Thabo Sefolosha | Coming to America
By Anne E. Stein | Posted September 14, 2006
It’s tough being a kid with NBA dreams, let alone one from Switzerland.
As in most of Europe, soccer rules the Swiss landscape and is considered one of that nation’s pet obsessions. Befitting the most mountainous country in Europe, skiing is also right up there, along with ice hockey, snow boarding and hiking. But basketball? Sorry, buddy, you’ve got the wrong country.
Sefolosha’s excellent all around play at the Orlando Summer League impressed not only Chicago’s coaching staff, but many league executives who predict that he’s going to make a positive impact on the Bulls right from the start.
(Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images)
So what do you think happened when a 16-year-old Swiss high school student told a school counselor that one day he planned to be a professional basketball player and, yes, eventually move to America and play in the NBA?
“The guy laughed,” reports Christine Sefolosha, mother of Bulls first round pick Thabo Sefolosha. “He said, ‘I’m coming back to talk to you in three days, so think about what you seriously want to do.’”
Thabo (pronounced TA-boh), of course, was serious, and this year the 6’7”, 215-pound guard from Montreux, Switzerland, will become the first Swiss native to ever play in the NBA.
For Sefolosha, being drafted No. 13 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers and then traded to the Chicago Bulls (for the rights to the 16th overall pick, Rodney Carney, and cash considerations) was in fact a dream come true.
“I was certainly surprised [at the Draft] when someone came up and said that I was the next to be picked,” Sefolosha says in a charming French-Swiss accent. “I thought maybe he had made a mistake or something. But a few minutes later he came back and told me that not only was I going to be picked, but that I was going to be traded to Chicago, which really got me excited.”
Bulls Head Coach Scott Skiles cites Sefolosha’s vast wingspan and imposing quickness, along with his past pro experience, as key reasons why the Bulls are so high on the talented 22-year-old swingman.
“Thabo’s got great physical gifts that, frankly, a lot of guys in the league just don’t have. He’s got tremendous length and has really quick hands,” says Skiles. “He grabs your attention whenever you watch him play. It’s easy to see that he knows what he’s doing out there. You can tell he likes to play defense, too. He’s eager to get after it.”
Bulls GM John Paxson first saw Sefolosha play last winter in Italy, on the recommendation of Chicago’s chief European scout, Ivica Dukan.
“Ivica always raved about the guy. He kept telling us how much Thabo had improved in such a short period of time, and that in his opinion he was someone who could really help us.
“For a long time we had been looking for a bigger guard who could complement both Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon—someone who could defensively shut down guards with size when Kirk was on the floor, and someone who could also initiate offense when paired with Ben,” explains Paxson. “So Thabo sounded like a really good fit.”
Sefolosha is used to fitting in wherever he goes, and he’s been all over the world, visiting 20 different countries, living in five and speaking three languages (Italian, French and English). His mother, who is Swiss, headed to South Africa at age 20 in search of adventure. There, she met Patrick Sefolosha, a prominent musician, who was one of nine children raised in a Pretoria township. The two were married during the time of apartheid, when blacks were often mistreated and abused by the predominantly white minority South African government. It was also a time and place when a mixed-race couple (Christine is white; Patrick, black) weren’t allowed to be seen together in public. Several times, Patrick was arrested or roughed up “just because they were together walking down the street. Back in the day, that’s just how it was in South Africa,” says Thabo.
Top: Mother and son—competitors through and through. Middle: Thabo (on defense) and big brother Kgomotso Sefolosha loved to challenge each other to games of one-on-one while growing up in Switzerland. Bottom: Although Christine Sefolosha is acknowledged as the chief artist of the family, Thabo, at age 9, thought he’d test his own creative skills by sketching a self-portrait, which amazingly foretold his future as a Chicago Bull.
Before Thabo’s older brother was born, the couple moved to Switzerland, where they hoped that they and their children would no longer be harassed. Kgomotso, Thabo’s big brother, was born soon after the move, and 13 months later, on May 2, 1984, Thabo came along.
