Spinning the wheels of passion

Wheelchair basketball in South Africa is a dynamic sport that has grown from strength to strength over the past five years with over 300 000 active and at least double that figure playing informal games. The sport has implemented sound development programmes in this period, which has allowed it to participate with some success in the international arena in the past three years.

One of the rising stars of South African wheelchair basketball is 23-year-old Thandile Zonke. Thandile has been playing for the Discovery Eagles since 2004 and is also the captain of the under 23 national squad.

The season just passed has been an exceptional one for Thandile and the Discovery Eagles: “This year’s SuperSport Wheelchair Basketball Series was definitely my best ever in my basketball career.”

It all started in Durban earlier this year when the team won the national championships.

But the highlight of the season – which runs from mid-April to mid-August – for Thandile, was still to come. “For me personally, playing in the SuperSport league final was the cherry on top of what has been an outstanding year. To cap it all, I was named the best under-23 player of the year. Being recognised for my role in the team was great. I really appreciated it.”

Thandile’s basketball career started when he began watching the seniors play at his school in East London. Only 12 or 13 at the time, he joined up, made the team and that year they won the junior national championships.

At the time he also participated in other sports, including weight lifting, track and field. It was later, in grade 10, that he made the decision to focus solely on basketball.

After school Thandile attended college studying IT, playing basketball in his spare time. After a year, however, he decided to take a gap year to concentrate on basketball and he soon found himself in Orkney, in the North West province, playing in the SuperSport Wheelchair Basketball Series.

“These were my founding years. It was a tremendous experience for me, a junior, to play with the senior guys. I learnt so much from them. I also felt the difference in the jump from junior to senior level. This was serious. I lapped it all up.”

Unfortunately playing basketball alone could not sustain Thandile and he moved to Johannesburg to find employment. Wheelchair basketball does not really pay salaries, but a player can receive some money for the four to five months of the season. This is in sharp contrast to countries such as Italy where a player can earn up to R12 000 and receive a motor vehicle and accommodation. However, this is not a worldwide phenomenon and it depends on the country, the sponsors and league.

Thandile’s move was also triggered by an offer from the Discovery Eagles to come and play for them. The move resulted in him finding employment with DSTV in Randburg. Due to the tough commute between work and home, Thandile is moving from Mandeville to Randburg soon.

Thandile is a young man with aspirations. One of his dreams is to purchase a vehicle and another is to play basketball overseas. “I want to know what it feels like to play overseas. I want to learn more and more and then bring it back to South Africa and share it with everyone.”

Thandile's achievements stem from his belief in himself. His motto is, “Believe in yourself, make sure you have a passion for what you are doing, and you will succeed. It is all from the heart.”

Thandile explains this: “Last year was not a great season for me. I battled for a number of reasons but I persevered and this year it paid off. I feel I have blossomed into my potential and hopefully this will continue.

“Disability only limits you to certain things. Your mind, however, frees you to overcome this. It is all in the head. You need to believe that you can do something, and then it will be very hard to stop you.

“I have always believed disability is a challenge. When I say this I mean just because you are physically disabled in some way does not mean that you cannot do or accomplish things in your life. I know people who are not disabled in any form and they do nothing with their lives. There is no excuse. Look at me, I had polio as a child, I walk with crutches, but I play sport. I am the player of the series. I have been on TV.

“I will play for as long as I am passionate about wheelchair basketball.”

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