The history of sport at Clifton College is remarkable, especially when one considers that the school is only 18 years of age. Most of its sport is played at an elite level, like cricket, waterpolo, tennis and hockey. But basketball? With their performances at the prestigious Saint John’s Basketball Festival this past weekend, Clifton’s basketball players proved they can, no doubt, compete at an elite level, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.

The team, led by their inspirational captain Jacques Mahanga, put together a string of eye-catching performances in the toughest pool of the event. They opened with a 32-29 victory over Saint Alban’s College, an established power in the game, showing character to score a late equaliser to force overtime before earning a sweet victory in the extra period.

Clifton’s pool, the toughest of the lot, included the hosts, Saint John’s College. (Photo: Saint John’s basketball, https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

They downed a much-improved Enjabulweni School 25-13 in their second outing and followed that up with a 28-23 win over Cape Town’s Wynberg Boys High, a team that hadn’t encountered before.

What made Clifton’s pool the toughest of all, though, was their next two opponents, Saint John’s College and Michaelhouse, the sides who ended up battling it out in the final for the title.

In a very physical contest, they went down 24-36 to Saint John’s before coming out on the wrong side of a very tightly-contested game against the eventual champions, Michaelhouse, by a slim 35-37 margin.

That final outing against a side that won the Stayers Tournament at Kearsney College and now the Saint John’s title, was a great advertisement for the game, said Master in Charge of Basketball at Clifton, Peter Farquharson.

Clifton defeated Wynberg Boys High, an unfamiliar foe, at the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo: Saint John’s Basketball https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

“What I really liked about that game was it was a game played in a beautiful spirit. The boys all know each other, they’ve played against each other, they’re friends with each other and on the court it was a great game of basketball.”

“The concept of mutual respect in a game like basketball is definitely there. The Clifton and Michaelhouse boys have also played in teams together, so those relationships are established. While it was competitive, it was played in the right spirit.”

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As for the result, Clifton’s captain Jacques Mahanga wasn’t surprised that he and his team-mates had pushed a team that is arguably the best in the country all the way.

“We left our hearts on the court. We fought very hard. We weren’t shocked. We were all in the right head space. We all wanted to win, we wanted to beat Michaelhouse. We’ve had enough of Michaelhouse,” he laughed. “We saw an opportunity to beat them, but we were a little unlucky to go down by two.”

Clifton even had two opportunities to win the clash with buzzer beaters, but those shots didn’t fall. Nonetheless, the game showed Clifton belongs among the elite, and their other performances in the pool games backed that up.

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With only five league fixtures taking place outside of tournaments during the first term, the Saint John’s Tournament was an opportunity to grow for the Durban school and, said their skipper, he believes they did.

“We certainly grew from the first game to the last. Funnily enough, in our first game against Saint Alban’s, we wouldn’t have won the game if one of our juniors did not score the last basket to send the game into overtime. The juniors helped us win. It was an opportunity for the seniors to praise the juniors for their role in the team.”

He added: “We didn’t have to tell other teams how good we have become. Our performances spoke for us. We performed better than we had against other KZN schools earlier in the season. Kearsney, for example, beat us in the season. They have always finished higher than us, but they didn’t make it past the group stages.”

Photographed outside Founder’s House at Clifton College, first team basketball captain Jacques Mahanga and Master in Charge of Basketball Peter Farquharson (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

Mahanga, who has KZN under-19 colours in the sport, is the heart and soul of the Clifton basketball team, Peter Farquharson said: “He’s very humble. In any game, he is, by far, our top points’ scorer. But he has certainly worked hard on playing a team structure and adding to the strengths of our team. Teams change from year to year, and we have had to adapt things at times, but he has definitely been a strong team player.

“Jacques works hard, he trains hard, and he is disciplined. He has been a good leader. He’s worked closely with some of the juniors, which is really good to see.”

Mahanga’s leadership is plain to see in the manner in which he carries himself. He is confident, but respectful, open, honest, and a smile comes easily to his face.

He plays either point guard or shooting guard and his NBA heroes reflect the qualities he admires and strives to emulate: Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, the best shooter in the game; the recently-deceased Kobe Bryant, known for his fighter’s mentality; and Le Bron James, the do-everything Los Angeles Lakers superstar who, like Jacques, rose from humble beginnings, which the Clifton skipper likens to his own story.

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He attended Addington Primary School, not a traditional feeder school for Clifton, but Jacques was the recipient of the Gail Teunissen Legacy Scholarship, given annually to a boy from Addington, who is the best all-round learner.