Like other Swiss kids, Kgomotso and Thabo played soccer, but one day, when Thabo was nine, a neighbor invited them to play basketball at a local club. “Immediately, they knew that basketball was the game for them,” recounts Christine. That same year, Thabo cut out a photo of his head and placed it on a drawing of his body dressed in an NBA uniform. In a foreshadowing of what was to come, he painted the shorts red, with the Bulls logo on each side.
“I’ve always told Thabo that it is important to find a passion in life,” Christine says. “I’m an artist (some of her work is currently on display in galleries in France and Switzerland, as well as in Chicago at the Judy Saslow Gallery), and his stepdad is one, too. And, his dad’s a musician. Basketball wasn’t very common where we lived, but, as you can see, it definitely became Thabo’s passion.”
Christine and Patrick Sefolosha have always encouraged their kids to reach for their dreams, and so it isn’t surprising that the brothers never stopped pursuing their love for basketball (last season, Kgomotso played professionally in France).
Eventually, Swiss coaches noticed that Thabo, who was tall for his age, was something special out on the court. At 16, he was invited to join the junior Swiss National Team, and at 17 he began a pro career with Tege Riviera Basket, in Switzerland’s top domestic league. On a team trip to France, Thabo was spotted by a French talent scout, who offered him an opportunity to further his roundball resume by signing with Chalon-Sur-Saone, a team that played in the premier pro league in France.
Though initially his family was reluctant to see him leave home, they also understood that a golden opportunity was at hand for Thabo to follow his dream and experience new things. “Switzerland is a small country, and the basketball opportunities there are rather limited; so, when the chance to play in France came along, I thought it was a good idea to give it a try,” says Thabo. “It wasn’t really that hard for me to leave because I was only going to be a little over three hours away from home; plus, I was going to play with a lot of other young guys who were doing the exact same thing.”
Sefolosha spent most of his first year in France playing with the junior under-21 squad, which traveled alongside the senior club. The following year (2002-03) proved much kinder to the 19-year old, as Sefolosha’s hard work paid off by earning him a regular rotation spot on the big club, where he played 30 games and averaged a modest four points, 3.5 rebounds and one assist per game.
The following season was when Thabo began really turning heads, as he became a full-time starter on the senior squad and helped lead his team to a surprising third- place finish in the French League and a trip to the semi-finals of the playoffs. That third year, he played in 42 games, and averaged 9.4 points, 7 boards and 1 steal in 30.7 minutes a game.
A dispute arose between Sefolosha and his French team before the start of his fourth campaign that eventually was settled in court and landed him in Italy with a team based outside of Milan. Sefolosha quickly became an important cog on his new squad. He was asked to guard opponents’ best perimeter player, handle the ball at times, crash the boards at both ends of the floor and create shots for both himself and his teammates. He essentially became known as a jack of all trades, and his mission was to wreak havoc on the floor with his long arms and smooth athleticism. In 21 games, he averaged 12 points, 6.4 rebounds and shot .500 from the field. It’s also where he learned Italian—his third language.
Standing a legitimate 6-foot-7, Sefolosha is by far the tallest of the Bulls guards.
(Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images)
Thabo’s family has always been a close-knit group. Growing up, he and his brother had the same friends and seemed to always play on the same teams. However, hailing from a bi-racial mix often required the family to overcome unique challenges, even in such a relaxed social environment as Switzerland. Sadly, before Thabo and his brother hit their teens, Christine and Patrick divorced. But the members of the family say the split, instead of being devastating, actually brought them closer together. And Thabo thinks of his parents, though they are separated, as the biggest influences in his life.
“Of course, my family—especially my mom and dad—are big influences,” he says, when asked whom he goes to for advice. “They help me keep my head on my shoulders and do what’s right. They’ve always encouraged me to be humble and respectful of others. We talk a lot, and their advice has really helped me keep my feet on the ground.”
