Ahead in the Count

To an Athlete Dying Young

Two days ago, I found myself driving with two of my South African colleagues through the winding streets of Umlazi Township in Durban. The mood in the car was solemn. We had recently learned that another colleague of ours, Shabba, had died unexpectedly on Christmas Day from complications due to HIV/AIDS. Though he had contracted tuberculosis (an opportunistic infection commonly associated with HIV) a few months earlier and had been weakened significantly, we all thought he was on the path to recovery and maintenance after starting a new treatment plan. The news caught us by surprise and also served as a stark reminder of the powerful and abnormally deadly combination of HIV and poverty.

While driving through Umlazi, on the way to Shabba’s father’s house to help deal with funeral arrangements, the three of us talked about Shabba – his fiery personality and sense of humor, as well as his love for the game of basketball. Unlike many South Africans, even those who enjoy hoops, Shabba was a true student of the game. He was a FIBA-certified referee and a stickler for fundamentals. As a coach, his emphasis on the fundamentals combined with his passion for the game shaped and inspired many township youth to use basketball as a vehicle toward a positive life. It was not an uncommon site to see Shabba leading a group of children in a post-game ritual of jogging around the court and singing at the top of their lungs. Shabba proved to them that joy and learning could go hand in hand.

When we arrived at the house, Shabba’s father greeted us and invited us to sit down inside. Speaking softly in Zulu to my colleagues, he had the look of a man dealing with the unnatural weight of burying his own child. After a few minutes, he turned to me and tried to explain in English what he wanted me to hear. “I was an athlete myself as a youth,” he said. “I played soccer, and I know that sport gave me discipline and kept me healthy in body and mind. Shabba also drew strength from sport, from basketball. He helped young people do the same. Because of this, his strength will live on through the activity of the youth that he coached and their joy of basketball.”

Nothing will make the fact that Shabba is no longer with us any easier. His death at the age of 28 was premature to say the least; he will be missed greatly. But the words of Shabba’s father shed an important light on the importance of what he accomplished in his short life. He found a way to better the lives of hundreds of youth – to give them hope for their future. He let them know that he had made mistakes and that they should learn from those as much as they learned from his basketball tutelage. Shabba did what he could to make the world better than the one he inherited. He didn’t get as far as he or any of us would have hoped, but his body of work will live on in the strength of those that he impacted – on the court and off.

December 30, 2008 - Posted by | Sports Around the World, written by Tal Alter

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