If you were a basketball fan from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, you either loved or you hated Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The NBA third draft pick behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie, Jordan joined the league from North Carolina in 1984. His entry into the professional game reversed the fortunes of the Chicago Bulls. They secured a playoff berth immediately in his rookie season. But it would be seven years before the Bulls were a championship caliber team.
Before the Bulls held up the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 1991, they had cultivated a court presence and competitive demeanor that made them the passion of millions of fans and the envy of the rest of the league. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, John Paxson, and Bill Cartwright were a starting five worthy of attention. The bench was not too shabby either. Collectively, the Bulls were a high-flying, stadium-filling, media-generating Cinderella-story for the NBA.
Chicagoans are unquestionably the Bulls’ most ardent fans, but during the 1980s, Zimbabwean high school boys were not too far behind them in terms of fervor. Everyone all wanted to be like Mike. Most of us knew we would never play in the NBA, but that did not stop us from mimicking what we saw. We did our best to incorporate Jordan’s creativity into our own play. We tried to copy his dunks. We stuck out our tongues on drives to the basket. We leaned backwards as we attempted Matrix-style fade away jump shots. We held up our palms, shrugged our shoulders, and shook our heads whenever we made an impossible shot. Some of us even recorded our own VHS video-version parodies of Michael Jordan: Come Fly with Me (1989). I will leave it to your imagination to guess who. If Jordan was an individual hero to us, then the Bulls were an exemplar basketball team worth emulating. Over the course of the 1990 season, we Saints boys set a course to do just that.
As a result of our unqualified humiliation at the hand of T. Mawema in 1988, Saints basketball had an albatross around its neck. The memory of the Move was like indelible graffiti spray-painted across our hearts, over our hoops and backboards, and throughout the full atmosphere of red-blazer nation. When Gus became captain in 1989, he wisely petitioned for a replacement of the basketball uprights, as well as other minor upgrades to the first-team court. School leadership agreed and when the renovations were completed, Saints basketball had a new lease on life. Fresh permission to forget P.E.’s past persecution of us. Opportunity to re-engage the vision of greatness Sludge had previously painted.
Gus was an admirable leader of the first team in 1989. He coordinated a number of developmental activities for the team in partnership with Coach Admire Masenda and Mr. Fernandes, the team manager. Among them was a basketball tour to Mauritius. This trip, to one of the most beautiful places in the world, sped up the maturity of the junior players at Saints, like Tavona and me. The season with Gus at point had its highs and lows, but Saints still came short, both of beating P.E. and of winning Layland. To his credit, Gus was forward-thinking and he did all he could, including personal mentoring of players, to set the team up for future success.
Leading into 1990, a number of the Upper Sixth Form (twelfth grade) boys, who would have led the remnant after Gus and others graduated, decided to quit the game and focus on their studies. That left my cohort, then in Lower Sixth Form (eleventh grade) at the reigns of Saints basketball. We were too green to know what to do and our insecurities showed through in the way we played.
“Coach,” we asked, “what do we need to do to get better?”
“Go the extra mile,” responded Admire.
That was one of his favorite phrases. Try more. Give more. Do more than you ever thought possible. Become more than you ever thought you could be. That is what he expected of his players. To go the extra mile. In 1990, that translated to us working hard on individual skill, strength, and stamina. It also meant team commitment, creativity, and competitiveness. A shift from a squad of boys to a unit of gladiators. We pushed ourselves, focusing on drills, routines, and disciplines that would perfect our preparation. Including recording our games and watching tape to dissect the action and home in on the individual strengths and weaknesses we needed to improve. Seeing his opportunity, Coach Admire carefully began to fashion us into a well-oiled machine. One he believed would be capable of contesting for the national title in 1991.
By the end of 1990, we were a significantly better team, but there was still something missing. Despite the important foundations Sludge and Gus had laid, our team still lacked identity and a personality of its own. Yes, we were Saints basketball, but we had not crystallized for ourselves what that meant.
“You guys need a makeover,” suggested Vusi. He was an excellent basketball player himself but had creative differences with the coach and therefore played on the school’s second team.
