For years, South Africa wanted no part of Thabo Sefolosha.
Growing up in Switzerland, his parents didn’t sugarcoat why they never visited his father’s native country. His father, Patrick, was black. His mother, Christine, was white. For the first 10 years of Thabo’s life, the South African government enforced the segregation system of apartheid, which meant such interracial marriages weren’t merely frowned upon — they were revolutionary.
“We couldn’t really go back,” he said. “Looking back at our parents and everything they had to go through to have a better chance in life — it really builds character, and it made me who I am.”
Times changed in South Africa, of course, and times changed for Sefolosha as well. It’s been 23 years since apartheid ended, and in the meantime the 33-year-old wing became a mainstay in the NBA. Beyond being the first Swiss-born player to be drafted into the league, he believes he’s also the only player with a South African parent currently in the NBA.
NBA Africa game
• At the TicketPro Dome, Johannesburg, South Africa
• Saturday, 9 a.m. MST
• TV: ESPN2
He embraces his father’s country with the same enthusiasm as his own birthplace, taking a leading role as a Team Africa captain in this week’s NBA Africa game in Johannesburg on Saturday and camps for African children this week.
“For me, that’s something that’s really important,” he said on Thursday on a call from South Africa. “The talent there is huge. The possibilities are huge in Africa.”
It’s not a new enterprise for Sefolosha, who has been involved with the NBA’s outreach in Africa since he started his career with the Chicago Bulls more than a decade ago. He’s been a longtime figurehead of Basketball Without Borders, along with other NBA players with African roots such as Luol Deng.
Dennis Schroeder of the Atlanta Hawks, a German national with Gambian roots, said he took his former teammate as an inspiration to get involved with the NBA Africa game this year.
“Luol and Thabo, they’ve been doing a great job,” he said. “I want to take a step each summer and take on a camp like Thabo did.”
The game itself will feature a lot of NBA stars between Team Africa (Deng, Emmanuel Mudiay, Victor Oladipo, Serge Ibaka) and Team World (Dirk Nowitzki, Demarcus Cousins, Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry). But for Sefolosha, the camps are the more important part.
The attendees come from several African countries, and for many, it might be the only interaction they ever get with NBA players. Sefolosha said teaching basketball skills is fun, but he thinks some of the life skills teaching is more valuable.
“When they go back to their original country, we want them to empower their community and empower themselves,” he said. “We want to show them it’s possible to come from Africa and be an NBA player, but it’s not the only thing in life.”
South Africa has taken root in more of Sefolosha’s life as well. He’s visited the country many times since the end of apartheid. His daughters, Lesedi and Naledi, both have South African names. While he is a bigger star in Switzerland and spends more time there, he takes being a role model for South African fans with equal earnestness.
“I guess it comes with some responsibility in a way,” he said. “I try to be as natural as I can be and try to impact people one by one. I’m not into a big movement or making a big splash. I want to give a good vibe for people I meet.”