While most American college basketball players begin learning the game at a young age, Temple Men’s Basketball freshman guard and preferred walk-on AK Fihla began playing at just 15 years old in his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Moving from South Africa to Philadelphia, a city with some of the most influential basketball schools in the country, is no easy task. For Fihla, learning to embrace the enhanced enthusiasm surrounding the sport in Philadelphia has been key, especially when it comes to bringing a newfound energy on and off the court.
“Everyone wants to take pride in their school,” Fihla said. “Just having a community feel and a community sense around the school, that’s very different and I like it.”
Fihla comes from a country where basketball is not as prominent as it is in the United States. He understands that the sport is culturally significant in the U.S., and wants to help his team win in any way he can.
Before coming to the U.S., Fihla was unsure whether he wanted to take his basketball career internationally, but Franck Traore, the head of basketball operations for NBA Academy Africa, helped develop Fihla’s skills so he could play college-level basketball in America.
With the help of Traore, Fihla learned fundamental basketball skills, like moving without the ball or shooting from all three levels, before coming to Temple. Other walk-ons, like senior guard Ryan Sayers, have also helped Fihla find his place on the court during his transition.
“I was taking him through workouts, after practices and later at night, and so we were working on a lot of stuff that’s important for our program,” Sayers said. “We spent a lot of time working on skills that he could potentially be doing when he gets into a game and stuff like that.”
Fihla is excited about the liveliness, culture, music and fashion in his new city, but he couldn’t have made the journey to Temple without Temple Basketball’s coaching staff, he said. He has improved his skill set by learning from Temple’s Division I coaches, like former NBA guard and head coach Aaron McKie.
“The staff are really good at creating relationships with the boys,” Fihla said. “That helps the team not only at a professional level, but they can help with personal things off the court.”
For many international students, finding a home away from home is essential to acclimating to campus life. He has enjoyed the closeness of the team, as everyone bonds by cracking jokes while training for games.
Freshman guard and fellow walk-on Connor Gal has helped Fihla adjust by teaching him the basics of the American style of play, which is more fast-paced compared to South Africa.
“He just started playing basketball just a few years ago, and he taught himself everything, so it’s been nice helping him out and teaching him basics,” Gal said. “He’s been very good for just starting out a couple years ago, he’s kind of a quiet kid but has been showing off the more he’s been here.”
Temple’s basketball program has the fifth-most wins of any college basketball team in the country. For Fihla, learning the significance of the team in college sports is important to being a new player.
“They have shared what the history of the program is like, and being taught by people that have done it before has been very nice,” Fihla said. “It’s been an exciting and welcoming experience.”
The Big 5 and City 6 teams have legendary matchups that have developed over time. Temple has already faced off against other teams in the Philadelphia area, like Drexel University, Villanova University and La Salle University this season, yet Fihla still sees himself playing in these rivalries later in his collegiate career. Despite picking up a basketball just a few years ago, he’s already adapting to the sport in the U.S.
“Playing wise, just everyone is so much taller, and they’ve been playing since they were three,” Fihla said. “I took up the sport when I was 15, so obviously I’m already behind and catching up.”
With an improved shot, quicker decision-making and a love of the sport, AK Fihla can become more than just an energy guy for Temple Men’s Basketball in the years to come.