Stop and smell the roses!

Assuming that you dear readers read my article in the last RI which focused on my concerns as to the state of the administration, and more importantly, the influencing political factors facing Wheelchair Basketball South Africa (WBSA), I am delighted to pen a more positive article and ask that we stop and smell the roses!

I am talking, of course, of the famous win by the South African national side in the final of the Africa Paralympic Qualifier played in Rabat in Morocco at the end of July. Played with aggression and passion reverberating from both sides, the game will rank as a moment in my sporting memory, and the post-match ecstasy and team spirit shown by the SA side is indelible in my mind!

Let’s look back at the 2007 season so far. It got off to a great start with the emergence of SASOL as a headline sponsor for the National team and the WBSA Technical Excellence Program. Almost by fate, IWBF 5th ranked Holland arrived on our doorstep to play a series of Internationals as a warm-up process for their European qualifiers to be played in August.

Dutch Tour
The tour by the Dutch was a great yardstick as to the progress that the SA team has made under the guidance of new and finally appointed coach Viv Sierra. A formidable player in his own day (I know, I played with and against him), Sierra brings an energy and commitment to our beautiful game that few others possess. He is quite simply besotted. He lives, sleeps, drinks, walks and talks the game, sometimes to a point where one has to purposely change the direction of a conversation for fear of being brainwashed. What an asset!

OK, so we lost 5 – 1 against the mighty Dutch side. The fact is, we took our first scalp against a highly ranked European side. Ill health played a role with key South African players. No doubt though, Holland were more experienced and the better side. Oh, how our boys learned and honed their finer skills from game to game. The All Africa Games in Algeria were yet to come.

I didn’t crack the nod to Algiers but the feedback whilst the games were on was superb from WBSA, and of course, screeds from Coach Sierra. SA won a breathtaking final to claim the title of All African Games Champions for 2007 in a hard fought battle against hosts Algeria. The game was played in hot and hostile conditions and I am told that the team had rallied from a 4-point deficit at half time.

Team sponsor SASOL invited me (at their cost) to join them on a support trip to Morocco for the qualifiers. I would accompany members of radio, print, TV and electronic media. I jumped at it.

Paralympic Qualifier
Morocco is hot and humid and it was disappointing to see that only Team SA, Kenya, Egypt and hosts Morocco turned up for the showdown. SA had swept all before them and knew that Morocco stood between them and the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. An easy first round win over Kenya, not so easy against Egypt, saw SA maintain the winning streak from Algeria. Then enter Morocco. A scrappy game in the beginning, the lead changed hands a few times and then their star player started to rain in 3-point shots. It was over in a blur – Morocco 57 South Africa 51. Oops! Viv Sierra had tried various combinations but none worked. Was this to be a bridge to far?

This team was tired. Sponsors SASOL hired a bus and took them on an outing to Casablanca the next day that they could regroup, relax and simply forget that the game ever took place. They were simply not allowed to talk about it. The semi-finals awaited, first a replay against Egypt and odds on final against Morocco. That’s how it panned out.

The final was played in very hot conditions and a large Moroccan partisan crowd with South Africa taking an early lead and looking comfortable. The 3-point shots came in and Morocco led by a solitary basket at the break. In the third, Morocco pulled away and I admit that I wondered if we should be satisfied with our progress and take away lessons? The game needed a spark.

Viv Sierra substituted Jeremy Nel for David Curle who had played well but had proved to be costly on his shooting. Nel blended into the combination which was controlled by captain fantastic Marius Papenfus and spearheaded by International star Richard (The Lion heart) Nortjie. The 3-point shot continued to fall but enter stage left; SA Australian-based Nick Taylor who played the Moroccans at their own game as he sank 3 long-distance shots in a row to match the opposition skills. Silky skills by Nortjie frustrated the home side and with 1minute and 28 seconds to play, SA finally showed their mettle. Justin Govender, Nortjie and Nel all scored to settle the epic encounter 68–61.

Whew, what a win! In different ways, this SA team of 12 players and 4 Officials all played their part. They showed how to stick together and also the value of the power of one; they were simply excellent!

All credit and thanks to the Paralympic sponsors: Coca-Cola, DaimlerChrysler, Nedbank, Pick’nPay, SAA, Sasol, Sun International, Telkom and Vodacom and indeed the National Lotteries Distribution Trustees who all made this possible with their support over a long period of time. Hopefully you will all have representation in the front row of the arena in Beijing; I know I will be there!

Columnist Photos