“What do you mean makeover?”
“Well, who is the best team in the NBA right now?”
“Dumb question. Clearly, the Bulls. No doubt.”
“Correct. And why is that?”
“Do you want us to spell ‘Michael Jordan’ for you?”
“No, obviously it’s all about Jordan, but when you think about the team, what comes to mind?”
“They’re fierce, man.”
“Those guys wanna win.”
“They have a great presence.”
“Yes, now we’re getting somewhere. What do you mean by that?”
“They put on a great show.”
“Exactly. They’re not only good. They’re also great entertainment. Their fans love them and the competition wants to be them. They’ve got an edge to them. Saints basketball needs to get one too.”
“Branding. We’ve got to rebrand Saints basketball as championship basketball.”
“But the Bulls have not won a title yet.”
“But they will at some point, right? Isn’t that what they’ve made everybody think?”
“You’re right. It’s just a matter of time.”
“Exactly. That’s what we’ve got to make everyone in Zimbabwe think. It’s just a matter of time until Saints wins the Layland Shield. It’s not only about how we play, but also how we brand ourselves. If we do it right, we’ll intimidate teams before they even come to the court, just like the Bulls do.”
The penny was beginning to drop for the rest of us.
“Okay, I think I’m starting to get it. But how should we rebrand ourselves?”
“Well, Gus got us started when he changed the rims after the Move. So, we can build on that by repainting the court. We can redesign the uniforms too. Heck, we might as well even change the name of Saints basketball itself.”
“Wow! Change the name? To what?”
“I don’t know. Maybe take a page out of the Chicago playbook. We could become the Saints Bulls.”
“That’s too obvious. But I like where this is going.”
We approached Mr. Fernandes with our general idea of a revamp. He was energetically supportive and gave us permission to get to work. We commissioned Garikai and Vusi, our resident artists, to mock up some designs for a new logo and new uniforms. We all continued to consider options for a new revolutionary team name.
St. George’s first fifteen rugby team had historically been called the Saints Dragons. We liked the name but did not think it wise to mess with tradition by adapting the same for basketball. Rugby was still the dominant sport at St. George’s, and we were not about to rock any boats.
“How about this? We could call ourselves the Saints. It’s simple and clear.”
“Yah, but it doesn’t jump out at you, you know? Everything at this school is Saints.”
“I’m just brainstorming. Your ideas weren’t that great either.”
“Guys, take it easy. There are no bad suggestions.”
“Except that last one!”
After further brainstorming, one of us declared, “Guys, I’ve got it!”
“Our Grant of Arms. There is more than just a dragon. There are two wolves standing upright on either side of the cauldron. The Loyola wolves.
“You’re thinking, Saints Loyola’s?”
“No man. We should call ourselves the Saints Wolves.”
We all wondered why we had not come up with that sooner.
“The other squads are going to pee their pants!”
“For real! That’s who we are. Saints Wolves! We’re a pack. We’re dangerous. We’re scrappy.”
“And we’re hungry. We’ll chase you tirelessly. We growl, and we can climb to great heights!”
“Yeah man. Saints Wolves. That’s who we are!”
Vusi and Garikai pressed into creating our new logo. They took their cues from the wolves on the Grant of Arms but did not let the design limit them. We wanted our wolf to have anthropomorphic qualities, to represent the true character of our team. Something that would continue in the tradition Gus had laid down for us. Our basketball ethos had three dimensions to it. Prepare diligently, play competitively, and, partner, . . . have as much fun as possible doing it.
Vusi and Garikai therefore designed the face of an amiable wolf for our logo. It was a sort of fusion between the creativity of Disney’s 1933 Big Bad Wolf and Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies’ 1949 Wile. E. Coyote.
Before the first game of the 1991 season, we walked onto a beautifully repainted first-team court with “Saints Wolves” stenciled along each baseline. The face of our new wolf mascot was smiling at us from the circle at center court. Our uniforms were a clever replica of the kit Michael Jordan and the Bulls regularly wore. We also swapped our tracksuits tops for tee shirts so we could run onto the court looking more like NBA players.
“The other teams are going to pee their pants when they play us.”