Cape Town Tigers' Samkelo Cele recalls 'surreal' call from Knicks for NBA Summer League

Stephen A. reluctantly agrees with Draymond's Knicks take (0:56)

Stephen A. Smith begrudgingly agrees with Draymond Green's assertion that the Knicks won't make the Finals in the next three seasons. (0:56)

South African guard and small forward Samkelo Cele will spend the NBA Summer League with the New York Knicks, off the back of his Basketball Africa League (BAL) First Team selection.

Cele - who played college basketball at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Southern College, Marist and the University of Science & Arts OK Drovers and was a third team NAIA All-American - brings to an end a lengthy period of frustration.

There were talks with teams abroad over the last two years, but nothing concrete until the Knicks called him up in late June.

Cele told ESPN of the moment he learned of the Knicks' interest: "I had just got back from a workout. I got the call saying that I had been invited to the Summer League by the Knicks. It was surreal.

"I couldn't believe it, even though it was something I had wanted and hoped for because opportunities have been spoken about since last year's BAL."

Cele had performed admirably in the 2023 BAL, earning the respect of Dwyane Wade, who offered him words of encouragement while his son Zaire was on the team, as well as former Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Rasheed Hazzard, who was the Tigers head coach that year.

"I love that kid and I told him when I first saw him play that he will be a star if he puts in the work," Hazzard told ESPN.

At the conclusion of the 2023 campaign, which saw the Tigers eliminated against Stade Malien in the quarter-finals, a potential Summer League stint with the Chicago Bulls fell through for Cele. However, his defining moment as a Tigers player was yet to come.

The Tigers had been eliminated in the quarter-finals of the previous two seasons and it appeared until deep in the fourth quarter against Rabat that the outcome would be more of the same this year.

With 6.2 seconds on the clock and the Tigers three points down with the length of the court separating them from the basket, they were staring defeat in the face.

Nathi Sibanyoni picked out Cele, who sliced through the Rabat players and hit a stunning three-pointer on the jump with only a second to spare, sending the crowd out of their seats and the game into overtime.

There, the Tigers rallied together with a show of grit and spirit that has come to define a sporting nation - particularly over the past year as South Africa made their first ever FIFA Women's World Cup knockout stage, won their fourth Rugby World Cup, and made their first Africa Cup of Nations semi-final since 2000.

Rabat - the top seed who had beaten the Tigers twice on home soil - were easily the better team on paper but had no answer for Sibanyoni, who set a BAL record with 25 rebounds, or the silky skills of Cele.

South Africa is not a nation typically known for basketball, but the signs are there that the sport is picking up steam. Sibanyoni, now at Burundi's Urunani BBC, recently struck a deal with Puma along with former Tigers captain Lebesa Selepe, now at competitors MBB, while Cele is represented by Roc Nation, who also represent Rugby World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi.

Cele will be one of two South Africans at NBA Summer League this year, with the other being the Atlanta Hawks' Nick Ongenda. However, Cele's journey is unique because he lived in Durban until his late teens, while Ongenda spent much of his childhood in Canada.

The BAL and the Cape Town Tigers have faced criticism over the prominent roles played by Americans in the team, but in Cele and Sibanyoni, the Tigers have countered the critics with two bona fide South African BAL stars.

Speaking on the more prominent role that he and Sibanyoni have taken in the team, Cele told ESPN: "I think we showed that even when I first came, because we still had Americans, but at the same time, we had me and Nathi as well.

"Now, we've grown into bigger roles where the Americans enhance what we already have, which is Nathi and myself. I think we're drawing inspiration from the other teams that we see over here, because the likes of Petro, Al Ahly, the imports always enhance what is already at home.

"I think for us to turn it around and now have the nationals as the forefront of the organization is a great look for the organization and an even greater look for the country and basketball within itself."

The Knicks will begin their Summer League campaign in Las Vegas against the Charlotte Hornets on July 13 at 5pm ET before going on to play the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons over the next six days.