Speaking of ground, until he arrived in New York for June’s NBA Draft, Thabo says he hadn’t ever set foot in America. And, not one to pass up a great opportunity—especially for those most important to him—he brought along his mother, father, stepfather (Stephane), brother and girlfriend (Bertille, whom Thabo met three years ago while he was playing in France) to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Big Apple.
“Since I’d spent so much time away from home playing in Italy and France,” he says of his family, “I thought it would be great for all of us to spend a couple of special days together in New York.”
“It was like a dream,” expresses Christine of her Gotham City experience. “It was really amazing to watch his dream come true.”
The book on Thabo Sefolosha, who for the most part flew under the NBA radar up until this past season, says he plays the game with passion and poise. One European scout tags him a hybrid of sorts, in that he’s fundamentally strong, with a great feel for the game, as most European players in the NBA are today, yet he also possesses the explosiveness usually found in American prospects. He is labeled smooth, but not an amazing athlete. However, it is said that he is very capable of blowing by his man with a blazing first step and is able to get off the ground and finish drives to the basket with flair, as well as block shots on the defensive end. His defensive prowess is actually how he’s made bones in the basketball world, where he always plays with aggression and toughness. He seems to have a great understanding of how to defend spaces, and has enough quickness and coordination to be a lock-down force.
“He certainly is an interesting player,” says Paxson. “You always like guys who can handle the ball, but can also play at a high level at the other end of the floor.”
After all the NBA’s summer leagues wrapped up in July, ESPN asked several NBA talent scouts and executives to rank the new players they’d seen, and, not surprisingly, Sefolosha scored very high.
“He excelled at just about everything,” reported one of the professionals. “Thabo Sefolosha showed that he’s going to be able to step in right away and contribute to the Bulls.”
Someone Sefolosha says he is especially looking forward to stepping up and meeting in his first NBA season is Los Angeles Lakers great, Kobe Bryant. “[Going up against Kobe] will be challenging, but I always love a challenge,” he says with a smile. “In the NBA, there are great players on every team, so it’ll be exciting to go up against all those guys, too. But Kobe is someone I’ve watched a lot. I think it’ll be special to go up against him.
“When you’re on the basketball court, everybody’s the same. Everybody’s got two legs, two arms—you just go at each other. So I don’t think I’ll be intimidated or anything, but I know I’ll be keyed up.”
Besides looking forward to matching up and hopefully shutting down Kobe Bryant, what else does Sefolosha believe he’ll bring to his new team?
“I’m going to do whatever I’m asked to do,” he says with a nod. “I’m willing to do whatever is necessary in order for us to win.”
He’s not a kid anymore—excited about having a chance to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA, Sefolosha says he’s ready to rise to the occasion.
It’s that sort of eagerness that has many believing that Sefolosha is truly a perfect fit for the hard-charging Chicago Bulls. Quite possibly, he was destined to land in the Windy City, where many wear their emotions on their sleeves, as last year he opted to place a unique tattoo on one of his arms that simply states, “The game chose me.”
“I don’t believe I really chose to play basketball,” Thabo says philosophically while looking down at his distinctive body art. “I simply ended up playing the game after it chose me.
“Neither of my parents played basketball or are very athletic. So I can’t explain how I got my [basketball] talent. I guess I discovered it on my own after I fell in love with the game as a kid.
“My mama told me that the most important thing in life is to find something you love, and then give it everything you’ve got. I’ve found that with basketball. So I guess you can say that my parents—especially my mother—gave me the passion that I play with.”
Thabo has one other tattoo that says, “God guides my steps,” which he also got last season. “Those are two things that are very important in my life: basketball and God,” he adds.
Whether it was a case of destiny, fate or simply good fortune, Thabo Sefolosha understands that he’s about to begin living his dream.
“Coming from a place like Switzerland, you really can’t imagine yourself ever being here,” he says. “As a kid, you play [the game] outside with your friends, and you might say ‘I’m Michael Jordan,’ but you never really believe that someday you’re going to actually be a part of something like this. But, now that I’m here on this court,” he says, looking up at the six Bulls Championship banners hanging from the Berto Center walls, “it’s special, something really special.”