BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Joel Ufele is hoping to be the next big basketball star from the UK – after gaining a full athletic scholarship in Norfolk, USA.
The 21-year-old, born and raised in Kennington, developed his talent at the Black Prince Trust in Lambeth.
And power forward Ufele, who is 6-foot 9-inches tall, wants his story to inspire more South London youngsters and keep them away from the numerous pitfalls of life on the streets.
He has already completed a year at a junior college in the US before being offered a full scholarship by Northeast Community College where he will play for their men’s team – called the Hawks.
Ufele was a regular at The Regal Basketball Hall. Former England and GB international Junior Williams holds free clinics, events and training sessions for schools, clubs and the community.
“Before I left England I was playing for Kennington Generals and Preston’s College,” said Ufele. “That all stemmed from the Regal courts and training with Junior, having that ability to go somewhere that is open every day.
“The staff are there with open arms. If not for that place, and with everything that has gone on in my life, I would have been a stray. It took up most of my time. I wouldn’t have got an education, scholarship and be on the path I am on right now.
“I live in walking distance of it. It’s been there for kids to do anything other than be on the street.
“I understand I could have gone along the wrong path. I’m organising an event where the community can come down and showcase their talent. That will all be in the Regal.
“What I’ve realised is that you don’t have to be famous to help. Before I thought you had to be someone – but I’m taking that bold step to make something happen now.”
Ufele has been brought up just by his mum since his father Victor passed away when he was 15.
There was to be further tragedy to follow – his brother Joshua died after collapsing while playing football at school.
“You tend to try and push peoples’ buttons after something like that – you use it as an excuse. I used to go to school and misbehave, stuff like that.
“My mum was struggling to keep me on the right path. Then the Regal came about and I used to play there all the time.
“My brother died and I thought: ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ Junior used to speak to me and say: ‘Joel, you can make it at basketball if you want to – put your head down and go get it’. That, with the help of parents and family, is the only thing that kept me on the right path.
“If there hadn’t been somewhere for me to exhaust my energy or forget about everything that is going on in my life – there are a lot of people who use that kind of thing as an excuse to do crazy, crazy stuff.
“You can’t blame them for that. They didn’t have guidance. I thankfully did. I had people saying: ‘Keep working – something will come of it’. I’m not even done yet, I want to push for even greater and higher heights.”
There has been a surge in violent crime in London this year, with the capital’s murder rate rising and looking set to far outstrip 2017 figures.
Ufele said: “I’ve grown up almost at the heart of it, I just haven’t been involved. But I have been able to see it so clearly. If I look outside the window I can see that kind of stuff.
“There are not enough people who are willing to take that bold step. I understand this violence is going to be hard to tackle, and it will be a long ride, but it’s about the little steps that people take to change it.
“I had a sit down with my friendship group, I’ve got a group of 10 strong friends, and I said: ‘It’s either we look at everything and talk about it every day – or we try and take a step towards changing stuff’. That’s the only reason we’re trying to do this event, to get people as a collective in one place having fun, smiling, music – emphasising the fact that although we’re in different boroughs and postcodes, we are all one as human beings.
“Once people feel within their community they can talk to each other, that’s the only way that things within other communities can stop. Because if they are not one in the community, then how do you expect different postcodes to agree with one another?
“I just feel like as people who see the problems that rather than protesting on Twitter and Instagram – why not take the first step? That’s what myself and my friends are trying to do.”
Ufele is set to spend between two to three years at university in the States.
“Your stats determine what type of team you go to,” he said. “I’ve had offers to turn professional already, but the reason I haven’t done that is I do want to finish education.
“One thing my family say to me is that you could break your leg tomorrow and it all be over. Once you have an education to fall back on then you can do anything.
“After you finish that, most of the agents will talk to you and see what you want to do.”
Ufele lists Cleveland Cavaliers’ Lebron James and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook as role models. The former’s net worth has been pegged as high as $400million.
“It is the passion they have in the game,” said Ufele. “Although they have loads of money, they still go out on that court and give it their best. I can really appreciate that.
“To be earning millions and millions but still work hard when people aren’t always watching, that’s just amazing.”
Luol Deng, granted political asylum after his family fled war-torn Sudan, settled in Brixton. He has gone on to have a glittering career in the NBA and currently turns out for the Los Angeles Lakers.
“He shows nothing is impossible,” said Ufele. “Someone just down the road from me has gone to those lengths when you put your heart and mind into something.”