(Words by Tim Leeson)

The man known admirably as ‘Coach’, John Goliath, has a heart a larger than even his fabled surname suggests. In witnessing Coach’s passion for his community and the game of basketball, I was schooled in the transformational potential of sport.

Nearly eight years ago, I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, for a new job and a new life. The initial obligatory web search turned up a handful of courts near me, but as I scoped each of them out, it was a familiar story; no access due to excess security, or the rims had been ripped down. The only other link I found was for a city-wide basketball league. I swung them an email and tried not to sound desperate. Of course it was Coach that got back to me.

With an invitation to meet at his home one Sunday afternoon, I asked a couple of friends where the suburb Heideveld was. Directing me down the N2, towards the airport, they made a quip about not heading out there at night. Heideveld sits in the infamous Cape Flats – a low-lying region southeast of Cape Town that has been frequently described as “apartheid’s dumping ground”. From the 1950s until the end of apartheid in 1994, the segregationist government forcefully displaced coloured (mixed-race) and black families from areas reserved for whites, and discarded them in the rapidly over-crowding Flats. With a disproportionately high number of males in the area, and limited economic opportunities, gangs were quick to form. The senior HBC players remember times where the team would drop flat to the court mid-practice as bullets cracked above them. What was I getting myself into? Thankfully, any concerns faded with Coach’s firm, first handshake. After an afternoon of talking shop and learning the roots of the team, I was excited to become part of Heideveld Basketball Club.

Years ago, Coach realised that his height wasn’t conducive for soccer and his heart wasn’t in volleyball, hence it was a basketball ring that was erected outside his home, becoming a safe haven for the kids in the community. With Coach enthusiastically guiding and cheering them on, many of the original ballers in Heideveld persevered to develop into provincial-level players – a couple made the national team and even turned pro. Now, many of them have returned to support the club and encourage the next generation of HBC greats.

An in-season Saturday will see Coach up early organising lifts and laaities (youngsters) to ensure they’re all at the courts in time for the under 12 games tip-off. Then it’s a whole day affair of coaching, mentoring, motivating, respectfully assisting the refs and, very occasionally, lacing up to show everyone that his post game is still there. It’s inspiring to watch and is the fuel that keeps the club humming.

Speaking to Coach’s brother, Selwyn, about how they keep their passion for the game alive after all these years, he replies, “I keep playing basketball because I’ve seen a lot, and we, as a community, have lost so much. But I know that basketball can change your life. Watching my son play brings a joy to my heart that makes me feel that we must be doing something right”.

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