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Cape Town Tigers coach Vincent Ntunja shook Michael Jordan's hand, then went back home

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Vincent Ntunja hopes Jordan will attend BAL (2:08)

Cape Town Tigers coach Vincent Ntunja hopes Michael Jordan will see his side play at the Basketball Africa League. (2:08)

Some would say that Vincent Ntunja walked away from a potential NBA career, but the people of Gugulethu in Cape Town, where he has become a basketball and philanthropic icon, would say he walked towards them.

When Ntunja was in high school, dreaming of the bright arena lights of the USA, he won the MVP award at Michael Jordan Flight School, presented to him by the man himself, but then he turned his back on it all.

Ntunja, now a coach with Cape Town Tigers, won that MVP award in 1998, after being selected to attend the Chicago Bulls legend's camp off the back of an impressive performance at the World Youth Games in Russia. US college scholarship offers swiftly rolled in.

But while at Flight School, his trajectory drastically changed. Instead of researching colleges and keeping his eye on the NBA, the teenager opted to return to Cape Town, where his mother was very ill, in order to look after her.

READ: Everything you need to know about the BAL

After losing his father, who was a soccer player, as a child, Ntunja could not bear to leave his only parent alone in her struggle while he chased stardom.

The former South Africa international player told ESPN: "I lost my father at an early age. He was one of the most gifted left-footers around and played for a local [football] team, Cape Town Pirates.

"On his way back from visiting a friend from another section in Gugulethu, he was stabbed by a fan of a rival team.

"When I was in the US, I was told my mother had serious migraines. The thought of losing the only parent I had overwhelmed me, so I promised myself that I would make something of myself in South Africa.

"I then made a decision to decline the offers [to college] so I could be beside her. My mother single-handedly made me the man that I am, so I owed her that much."

His mom is still living in the township of Gugulethu more than 20 years later, having watched her son become a Basketball Africa League coach, fashion model, radio presenter, business owner, and the man who had a basketball court named after him before he turned 25.

The Michael Jordan chapter

Of course, the percentage of kids who attend Flight School, or any such camp, that actually make it to the NBA, or any professional league, is low. And the number of South Africans in the NBA over the years is even lower. Steve Nash and Thabo Sefolosha jump to mind, but that's about it.

But Ntunja had started playing for the senior national team as a teen, while also playing in the youth national sides, which was how he ended up facing the USA at the inaugural World Youth Games, and impressing the folks who make Flight School decisions.

He said: "We were properly baptised by the USA, whose boys were so big, but I remember that the coach of the US national side came over to speak to our coach. He said, 'We beat you guys by so many points, but you never stopped playing to the last whistle. You kept balling; you kept coming, you're not giving up'.

"We know that Americans are way better than South Africans at basketball, but what I can safely say is that heart... that you can't buy anywhere. Continuously, you are beating me, but I am resilient. I'm coming at you. There's no shop that sells that."

The aftermath saw him get the chance to shine in front of MJ: "Three or four days later, I got the knock from the two coaches, who came into my house because of my performance at the World Youth Games.

"Because I've always represented that professionalism that they [could] see even during that time, I'd been one of the players selected to attend the Michael Jordan camp."

While he found the camp exciting, he says he was never starstruck by Jordan or anyone else he came across, and rather looked to learn whatever he could from them. Those lessons stood him, and the kids he's coached, in good stead over the next two decades.

The 40-year-old added: "I was never the one who focused more on the next person, other than trying to fulfil my part. I was never like, 'Oh, wow. This is Michael Jordan.' Even then, I embraced the moment. 'I'm supposed to be there. I belong there. This is where I should be.'

"I wasn't starstruck. He's big; he's a national icon in the US and all that, but I don't look at it in that way. I looked at him as someone who I was just going to learn from -- grasp that and take it home with me [rather than] looking at it in so much awe.

"[But] Michael Jordan is a GOAT. One thing that stood out is the passion he had for putting effort into [his] craft. I admired his work ethic, tenacity and the drive to beat the odds."

And so the brief, flirtatious American chapter of his life came to a close as he returned home to his mom, and the rest of his story is intimately South African.

Just a guy from Gugs

Ntunja, who has a degree in tourism, is synonymous with 'Gugs', one of the poorest areas of Cape Town, and he still lives there today, running a business that takes tourists around the area on foot.

"I call it 'Gugs Run/Sightseeing on foot'. It's tourism on the run, or tourism on foot, because what happens is you just get people from different walks of life who have never experienced Gugs and say, 'Yo, we'll meet at a specific space.' Then, we do a running tour to every significant place in Gugulethu," Ntunja explained.

"I'll tell you a story of what places mean, like your Gugulethu Seven memorial [for seven anti-apartheid protesters killed by police], the Amy Biehl Foundation story, which is a very big story in South African history.

"So, I give you all that and even include myself in that story, because I believe that as someone who grew up in Gugulethu, understanding the dynamics of how the township works on a daily basis is important.

"One day, you're sitting in a five or six-star hotel somewhere around the world, and the next you're diving and dodging bullets in the townships and continuously living your lifestyle with no fear or favour.

"That's what makes my journey so exciting. Every day is a different day. I can't plan that today is going to be like this or that. There's always something challenging that's happening; there's always fun that's happening."

Because of his local influence, Cape Town Tigers, who will play in the BAL playoffs in Rwanda late May, use Gugs as their base in order to bring basketball to the local community.

They often practice at a court named after Ntunja, an honour bestowed upon him while he was still at university in 2009, and it is currently being renovated and the surface replaced after years of wear and tear.

How it came to be named after him, and what he uses it for, is another typically heartwarming Vince story.

Ntunja related: "I remember sitting and worrying about completing my master's thesis. One of the ladies working for Hoops 4 Hope came to fetch me at the [dorm] here in town and said: 'Vince, we need to get you to town. We have a surprise for you.' I've always helped them with coaching clinics.

"She comes to fetch me; we drive to Gugs. We get there and there's over 300 [or] 400 schoolkids all over the place. There's media. There's local leadership, you know. I honestly didn't understand what was happening. I was called by the media [and asked] how did I feel. I was shocked... 'How do I feel about what? I just got here. I don't understand'.

"Then one of the directors, Thierry Kita, who works now for NBA Africa and was also my coach then, called me and said, 'Yo, Vince. Hoops 4 Hope believes that for the work that you've been doing for the community, just for the work that you've achieved for a young ordinary citizen from Gugs, we've decided now to present you with this basketball court.'

"Like, wow. I was still celebrating meeting Michael Jordan, still celebrating travelling the world for that matter because these things were still new and fresh. Now, here I am being presented with a basketball court."

Even at that young age, Ntunja understood that the court was about more than his name on it, that it represented a way to connected to kids in the area, to give the community a place to learn and grow, and he has done that ever since.

He added: "I felt the honour being bestowed upon [my] shoulders, but immediately, a light clicked in me that this is not for [me] just to say, 'Yo, do you know who I am? I have a basketball court. I am the only one in South Africa that has this.'

"It means that you are bestowed now with another responsibility, to make sure that this is not a white elephant. It's not a space where it's just looking nice and pretty, but there are no kids there.

"It's work for you. It's continuous work that this place must always be full with kids that are looking beyond trying to survive on a daily basis on the dusty street. But rather, how they can use the sport to emancipate themselves, and how they can get opportunities to study abroad, get opportunities to do so many things for themselves, just using basketball as a vehicle.

"That's how I looked at it and I still feel it's one of my best honours, because that's what I live for -- to leave a lasting legacy, to make sure that even when I'm not there, the work still continues, and that's what motivates me to wake up on a daily basis."

Next stop: Kigali

Having qualified for the BAL playoffs in Kigali, taking place from May 21-28, Ntunja is balancing his work in the community with preparing for the Tigers' quarter-final against Tunisian giants US Monastir.

The Tigers' South African players in particular view Ntunja as a mentor beyond the basketball court.

Lebesa Selepe told ESPN that Ntunja went out of his way to take him under his wing in the South African team: "He was such a cool guy, didn't make me feel like a rookie at all. We spent a lot of time chatting through what the best way for me to approach the game would be.

"At the time, 2011, I was brought into the National Team as a point guard, which was his position. It's really poetic that 11 years later, we get to work together again as player-coach."

Like his relationship with Selepe, Ntunja hopes that the bond he briefly shared with Michael Jordan will also come full circle through the BAL, whose jerseys are sponsored by the Jordan Brand.

Ntunja added: "I'm a great believer of the spirit and the universe [are] aligning. What are the chances... here's a kid from Gugs who grew up here, survived A, B and C, went to win a Michael Jordan trophy. Here he is now; he's a coach in a Jordan Brand-sponsored event that's probably one of the biggest on the African continent.

"I don't know what [a potential reunion with Jordan] entails, but I can safely say it's not far-fetched, because Jordan can come to the games [and] say, 'Guys, I heard about this league. It's the most talked about in Africa and my brand is associated with it.'

"We saw [BAL ambassador Dikembe] Mutombo last time. I'm sure they're probably in the same WhatsApp group with Jordan, they're chatting. I don't know, but it's not far-fetched. It's not really something that is unimaginable."

The Kigali leg of the BAL will see the top eight sides compete in a knock-out Playoff round, culminating in a final on May 28. Zamalek are the defending champions, and will face SLAC of Guinea in the quarterfinals.