An engineer, a coach, and a hooper walk onto a BAL court... and his name's Lebo Mofokeng

If you are looking for someone to build you a basketball court, a coach to teach you how to play on it, and an opponent to give you a run for your money, then Cape Town Tigers small forward Lebo Mofokeng is a solid candidate for all three roles.

Having never touched a basketball until college, the 6ft4in South African has risen up the ranks to reach the Basketball Africa League, while also earning college qualifications in civil engineering and sports science.

Mofokeng grew up in Welkom in the South African province of the Free State, a region with wide open grasslands and potato farms, but not many basketballers. Much of his early life revolved around mining, as his uncle was a general manager at a gold mine where many of his relatives still work.

Like most South African kids, he played soccer throughout school, and hoops never entered Mofokeng's life until 2011 when he was 18. He was studying civil engineering at Sedibeng TVET College near Johannesburg, looking for a life away from the mines.

READ: Everything you need to know about the BAL

The college held a day of sports try-outs, and a voice in Mofokeng's head told him that this was the time to break from his routine.

"I had my soccer boots with me, walking around and trying to find out if I could get in the squad for soccer. I was walking around, and I guess my confidence wasn't really up to standard," Mofokeng told ESPN.

Since 10th grade, when he shot up in height, he had been resisting his friends' attempts to get him to get him on the basketball court, citing his love for football. But on this particular day, he was out of excuses.

He said: "I ended up going to look at other fields. I passed the volleyball guys and the netball girls. I found the basketball guys on the court and they let me try out, and that's how it [starting basketball] happened."

A close-knit extended family played a huge role in Mofokeng's upbringing. His mother worked as a security guard, but his father was absent from his life until he was 13 years old. Although they were reunited, Mofokeng Sr. died six years later, and never had the opportunity to see his son play basketball at all.

Asked if his dad would be proud that he will play professionally at the BAL Nile Conference in Cairo this month, Mofokeng spoke in the present tense so common of those who have lost a loved one, "Yes, he is proud".

Not everyone in his family was initially supportive of his college-hopping, hoop-chasing exploits, however. In a country with a 35 percent unemployment rate, his sister was displeased with his reluctance to use his engineering background and settle down.

Mofokeng, who is one of six siblings, said: "All I wanted to do was basketball and she didn't understand it. I was going from school to school and she was mad at me, [telling me that I was] abusing my opportunities.

"Now, when I talk to her, we reflect back on that and she is just like, 'Bro, you've been about this! You've felt it since the day you started playing.'"

Still, it took until 2016 for Mofokeng to realise just how talented he was. By that stage, he had graduated from Sedibeng as an engineer and was two years into his time at North West University, where he had earned a scholarship to study sports science.

It took those few years for him to realise his own potential: "I wouldn't say [that] I knew from the beginning that I was good. When I started playing really high-intensity games... that's when I knew.

"We'd go play in tournaments in Pretoria and then we'd play against a guy called Neo Mothiba -- he was the national team captain. They would host tournaments in Pretoria and our school would be invited. When I got there, the level was really high."

After finishing his sports science degree, Mofokeng left NWU to go back home to the University of the Free State (UFS) to study Social Sciences, and to be coached by Clement Kock, who remains influential in his career today.

Kock had previously worked as a manager for the national team and worked with high-profile players, including Tigers captain Pieter Prinsloo. However, Mofokeng is the BAL player who he had the most time to work his magic on, as the player was at UFS for three years.

Kock told ESPN about Mofokeng's raw talent: "The two main things that you, as a coach, look for [that stood out in Mofokeng's game]: his energy [which] is always high, and his ability to spark players or a team on offence and on defence.

"It's difficult to coach people to be like that, and he just had that as an individual."

However, Kock was not as complimentary of Mofokeng's shooting ability, which he described as "not at an elite level", but conceded that it had "improved significantly" since they first started working together.

Mofokeng, who left UFS in 2019 without graduating with a third certificate, this one in criminology and psychology, concurred with Kock's criticism. Like his former coach, he believes his best is yet to come.

He added: "I do feel like there's still a level to unlock to my game, because there are some things in the game that I haven't really done. On the offence, I'll be driving more than I'll be shooting, so me just shooting the ball has yet to unfold."

Mofokeng, the only player on the Tigers team to start playing the game so late, is hoping to use the BAL as a springboard to earning a contract in Europe: "Success will be to get a job -- and I mean a playing job, to go play in Europe.

"That would be the biggest success for me, as much as winning a BAL championship. I'd be happy about that, but playing in Europe would mean the world."

The Tigers will tip off their Nile Conference campaign against Angolan champs Petro de Luanda, who played at BAL 2021, and Mofokeng knows exactly what will be expected of him.

The Cape Town side are certainly underdogs in a conference that also contains the defending champions, and hosts, Zamalek.

Perhaps naively, Mofokeng is undaunted: "I'm excited to play against Zamalek. The first game as well [against Petro]. I know when my number is going to be called up -- when I need to go stop somebody who is giving my guys trouble.

"I'm ready for that. They don't know I'm coming. They don't know me yet."

Apart from defending champions Zamalek and Angolan giants Petro, the Tigers will be up against South Sudan's Cobra Sport, DR Congo's Espoir Fukash and Cameroon's Forces Armées et Police in the Nile Conference.

A top four place would assure the debutants' passage to the playoffs in Kigali, where Mofokeng will hope for another opportunity to impress potential European suitors.