“I was lucky to get that,” he said. “I was competing with three other candidates and they were all very good.”

When he arrived at Clifton in grade eight, he had a slight edge over many of the other boys in that he had started playing basketball at Addington. It wasn’t so much about the sport as it was about friendship, he explained at Founders House on the Clifton campus on Tuesday.

“What really pushed me to play basketball was the fact that I saw all my friends playing basketball. We all played soccer and then they left to play basketball and I was the only one left playing soccer, so I decided to move to basketball too.”

Disarmingly candid, he described himself as being “very cocky” when he moved to Clifton. He wanted to play first team basketball in grade eight and by the fourth term he had achieved that goal.

This past season, Jacques was the senior player in the team, along with only four other matric boys, and that meant he played the role of mentor to some of the younger boys, in a reversal of the roles from when he first represented the Clifton first team.

Clifton’s 28-23 victory against Wynberg Boys High gave them three wins on the trot in the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament pool stage. (Photo: Saint John’s Basketball https://www.stjohnscollege.co.za/basketball/)

When basketball was introduced at the school there was only one team per age group and games were played in the school hall. As its popularity began to grow two external courts were added. Recently three brand new courts were put up at the Riverside Sports Club, where so much of the school’s sport is played, bringing to five the number of courts it boasts and reflecting the growing popularity of the sport. That growth is happening in other schools, too, said Peter Farquharson.

Farquharson, who has been in charge of basketball at the school “for six or seven years”, said it has been an interesting journey thus far to grow the standard of play at Clifton.

He explained: “There are two things that have held Clifton basketball back. One is the size of the pool that we draw players from. The second thing is overcoming the perception that basketball is for those people who can’t play cricket, swim, or play waterpolo. I think we’re getting past that now.”

Clifton’s success in the Saint John’s Tournament was far from an overnight achievement, he added: “This year has been the culmination of a number of years of work. We’ve had nice stable structures in place in terms of coaching. It’s difficult to find coaches, because there are very few teachers who are coaches. You have to look externally for coaches. We’ve had a relatively stable structure and there are a couple of other things.

The team that performed so well in the Saint John’s Basketball Tournament before their departure for Johannesburg (Photo: Peter Farquharson)

“We’ve gone from one team per age group to four. From attending one tournament per year, we now attend five altogether. The under-14s go to Saint Andrew’s College, the under-16s were at Michaelhouse and Saint Stithian’s, the open team was at Saint John’s, and at the end of the year we’ll send the Stayers to Kearsney.”

The willingness to travel to play top teams in almost any sport anywhere in the country has been one of the prime drivers of sporting success at Clifton, helping the school to ascend at a rapid rate unlike anything seen from other schools of a comparable age.

Something else that has been of benefit to basketball at the school was the formation of Cobweb, an old boys/school boys club, which has entered a team in the Ethekweni Basketball League for the past two years. “A couple of the boys, like Jacques, play in that league. That means they’re getting exposed to the sport throughout the year. They’re playing at a tough level against men’s teams,” Farquharson said.

Mahanga admitted, though, that not all his goals had been achieved: “Last year, in the prefect’s application form, they asked everyone their goals for 2020 and my goal was to help make Clifton a top 10 team in South Africa. The only way to do that is by winning games.

“Unfortunately, this season we lost a lot of league games. In the Kearsney tournament, we came 10th, and in the Saint John’s tournament our goal was to make it to the quarter-finals. We were unfortunate to lose by three points against Michael Mount. They won the Saint John’s tournament two years ago.”

The point, though, is if you don’t attain your goal, you can still enjoy success.

“We played hard. We had the toughest pool. The two games we lost were to the finalists. We still made it out of the pool and we were unlucky not to make it into the quarters. I am sure that every coach out there is aware that Clifton basketball is rising,” Mahanga reckoned.

Like so many things at Clifton, where the idea of family is preached and lived, success comes from a holistic approach to all things. Peter Farquharson concluded: “There is an incredibly committed staff. The parental support is behind every endeavour at the school. Whether it’s the Chamber Choir or basketball, parental support is crucial, and it is there.”

Michaelhouse, Kearsney and Saint Charles remain steady powers at the top of KwaZulu-Natal schools’ basketball. Not long ago, DHS was the best in the country. Hilton College is strong, Maritzburg College is strong, Northwood is on the up, and Clifton now appears to have taken a seat at that table. The trick will be to sustain that success, but given their past record in other sports, why would one bet against them?