Ben Uzoh's Cape Town Tigers have a chip on their shoulders

South Africa is not a nation traditionally associated with basketball, but two years into their existence, the American-owned Cape Town Tigers are well on their way to qualifying for the Basketball Africa League [BAL].

First, however, they must capitalise on a strong start and clear the hurdle of qualifying for the 2022 season at the first attempt, competing in the Elite 16 round from Dec. 7.

Raphael Edwards, an accomplished trainer, is a part-owner and the most public face of the organisation. He told ESPN that his list of past clients includes the likes of Brandon Ingram, Allen Houston, Ty Lawson, Elton Brand and Jerry Stackhouse.

However, the players under Edwards' care at the Tigers range from former NBA star and Nigeria international Ben Uzoh, whose career peaked with a 2012 triple double for the Toronto Raptors against the New Jersey Nets, to locals such as Lebohang Mofokeng, who did not play basketball until after high school.

There is, however, a common thread between the pair and several other Tigers personnel. The franchise is full of competitors who fought through various struggles to reach the cusp of the BAL's second edition.

In late bloomer Mofokeng's case, he had to play catch-up before outshining his more experienced peers. Uzoh, meanwhile, considered giving up basketball after his NBA career tailed off and he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). However, he persevered and has played on for nearly a decade since.

Power forward Billy Preston was cut by the Cleveland Cavaliers before getting any top-tier game time, while shooting guard Jared Harrington had to defer his own NBA dream when he went undrafted in 2019. Both were among the top performers for the Tigers in the first round of BAL qualifying.

"I definitely wanted to get the people with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove -- that have a little edge to them," said Edwards, who himself saw his NBA dream dashed, partially due to a lockout in 1998/99 and, by his own admission, due to his wayward lifestyle in his youth.

"In doing that, I realised I'm still learning that you get a lot of other things along with that -- egos taking part in it, attitudes, personalities. It's up to me to really try to mesh and gel them, while still evolving as a man, as a leader myself.

"These guys are from completely different worlds. I'm from a different world also, so sometimes things [get lost in] translation, where I'm like: 'Oh, you should know you can trust me.'

"These guys are like: Where I'm from, we can't.' It's still bridging a gap. I preach to the guys, although we're very different and still learning each other -- no-one's perfect -- let's just start with a foundation of respect."

Uzoh concurred, confirming to ESPN that there are big egos at the table at the Cape Town Tigers, but said that they work together to the benefit of the team.

"You have guys with chips on their shoulders and it's coming out in different ways that are more beneficial than detrimental. That's all you can hope for if you continue to bottle that up and move forward. Hopefully, the management's collective vision is coming forward the way they hoped it would," said Uzoh.

In a sense, Cape Town is the perfect city for the amalgamation of vastly different worlds. While many Tigers players live in picturesque suburbs and towns in and near the city itself, the organisation is based in Gugulethu, a township established during apartheid due to the overcrowding of nearby Langa -- the only Black residential area in the city at the time.

Vincent Ntunja, their assistant coach, is from Gugulethu himself, and Edwards said of the club's connection to the area: "We represent Gugulethu and that's our home base. We practice in Lotus River -- that's in Grassy Park [a lower-middle income area].

"Although we're a professional club, we do not want to distance ourselves from the roots and the foundation of Cape Town -- that's the inner-cities and the Cape Flats."

The Tigers were founded in 2019, shortly before COVID-19 swept across the world. They took a knock when South Africa went into a hard lockdown in March 2020, but subsequently got back up on their feet and beat the Jozi Nuggets in the national championship final this September. Uzoh starred with 22 points.

He continued to perform exceptionally in the first round of BAL qualifiers, with Jared Harrington, Billy Preston, Evans Ganapamo and Pieter Prinsloo also delivering clutch performances.

The Tigers qualified for the Elite 16 with three wins from as many games. Here, they will come up against Kurasini Heat (Tanzania), New Star (Burundi) and Matero Magic (Zambia) in Group H1.

A top two spot would secure a semi-final and then a win in either the Group H final or third-place playoff would secure the Tigers' ticket to the BAL.

Having already beaten the Magic 83-77 in the first round of qualifiers, the Tigers' optimism for the upcoming matches in Johannesburg is understandable, though the omicron variant in that region could still prove problematic.

Harrington, 24, told ESPN: "I feel like we're definitely ready [to take on Africa's best teams at the BAL]. The more we are together, the more chemistry [there is and] the more we gel -- we're just looking better and better every day.

"We practice twice a day and I'm just loving our team's effort and our team's chemistry. The fact that we have that willingness to get better every day -- a lot of teams really don't have that, so I'm really proud of our efforts and I expect a lot of great things."

Edwards concurred on the Tigers' prospects of matching Africa's biggest sides, although Uzoh, who finished ninth with the Rivers Hoopers in 2021, was more guarded.

He said: "I think only time will tell. I think we just continue to chip away and control what we control, which is our approach, our mentality and how hard we work.

"I don't see why not, but obviously, every team is going to revamp. They're going to want to be better than they were the previous year, just like every business wants to have more profit and more revenue than they had the previous year, so we just take it a day at a time."

The Tigers are scheduled to play their Elite 16 games between 6-11 December as they look to book their place among Africa's 12 top teams at the continent's premier club competition.