Gugulethu basketball coach joins Minnesota Timberwolves for NBA Summer League

Gugulethu basketball coach joins Minnesota Timberwolves for NBA Summer League
Vincent Ntunja in Gugulethu. (Photo: Nathi Qondile)

Cape Town Tigers assistant coach Vincent Luyanda Ntunja is working with the Minnesota Timberwolves during the NBA Summer League. While he is an example of what the country has to offer the world, he’s focused on improving the local basketball scene.

Vincent Luyanda Ntunja, a basketball player-turned-coach from Gugulethu in Cape Town, has joined the Minnesota Timberwolves for the NBA Summer League’s Africa Coaches Programme.

The Cape Town Tigers assistant coach is in the US, working on the programme that’s aimed at building capacity and contributing to the growth of the game in Africa.

Ntunja was exposed to the sports industry at a young age. His father, Boyce “Chu-boy” Griffiths, was a well-known local soccer star. Tagging along to every game with his father, little Ntunja knew he was born to be an athlete. But his father was brutally stabbed by an obsessed fan from an opposing team before he could experience his son’s stardom.

Bandile Nsele and Lehlohonolo Tholo of Egoli Magic and Vincent Ntunja of Western Cape Mountaineers during a Basketball National League semifinal at Wembley Arena in Turffontein, Johannesburg, on 4 November 2016. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Ntunja, who started off as a soccer player to keep the memory of his father alive, knew from an early age that he would find his purpose in the sports industry rather than following academic pursuits, which he believed would lead him into a corporate career.

He eventually graduated from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology with a degree in sports tourism, which allowed him to escape the routine of a nine-to-five job to pursue a successful career in sport.

“I believe in so many ways that my path was destined to do something bigger than just waking up and doing the repetition of every day,” he said.

The journey begins 

However, in 1997, the sports fanatic’s soccer journey was brought to a halt when, on his way home from practice, he saw a ball gliding through a hoop. Ntunja found the idea of men playing basketball quite funny because it looked similar to the women’s game of netball.

After three months of experimentally bouncing the ball, Ntunja thought he’d show off his new skills at a local team’s basketball trials, which were a stone’s throw from his home.

Vincent Ntunja in Gugulethu. (Photo: Nathi Qondile)

Vincent Ntunja’s opportunity to join the programme stemmed from his success as an assistant coach for the Cape Town Tigers. (Photo: Nathi Qondile)

A year later, in 1998, he travelled to the US for the very first time, where the 15-year-old had caught the eye of the basketball legend himself, Michael Jordan, at his camp, the MJ Flight School in California.

The master named the rookie the most valuable player out of 500 attendees, and Ntunja was offered four scholarships to study and play in the US. However, he declined because he had to take care of his ill mother back home.

“I have lost my father already and now I would never stand losing my mother and I’m not home. I said ‘thank you very much for the offer’ to all the guys, all the coaches who offered me the scholarship, ‘I am going to South Africa and making something out of myself’.”

Ntunja ventured into modelling, presenting, philanthropy and motivational speaking but was still going hard on the basketball court, winning a number of championships and travelling the world.

“I feel like I was not letting myself down on the promise I made to myself that I was going to make something out of myself.”

Raising the flag

Ntunja prides himself on raising the South African flag when it comes to basketball, but he is incredibly disappointed by the government’s lack of support for the sport.

Vincent Ntunja was offered four scholarships to study and play in the US. However, he declined because he had to take care of his ill mother back home. (Photo: Nathi Qondile)

“You have the teams from Egypt and Senegal who even get their presidents and ministers of sports to travel and go watch them because they are supportive of what is happening in their country. We hope that one day we will have the same [sort of] ministry.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hoop Dreams — no slam dunks but Basketball South Africa has plans for 2023 and beyond 

The NBA Summer League’s Africa Coaches Programme identifies coaches from Africa who show the potential, talent and capacity to take on the world stage.

Ntunja’s opportunity to join the programme stemmed from his success as an assistant coach for the Cape Town Tigers. Despite its scarcity of resources, the Tigers managed to reach the Basketball Africa League (BAL) quarterfinals in May 2023, where they played against one of the biggest and strongest teams in the league, Stade Malien from Mali.

Youth development has always been of utmost importance to Vincent Ntunja. (Photo: Nathi Qondile)

BAL president Amadou Gallo Fall recognised the resilience Ntunja had shown in both his playing and coaching careers, giving him the chance to work with the Timberwolves.

Read more in Daily Maverick: This is where ‘fire and magic’ are born – the Joburg inner-city haven of hope united by basketball

Youth development has always been of utmost importance to the basketballer as he annually hosts a June 16 Youth Day Classic event alongside colleague Giovanni Freeman to motivate the young ones using sports and inviting guest speakers to deliver messages of goodwill and hope and inspire youngsters to become better citizens.

Ntunja believes that being selected to be a part of the programme is not just a success story for his diary, but a win for the South African basketball industry, which is small but, hopefully with his help, growing. He has a basketball court in his “hood”, Gugulethu, named after him and is sponsored by the sportswear brand Under Armour.

Ntunja has always believed in his greatness. Now it is time for everyone else to catch up. DM


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