Interview: South African Basketball Star Lenny Mogoba

For the latest installment of Obey You Collective: South Africa, FADER talks to basketball star and doctor-in-the-making Lenny Mogoba.

Photographer Adriaan Louw
February 25, 2014
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    Can Lenny have it all?

    Presented by Sprite and FADER, Obey You Collective: South Africa is a series devoted to showcasing artists, trail-blazers, and bright young talents from South Africa. For this installment, we spoke with star athlete and doctor-in-training, Lenny Mogoba.

    Lenny Mogoba has never been a slacker. At 17, she was the president of her high school's student council and an award-winning leader on the basketball court. Now 23, she's training to be a doctor at one of South Africa's most rigorous universities, where she's also a defensive center on the school's varsity team. But even with an absurdly hectic schedule, Mogoba's bright disposition remains unaffected. "I’m a very silly person,” she says over Skype from the University of the Witwatersrand's Medical School, a short drive from the main campus in the trendy Braamfontein neighborhood of Johannesburg. "I like teasing people," she adds, laughing like a kid who's eaten too much candy. Below, the six-foot-tall wunderkind tells me about growing up in "the hood," loving gospel music, and why playing sports is more fun if you don't expect anything in return.

    What’s Witwatersrand, or Wits, like? It’s all about academics. As an athlete, you have to prioritize and be very serious, because they don’t appreciate sports and other things that much. It’s very challenging because of my lifestyle — I’m very busy — but it taught me to prioritize. [Wits] has culture and you meet very nice people, but you have to work your butt off. Braamfontein is very populated, and it’s mostly filled up by young people. People go there to work and people go there for school. It also has some chill spots, but it’s a very busy place. I appreciate that because I think I’m that kind of person; I like working hard.

    Is it very different from where you grew up? Very different. This is like town. High buildings, traffic, cars driving all around—the whole business. We have that where I come from, too, but it’s a township in Victoria; it’s like the hood. There are sections that are really, really bad, where people are still sharing rooms and they don’t have tar roads. But they’re are really proper places as well. I was telling one of my friends yesterday how I miss playing basketball at home. People have a whole lot of team spirit [there] that is really motivating. They play without expecting anything — just to give their all and enjoy the game. Playing at Wits, people kind of expect basketball to give them something in return. At home we had to buy our own balls, we had to make it happen ourselves.

    And you played with exclusively boys when you first started? Yes — old men. Well maybe not that old, but waaaay older than I was; I was only 14. I was coming from a community marathon, and this tall man came to me like, “Hey, you’re really athletic, you’re young and you’re tall, we think you’d make a good basketball player.” I was like, “No man, I’ve never played that.” But they were so enthusiastic, so I went to tell my mom, and she was like, “Just go try it out.” I went on a Monday and I was the only chick there, and I watched from the sideline. I really liked the action of the game, and my mom liked that I got dropped off at home [afterwards]. From then on I started playing. I joined a ladies team shortly after the guys found me, and seven months later I got into the provincial team. Soon after that I got an award for most improved player, and another for best newcomer. The following year I was captain of the national team. That’s when I realized, Okay, maybe I should start taking this seriously.

    "Free time? You have to make time — it doesn’t just exist."

    What are some potential obstacles for South African girls who want to pursue basketball? Sometimes people [quit] because there are other things to do at home as a girl: cook, take care of your siblings, do your chores. Sports are not really the number one priority for females. Support from African families is very important; I think is the determining factor for whether [girls] continue playing or not. There were times when my mom was literally saying, “You’re not going back there.” She was unhappy about the decision I made for a while, until she realized it was something that I really loved and something that worked for me.

    When did you decide to study medicine? I always knew. I remember when I applied for university, I had to go and ask [the principal] for a reference to fill in my application and he realized that I only applied for medicine, and he was like, “Lenny, I know you’re very clever and hardworking and you’ve got great leadership skills, but you can’t put all your eggs in one basket — take engineering or something.” But my heart was set on medicine. Thank God I got in. With time I’ll see what specialty I’m interested in the most, but so far I favor neurosurgery. It’s life-changing; you’re working with procedures that can make or break someone.

    How do you unwind in your free time? Free time? I don’t think there’s anything like that, man. You have to make time — it doesn’t just exist. You make time to relax, to chill out, time to spend with good people that I love and that I enjoy being around. I like eating out. I love [the restaurant] Doppio Zero. They have everything! I chill, I shop, I go to basketball games.

    What’s on your pre-game playlist? I listen to a whole lot of Juanita Bymun. I love gospel music and I love house music. I dance a lot; DJ Kent is my favorite. Oskido is also good. American music is really nice as well; I just bought my brother tickets to see Kendrick Lamar.

    Does balancing studies with ball playing ever feel like too much to handle? It’s hectic! It’s not easy at all. I got to a point where I had to question, “Can I really manage?” It puts you in a position where you have to be realistic. At the end of the day, I’m a student before I’m a basketball player, because in South Africa that’s the only thing that pays: education.

    Does that mean there’s an expiration date on your basketball career? Not really. I’ll be 25, 26 when I finish with medical school. I’ll still be young, so I can still play then. In fact, I feel like I’ll be at my peak.

    Interview: South African Basketball Star Lenny Mogoba