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Athlete follows in Michael Jordan’s footsteps

Dunker schön: Thabo Sefolosha, the first Swiss to play in the NBA Keystone

Thabo Sefolosha has become the first Swiss basketball player to be drafted by a team in the prestigious National Basketball Association (NBA).

Having played in Switzerland, France and Italy, the 1.96m shooting guard will play for the Chicago Bulls next season, fulfilling a childhood dream and lending a touch of glamour to Swiss basketball.

On June 28, the Swiss-born son of a black South African musician and a white Swiss artist was 13th choice at the annual basketball cattle market, which took place at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The NBA Draft is where the NBA’s 30 teams select young players wanting to join the league. These players usually come from US colleges, but in recent drafts a greater number of international and high-school players have been drafted.

Players selected earlier in the draft are generally considered better players than those selected later – previous first picks include stars such as Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and LeBron James.

However, Michael Jordan – also a shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls and whom many consider the best player of all time – was only third choice in the 1984 draft.

First pick this year was the Italian Andrea Bargnani, the first European player, sixth non-US player and second player without US college or high-school experience to have the honour.

It was in fact the Philadelphia 76ers who got first dibs on Sefolosha, but after the Chicago Bulls offered them another player, Rodney Carney, and a million dollars (SFr1,222,000) in exchange, the Swiss found himself heading to the Windy City.

Hoop dreamer

“It’s just incredible! I still can’t believe what’s happened,” Sefolosha, 22, told Swiss television. “It’s a dream come true!”

It’s a dream he’s had ever since he was ten. “When he was small he was always crazy about American basketball,” said Laurent Molinari, currently head of youth development at Sefolosha’s first club Blonay in canton Vaud.

“He would pore over NBA magazines and videos and then copy whatever he saw – with a certain amount of success, I should add…”

Molinari remembers a young boy who was “dynamic, cheerful, but quite minimalist – possibly because he had a lot of talent. He was a showman and especially loved the dunks and the acrobatics – he wasn’t so keen on the tactical exercises”.

At 16 Sefolosha was already playing in Switzerland’s top domestic league with Tege Riviera Basket. He spent the next three seasons in France with top-league Chalon-sur-Saône and signed with Italian Serie A club Angelico Biella last season.

At Chalon-sur-Saône he was coached by Manu Schmitt, currently in charge of the Swiss national team, who remembers a “hard-working and determined” player.

“Joining the NBA is the result of his hard work and his talent – it was the logical step,” said Schmitt, who hoped he could still count on Sefolosha to play for the national team.

“His presence is important – as much on a sporting level as for the dynamic that he brings to the team – but I think this year it’ll be difficult.”

The Sefolosha effect

Everyone agrees that Sefolosha’s NBA success can only be a good thing for Swiss basketball.

“Hopefully it’ll make more people want to come to games,” said Schmitt.

Molinari added that the media might now devote more time to basketball – “at present the only match that you can see on TV is the Swiss Cup”.

But more than anything else, Sefolosha’s journey shows young people that it is possible to start off in Switzerland and end up in the NBA.

Molinari says the youngest players at Blonay always have difficulty believing this and ask whether it’s really true that he started there. “We laugh and show them old photos,” he said.

“Since [the draft], I’ve noticed that the kids are getting more and more excited. Now they all want to wear the Chicago Bulls top with ‘Sefolosha’ on the back!”

Molinari says he wouldn’t be surprised if, at the start of the new school year, Swiss basketball clubs are flooded with aspiring Sefoloshas.

swissinfo, Alexandra Richard

Thabo Sefolosha was born on May 2, 1984 in Vevey, canton Vaud. His parents, a South African and a Swiss, moved there from South Africa just before he was born.

His club progression has been Blonay, Tege Riviera Basket, Chalon-sur-Saône, Angelico Biella, the Chicago Bulls.

Sefolosha is 1.95m (6ft 5 inches) and 97.5kg. The tallest player in the NBA at the moment is Yao Ming, who plays for the Houston Rockets and stands 2.29m (7ft 6 inches).
The Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA during the Nineties winning the NBA Finals in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998.
Success left them when the talismanic Michael Jordan did, but things are currently looking up – this year they qualified for the play-offs but were eliminated by the Miami Heat.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR