Former NBA players Ike Diogu and DJ Strawberry will need to use all their experience to help Basketball Africa League champions Zamalek in their title defense, which starts April 9 in Cairo.
The Nile Conference, the second leg of this year’s BAL, tips off at the Hassan Moustafa Sports Arena on Saturday, and heavy favorites Zamalek will be under pressure from a passionate home fanbase.
A top-four finish in the Conference, and thus a place in the playoffs in Rwanda in May, is almost certain. But Strawberry, formerly of the Phoenix Suns, knows that winning the overall title in Kigali is what Egyptians expect.
Strawberry told ESPN: « Everybody expects us to win it again. When you win a tournament one time and you come back as defending champions, then people expect you to win again.
« They don’t know how hard it is to win a championship… You never know what’s going to happen — we could have injuries; we could have bad games.
« Now, teams are going to be coming after us because we’re the defending champs, so there need to be no surprises.
« Everything is going to have to go our way, but we are also going to have to be prepared physically and mentally. It’s going to be a challenge and we’re up for it. »
A strong core of local players, led by last year’s defensive MVP and former Toronto Raptors Summer League player Anas Mahmoud, will be complemented by Diogu, Strawberry, Edgar Sosa and Mikh McKinney.
And Zamalek will be at a slight advantage compared to the other teams, after they competed at the FIBA Intercontinental Cup on home soil in February, so have had a good deal more time together compared to most BAL teams.
Strawberry added: « I really think [that Zamalek are better prepared than rival BAL teams]. We had that extra time in the ICC and after that to prepare for where we are now.
« Hopefully, we can put on a better performance. I think we’re a better team than we were then just because of more time spent together. »
Coach Will Voigt, however, told ESPN that he wished he’d had more time with the players to prepare. He said he’d be relying on players like Nigeria’s Diogu and Strawberry, who plays internationally for Cameroon, to lead the charge.
Voigt, who started his career as an assistant coach with UT Austin and Metro State, said: « As a coach, you always wish you had more time. Thankfully, I’ve coached Ike before with the Nigeria national team, so there’s some familiarity there.
« I tried to bring in veteran players who understand Africa… DJ is another guy like that. But I wish I’d had two more weeks. »
The ‘better performance’ Strawberry referenced was about the fact that the White Knights did not do well at the ICC, as they went down 78-61 to CD San Pablo de Burgos and 113-78 to Lakeland Magic.
Coach Voigt was seen on camera giving his players a tongue-lashing at the end of the first quarter of the Lakeland game, the tournament’s third-place playoff.
Diogu, who played in the NBA for seven years after being picked 9th overall in the 2005 Draft, told ESPN: « One thing about Coach Voigt is that he just asks you to play hard at all times.
« He’s ok with mistakes but he’s not ok with not playing hard and we just weren’t playing hard, so we definitely picked up the intensity. »
Strawberry, son of MLB legend Darryl Strawberry, conceded that Zamalek deserved Voigt’s dressing-down but added that the team improved thereafter.
He added: « At that point, we had only been together for a week. If you only know each other for a week, what product can you put on the floor?
« It reflected where we were. It reflected the effort that we were giving. It wasn’t about the talent level, it was just about the effort and not competing. »
The talent level is certainly high for this team, with a strong core of Egyptian players, and Voigt emphasized that it would not be down to the big name ‘imports’ to get the job done, or get all the recognition.
Voigt, said: « There’s a core group of guys who won the championship last year, and Anas was the defensive player of that tournament. It’s going to be done as a team, and we need everybody to contribute. »