Born in South Sudan before fleeing the civil war as a six-year-old, Mayor Chagai discovered basketball while growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Using the sport to find a sense of community and confidence from his early years, hoops naturally became an integral part of settling in Australia after arriving in 2006.
Connecting with a group of similarly aged Sudanese men in his new home of Blacktown, New South Wales, the challenge of finding a team and venue to train and play was significant.
“Some guys had been here for a few years before me, but it was still a struggle to find out how to be on a team and train,” Chagai recalled. “I was told to go to PCYC Blacktown, where is where I first found an indoor court, that’s how I got involved in basketball in Australia.”
While Chagai and his friends would turn to basketball during their free-time, significant challenges in the community continued to fuel tensions in the area.
“In 2007 there was a lot of issues in Blacktown. There was a lot rivalry between groups and different backgrounds, so it was very hard. There was always tension and people hanging out in groups,” Chagai said.
“Myself, I came here with nobody, I was more scared of myself. If I didn’t have a social group that is out of trouble and off the streets, then that was it. I see many other young people in the same situation so I asked my friends how we can help.”
Working with the migrant resource centre and local police, Chagai was able to organise training sessions for his friends on Tuesday and Thursday nights at PCYC.
While the initial progress was a major steppingstone, he realised that many other youths in the area could benefit from the same opportunity.
“I see all these kids that come after school and they have nowhere to go. I decided we needed to give one session to the kids. We started with only six kids, but that’s how Savanna Pride began. We just wanted to solve a problem and to stay out of trouble.”
“Slowly, we started learning how to coach and play and taking on the tough responsibility of dealing with the kids and selling them on the love of basketball and how it can keep them out of trouble. We tried to form friendships and encourage and push for a connection because that was the biggest problem.”
From those humble beginnings, Savannah Pride was born, transforming into a multicultural club inclusive of all backgrounds, growing to currently hold over 250 active members and recently expanding to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.
Producing over 30 athletes who have accepted scholarships at programs at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence and the United States, the focus is divided between development on the court and in the classroom.
“We came up with the idea of ‘no school, no play’. If you aren’t going to school, you can’t come and play.”
“Myself as a coach, I take the philosophy that you have to become a better student first to become a better athlete. The one thing I teach to the kids is the education component and that’s how Savannah Pride is known in the community. That’s the number one rule we enforce and encourage and support.”
From first picking up a ball in Kenya to becoming a community leader in Australia, Chagai’s story is an inspiring reminder of the positive impact sport can have in developing a path for children to follow throughout life.
“Once you learn some skills in basketball you can be very proud of yourself. You can start thinking about your dreams,” Chagai explains. “I started realising that if we can use basketball here in Australia we can be accepted by the locals and people around us.”
“When I was in Kenya I wanted to play at a higher level and I didn’t have the chance, so when I came here, I thought maybe that dream that I had I could pass it on to some other people.
“Basketball, like any sport, if you love it, you will be thinking about it every day and you will want to do anything you can to make yourself feel happy and proud. You can make a lot of friends, good friends, regardless of you background with basketball.”
Savannah Pride continues to evolve and strengthen through the continuing support of the community, notably PCYC, Basketball NSW, Sydney Kings, and Basketball Australia.
Written by Kane Pitman, freelance contributor for Basketball Australia
Images courtesy of the Savannah Pride