in Johannesburg, so he 'lives, breathes and sleeps basketball' at the moment. Being on-site means he can train on the courts every day, which helps him to stay in shape as a National Team Player. He also plays for the Eagles Club side, and coaches the U23 National Team.
Never giving up
He first played Wheelchair Basketball in high school in the Western Cape, but when he was transferred to a mainstream school because of his impressive maths and science skills, he fell out of practice. It wasn't until 2001 that he got back into the sport, playing for a Cape Town club side. But while he was in college, a car accident knocked him out of the sport for two years.
'But after I recovered, I came back and worked really, really hard,' he says. He was called to the National Squad in 2006 for the first time, but didn't make it into the top 12. The same happened in 2008. 'I was discouraged, you know, but looking back, I should have thanked the coach at the time, because he pushed me to put in more work and more effort.'
In 2010, he had his proudest moment on the court when he was playing for a German club. They were up against the best team in the world, and when Allen, a reserve, came onto the court, his side were 17 points down. But he brought his drive and persistence to the game, and they managed to reclaim 6 points. 'Since that day,' Allen says, 'I had the belief that I should never give up.'
Passing on his fighting spirit
Today, Allen, who is currently in the top 12 of the National Team, passes on his fighting spirit to the U23s he coaches. They are preparing for a tournament in Dubai in April, followed by the U23 World Cup in Canada in June. He spends a lot of time on court with the team, who are mostly still in school and who come from all over the country to train at Mandeville at least twice a month.
'I work them very hard. I tell them that they will have opponents who will challenge them and push them, and while we train, I have to be like that opponent,' says Allen.
National Team member Jack was born with a disability, but thanks to his happy upbringing and the constant support from his mother and step-father, he's never wanted for anything, he says.
Giving 100%, every day
Though he has finance qualifications and could easily get a job as a banker, Jack is now pursuing his passion - playing Wheelchair Basketball - wholeheartedly: 'People ask me why I'm interested in this sport when there is very little money in it. It's because I love this game. As long as you do something you love, you put all your passion and your vision into it, you put in 100%, then you will make it. I put all my love into basketball. If I worked in a bank, I wouldn't be true to myself. As long as I'm playing basketball, I believe I'll make it.'
'The game brings joy to one's heart.'
He first fell in love with the sport in high school, when his school team in Kimberley made it through to the Provincial Finals. Even though they got beaten, he says, it made him realise 'this game is amazing, it brings joy to one's heart.' And that's when he started taking it seriously.
Today, he lives on-site at the Mandeville Indoor Sport Centre in Joburg, so he can practise every day - and he does, for around six hours a day. But his road to basketball success was not always smooth.
There's no substitute for passion
Before he was called up to the National Team in 2015, he suffered a crisis of confidence. As an amputee, Jack is in the 4.5 class, meaning he has the lowest level of disability in the sport. This means that he is often under a lot of pressure on the court because he's one of the strongest players.
'I'm a short dude,' he says, 'and other basketball players in my class are really tall. So I was at a disadvantage. I gave up basketball for about four years because I thought, because of my height, that I'd never succeed. But I realised that all I wanted to do in life was play basketball. So I came back in 2010, with great passion, and started working very hard at it.'
It was just after a game that the National Team coach told him he'd made it onto the National side. Jack says it was the proudest moment of his basketball journey. 'They took a tall player out and I took his place. And I was thinking I was disadvantaged because of my height. But during that game, I made sure I was valuable all over the court, as attack and as defence, and I think that's why I was chosen.'
'The game opened my eyes.'
We asked Jack what Wheelchair Basketball means to him. He says, 'It changed my life. When I made the U23 National Team in 2001, it opened my eyes to the fact that there was actually a lot of potential for me, as a disabled person.'
Vodacom and WBSA
Wheelchair Basketball South Africa (WBSA) has grown steadily over the years, and Vodacom has been proud to be associated with the sport, having partnered with WBSA for the last 17 years. Committed to developing the sport, Vodacom, over the last three years, has invested in upgrades to the Mandeville Indoor Sport Centre in Johannesburg, as well as in essential equipment, including a mobile wheelchair basketball court, 12 customised wheelchairs, two mobile hoops and a trailer to transport the equipment, so that the growth of the sport can be encouraged across the country.