A club that began as a grassroots crime prevention program has ended up a dominant force in the Melbourne Metropolitan Basketball League – and athletic organisations, academics and government are taking note. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Black Rhinos teams lift a community

The Black Rhinos basketball team stand on the edge of a basketball court with their awards, underneath national flags.
Members of the Black Rhinos basketball teams.
Credit: Ryan Rooney

It’s a Wednesday night and I’m in Melbourne’s south-east. Walking through the car park into the sports centre, I’m greeted by the sound of sneakers on courts and the dribbling and bouncing of basketballs. It’s the start of the Melbourne Metropolitan Basketball League (MMBL) and I’m here to watch two of the best teams in action: the Black Rhinos.

The National Basketball League is the top-tier Australian competition, followed by the semi-professional Melbourne Basketball League (MBL) and Big V in Victoria. The MMBL falls somewhere between the two latter leagues. “It’s sort of a bit of a quiet league,” explains head coach Ryan Rooney, “but within that there is a lot of Big V and quite a few MBL players who play in that league throughout the year.”

The Black Rhinos is a predominantly African–Australian club. Emmanuel Sadomba has been with them since 2018. “I got invited to play one season and since then I’ve been playing with Black Rhinos,” the 193-centimetre forward-guard says. “I started playing basketball in 2017 and through Rhinos I play bigger leagues like Big V.”

I take my seat in the stands as the game between Black Rhinos City and Black Rhinos Central begins. It’s not hard to see that the players are skilled, something of which Rooney is particularly proud. “We’ve won the MMBL title for the past four seasons in a row, and the last two seasons in a row the grand final has been competed between two Black Rhinos teams,” he says. “We’ve won the premiership and the runners-up titles.”

Rooney says that culturally responsive spaces are important in supporting players from African backgrounds – and that this isn’t always offered. “When you’re a young African player who is not just athletic but actually talented, and you can’t get a go at the club that you’re sitting at, you tend to decide to move and try out at another club. When you go to a new club, they’ll always play loyalty to the players that have been at the club longer, even though they might not be as good a player.”He says systemic racism within basketball also limits opportunities available for players from African backgrounds. “When that’s embedded within the system, you’ve got a lot of young African players who really struggle to get their opportunity that they do deserve based on their work ethic and talent that gets overlooked because of this discriminatory thinking.”

Rooney’s observations are backed up by a 2021 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission, which investigated claims of racism at a national level and found that pathways for progression were limited for players from First Nations backgrounds, as well as other racially diverse minority groups. “While the cultural diversity of the national teams is increasing, some participants noted that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander national players and national players from racial, ethnic and/or ethno-religious minority groups do not always receive the support necessary to thrive in the sport or to progress their careers at the national level beyond playing basketball,” it says.

Rooney says the Black Rhinos have been able to thrive because of inclusivity. “That gave us the kick up the arse with the direction we’re taking Black Rhinos in that we are looking at that high-performance pathway and making sure there’s a place for everyone to play.”

The Black Rhinos’ domination of the MMBL is even more remarkable because the club was initially created as a grassroots community crime prevention initiative, managed by Afri-Aus Care to support young African Australians living in and around the south-eastern suburbs of metropolitan Melbourne. Outside basketball training, the program provides counselling support services, legal aid, employment pathways and other services.

Selba-Gondoza Luka is the founder and chief executive of Afri-Aus Care. Born in Malawi, Gondoza Luka migrated to Australia as an adult and struggled to settle into her new country. A cartographer by training, she says she found it difficult to get work in her profession after arriving in Australia and was forced to take jobs as a cleaner. Along the way, her mental health deteriorated. She suffered a miscarriage and her marriage ended. Gondoza Luka went back to university and became a qualified clinician, working in hospitals across Victoria. “I was able to assess kids and, when taking their history, it was like my story: ‘Mum and dad fight. Then I left home. I started drinking. I’m not wanted at home.’ ”

She decided to set up the non-profitAfri-Aus Care with her own money. “One-and-a-half years, nobody paid me. I used to work in hospitals to pay the rent, and then go to jails, go to courts, and that was when some of the magistrates noticed my work and we became a charity.”

Black Rhinos is one of several support services administered through Afri-Aus Care. The program is primarily funded by the Victorian government through the Department of Justice and Community Safety. It has also received support from Victoria Police. I ask if Gondoza Luka is hesitant about the partnership, given the distrust young African Australians have of Victoria Police, because of well-documented and high-profile cases of racial profiling. “Not at all,” she says. “What I tell people is, ‘If police are chasing you, there are two things: you have done something wrong or you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time.’ ”

Last year, the University of Melbourne carried out an evaluation of the program to “assess and better understand how the program supports young African Australians at risk of offending or reoffending”. The report found that the program reduced recidivism and provided young African Australians with culturally responsive support services. It also gave them opportunities to reconnect with family, as well as improving their community contribution.

Frazer Bekele plays with the Rhinos and is also a coach and mentor. “I got involved by playing in 2018,” he says, “and after that I got more involved because I wanted to.” Bekele says he liked that the program had a wide reach within African–Australian communities, inspiring him to take on more responsibilities. “When you’re training and you’re coaching, you’re teaching as well. You’re teaching not in the traditional sense but through behaviour and through movement: dedication, consistency, and perseverance.”

Bekele attests to the positive impact the program has had. “When I wasn’t playing for a while, I was getting into some shit outside of basketball I shouldn’t have been. The consistency of basketball helped me to leave that behind,” he says. “A lot of people here, we see them when they’re more consistent playing basketball, the other stuff that happens outside basketball diminishes. Outside basketball, it’s the connection to services that people benefit from as well.”

Emmanuel Farajala agrees. “I used to drink with my friends all day … The program is a better way for me to spend my time. They helped me get out of court stuff, too. Selba helped me with support letters.”

Farajala says he was able to turn around his life as a result of the Rhinos. I share this with Gondoza Luka. “I want to cry,” she says. “Sometimes the parents cannot understand and that’s why the kids withdraw.”

The University of Melbourne’s report made a series of recommendations, which included an increase in funding to replicate and expand the program to other parts of the state. “The Black Rhinos basketball program should be adequately resourced and expanded to address the increasing community need for culturally responsive approaches to supporting young African Australians.”

Gondoza Luka agrees. “If they could invest more, this program could be replicated. Grants come and grants go, and now the boys are not funded but we can’t stop. I’ll keep on doing some other piece-work to support them.”

As the final buzzer sounds and City defeat Central (63 to 35), I notice that more Rhinos players have arrived to compete in the next match and are warming up on the sidelines. As I make my way out of the arena, Ryan Rooney tells me that Basketball Victoria has contacted the Rhinos to support the team’s growth. “Perhaps a sign of positive change to come?” he wonders.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Major league".

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