The Cape Town Tigers can hold their heads high after defying expectations at the Basketball Africa League [BAL], but a lack of cohesion on and off the court cost them a chance to progress further than the quarterfinals.
Teething problems with administration, and internal disagreements among coaches and players alike, meant a star-studded team was never able to realise its full potential, and even reaching the Playoffs in Kigali was unexpected.
The Tigers were only founded by American company Severus LLC, fronted by businessman and former player Raphael Edwards, in late 2019, right before COVID-19 struck South Africa. With this in mind, making the BAL quarterfinals at the first attempt was nothing short of a miracle.
On paper, given Edwards and co's dollars and the raft of American players rotating in and out of the team, they should have fielded a very strong side in every game, with a natural flow borne of most of the team being raised on US courts, and playing at fairly high levels.
However, head coach Relton Booysen was left with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction after their whopping 106-67 quarterfinal defeat to US Monastir in Kigali, and echoed complaints he'd made in Cairo during the Nile Conference that the players, perhaps looking to shine for NBA scouts, were too individual in their efforts.
"I'm walking away with satisfaction in how far we came in the competition, but I'm not satisfied with the performance because I want to win, and I feel that we have the necessary skill and talent to win, but the guys [didn't execute] the game plan," he said.
"Everyone was doing their own thing, but as I said, we will work on that and come back better."
Booysen was the official head coach for the BAL, but Edwards also played a role in coaching, and both men were often seen shouting instructions to players on the court, usually at the same time. Edwards, not Booysen, often led the timeout discussions and huddles.
Sources close to the team told ESPN that the coaching staff often disagreed, mainly about levels of player discipline, and Booysen was visibly frustrated at times by his lack of autonomy.
Booysen acknowledged to ESPN after the Kigali defeat that he and the imposing Edwards were not always on the same page and neither were the players, but added that honest discussions after the Tigers lost their first two games in Cairo helped them gain unity, at least off the court.
"It's very difficult to be head coach of a team and have the owner as an assistant coach on the bench. It's not easy with such a relationship, but I feel that I managed to make it work under circumstances," Booysen said.
"My conversation with the team was that it's not about me as a person. Each individual staff member and coach must look at it as [being] about Cape Town, it's about South Africa, it's about Zone 6. It's bigger than just individuals at the end of the day.
"People will have disagreements, but at the end of the day, the best decisions for the team must be made. That's why the team got together and played well on that Wednesday against FAP."
Booysen added that in order to resolve the coaching conflict in future, he will work solely as team manager going forward, with a new coach coming in for any tournaments and a potential second BAL stint.
Meanwhile, players Billy Preston, Evans Ganapamo and Pieter Prinsloo, all of whom were raised in the US, admitted at various points throughout the BAL that the players were not united under the same whiteboard.
Preston, who played in the NBA G-League for a number of teams and was the team's top scorer for the season, complained of the lack of cohesion as far back as the Tigers' second game in Cairo, a 101-77 loss to defending champions Zamalek.
This was actually a much closer contest than the scoreline would suggest, and it was very, very clear to anyone watching that Preston and Artis, both of whom had missed the opening game due to COVID protocols, made a significant difference to the standard of play.
"A couple of guys in our team, we all tried to do it ourselves and it doesn't work like that. We win games as a team. Once we lock in on that, on the team aspect, we'll win more games," Preston said in an interview with ESPN at the time.
The Tigers, who had previously lost their opening Cairo fixture 90-61 to Petro de Luanda, heeded Preston's words and showed unity in a 73-70 upset of Cameroon's Forces Armées et Police (FAP) in their third game. Ganapamo, who led the team in minutes played, landed the winning three with 0.8 seconds left on the clock in a moment fit to go down in South Africa's sporting history books.
An 83-79 win over Cobra Sport followed, but the cracks showed again in their final Conference game, an overtime defeat to Espoir Fukash, who they realistically could have beaten. If basketball games were only three quarters long, the Tigers would be significantly more successful.
In Kigali against the experienced Monastir, the fault lines were all too clear again, despite having more than a month to prepare. Like Petro and Zamalek before them, Monastir raced clear in the closing stages to record a comfortable win.
"I don't think we played as a team. I think that the games we win are just straight up off talent. We just happen to have some good players, but as a team, we don't play well," Ganapamo said in the mixed zone after the Monastir defeat.
His words were echoed by team captain Prinsloo in the post-match press conference: "It's never intentional, but players individually try to take the charge, and sometimes, we have to just stick to being a team.
"No one person is going to win the games by themselves and that's kind of how things spiralled out of control at the end."
While a lack of cohesion on the floor was ultimately the Tigers' downfall, they weren't helped by issues off it. The organisation's first major misstep was allowing Nigeria international and former NBA player Ben Uzoh's visa to expire in November 2021.
Uzoh, who had played for Nigerian side Rivers Hoopers in the 2021 edition, had been influential in the opening round of BAL qualifying, and the Tigers were no longer a dominant side without him.
But they did enough to earn a spot in the third-place playoff against Burundi's New Star, and were given a slice of good fortune as it was called off due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the visitors in Johannesburg. The Tigers were awarded a 20-0 forfeit that secured their place at the BAL.
However, history repeated itself in Cairo as another former NBA player departed the Tigers midway through the tournament in bizarre circumstances.
Despite being injured against Espoir Fukash in Cairo, Jamel Artis was irked by the way he was dropped from the roster ahead of the playoffs, and was replaced by former New York Knicks player Cleanthony Early.
"Basically, the true story is: I got hurt [and] they didn't want to give me a chance to recover," Artis told ESPN, adding that his teammates were "shocked" by his omission for the playoffs.
In fairness to the Tigers, not all their problems were of their own making. South Africa does not have a professional basketball league and the men's national team last appeared in an international competition at AfroBasket 2017, where they lost all three games and finished 15th.
According to Booysen, the state of local basketball made administering the Tigers significantly more difficult than it would have been elsewhere.
"Even after we won the South African championship, people made things extremely difficult for us. There were days when we didn't even have a practice facility as a professional team and we had to go practice on an outdoor court." he said.
Due to having over two decades of experience in South African basketball, he had to effectively serve as an intermediary between the American ownership group and the gatekeepers of a dysfunctional local basketball setup.
Any team the Tigers fielded at the BAL was thus always going to be a makeshift unit. To qualify for the BAL was a remarkable achievement in itself. To dig deep after defeats in their opening two Nile Conference games and claw their way into the playoffs was awe-inspiring.
However, even if they are a team which embodies the best of their country in strength through adversity, the Tigers have not yet proven that they can operate without the chaos that has marred South African basketball for years.
If they are serious about becoming the truly competitive BAL team that has the potential to be in the long run, they'll need to get their house in order.