LeBron James is a rugby fan. More to the point, he is a fan of the Beast. Yes, the basketball superstar of the Los Angeles Lakers, and one of the greatest athletes in the history of sport, is a larger-than-life fan of Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira’s work.
It is almost beyond belief but, then again, when that incomparable “Beeeeeeeaaaaaast” rumbles across a stadium, it echoes loudly enough to reach all four corners of the world.
“It was a bit crazy to be honest,” Mtawarira said of his chance meeting with “King James” on a trip to the United States late last year. Mtawarira was on a promotional tour of the US with stops in Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York and Boston.
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When he went to the city of stars, he and James connected through mutual friends who knew there was reciprocal respect between the two. So, on a cool November evening, the Beast went to see the King and was enchanted by the theatre of it all.
“Staples Center, man. Full house! It was just amazing to be there, because you know how much Americans love their sport. The energy was amazing!”
Naturally, for a man who leads the scrum, Mtawarira was seated in the front row, something he recalls with relish.
“I didn’t even know that he was a fan of rugby. I mean, he is a beast in his own right,” the real Beast chuckled.
The Beast at the altar of the King
Mtawarira is a massive NBA fan and gets animated when debating the finer details of the league. He also gets extremely territorial when discussing the best player in the league.
“It’s obviously LeBron. Guys like Lwazi [Mvovo] try to talk about Steph Curry, but you know who is the man.”
It’s not a debate at that point and Mtawarira shoots a slightly menacing look across the table, just to see if there is any opposing opinion. He then adds that the player, often put up against Michael Jordan when generational debates sprout up online, is his sporting idol.
“Basketball is a great game, man. A few of us follow it in the team and I have always admired LeBron,” he explained. “His athleticism, his drive ... he’s my idol, man. No doubt. No doubt.”
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It’s a startling revelation, but one that makes sense in its own way. James transcends boundaries with his superhuman abilities and his unflinching commitment to changing lives and making a difference in his community. There is a chasm of circumstances between Harare and Akron, Ohio, but as they say, real recognise real.
So the coming together late last year was a happy coincidence for two men who have shattered societal boundaries on their way to the pinnacle of their chosen mountains. Somewhere, on their individual paths, they have found common ground.
Mtawarira wasn’t just there on holiday, though. As the rugby cathedral continues to grow and grow, it is imperative for its biggest stars to spread the gospel whenever they can.
When injury cut short his end-of-year playing plans, Mtawarira took the opportunity to hold clinics in the US.
“You know how much rugby is picking up over there right now. I just wanted to do my bit, show a few things to the kids. It’s important to do what we can for the game,” he said.
Hulk of a man
Legacy is a word that came up often in conversation with the Sharks and Bok legend. As a man draws towards the end of his road, he wants to know that he is leaving something worthy behind.
“You always want to leave the jersey in a better place than you found it,” he pointed out. And his latest jersey is fitting of a leader, as the Sharks represent the king of Wakanda, Black Panther, in this year’s Super Rugby home conference games.
Mtawarira remains a hulk of a man, his physical presence the hallmark of a lifelong dedication to creating the best possible chance for him to succeed in life. At the Sharks, he said, he found a place that immediately felt like home at the tender Tendai age of 18.
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“It’s a great city, with friendly people. They have given me so much over the years,” he said.
In return, Mtawarira has given Durban, and more specifically the Sharks, a giant bear hug. It is impossible for him to go to a public place and not get mobbed. His popularity is sentimental, lighting the touch paper as a city recognises one of their greatest success stories.
It’s not just the public, mind you. At the recent Sharks Player of The Year awards, Mtawarira presented the Super Rugby Player of the Year gong. It was apt, given that he is six games away from breaking the appearance record for any South African player in the history of the competition.
As he trundled up to the stage, the raucous chorus of “Beeeeeeeaaaaaast” grew louder and louder from the players’ tables, lubricated by a day’s amber nectar on the golf course – but coming from a place of exceptional admiration. There is the deepest of reverence for him down at the Shark Tank.
In an age when most players of his generation are playing in a far-flung location, cashing in on their star quality, Mtawarira has not moved. He recently attended the wedding of Craig Burden, who was there with Beast at the start of the journey, when all they had was the dream of becoming professional rugby players.
Burden went from wing to hooker while Mtawarira went from back row to front row. Brothers in arms, then. Burden then went to France to carve out a niche for himself, like many South African players have done. Not Mtawarira, though.
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“I’m not done here. There are a lot of things that I have achieved, so many wonderful memories and friends made, but I am not done,” he maintained.
“Winning Super Rugby is still a massive goal of mine at the Sharks. We’ve gotten close a few times,” he said.
This year, he feels, holds much promise. Winning the Currie Cup gave a young team added belief and the squad is in a good place.
“You never count your chickens before they hatch, but I feel we have a lot of the right ingredients,” he said.
Watching the Sharks go to Newlands and return with the cup was a special moment for Mtawarira, as it was yet another reminder that he has to rise to the challenge once more.
“There is a lot of great competition for places. A lot of good youngsters coming through, and challenging. You could say it keeps me young,” he chuckled.
Mtawarira has never wanted for extra motivation. His motto has always been to “stay hungry”. That is what he emphasises to the kids who ask him for advice. That is what he tells the alumni from Peterhouse, where he first showed promise as a rugby player.
“It’s a great school. I haven’t been back since about 2013, but I stay up to date with their results. They also have a few guys who have got scholarships and are pursuing rugby careers,” he said proudly.
This is a big part of the Mtawarira legacy.
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“I think it’s important for kids around the world to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s all about how hard you work.”
Certainly, a young man from Harare doesn’t typically rise to raise a century of Springbok Test appearances and mobilise an army of ardent followers. Mtawarira has become a cult figure, in the fine tradition of popular front row giants like Os du Randt and Ollie le Roux.
People know that their position on the field is very particular, the inner workings of which will likely always be a mystery. But they see how the remaining 14 gravitate towards the players who take up this role, feeding off their bullocking brilliance.
“A lot of the people see the trophies or watch the victories on the field. But there are a lot of hard yards that we all put in as rugby players,” Mtawarira said.
The sacrifices in pre-season are escalated, as trainers strain teams even harder. Always, always there is a mission for which to get ready. The Sharks hope to lay down their sincerest challenge for Super Rugby honours this season. Beyond that, the Springboks have a World Cup to look forward to.
In both those teams, Mtawarira is a constant. No. 1. Loyalty has been a cornerstone of his career and as he ended off, he reiterated his unflinching support for LeBron.
When asked which NBA franchise he supports, given that James tends to hop around, Mtawarira chuckled.
“I support LeBron, man. Whether he is in Cleveland [Cavaliers], at the [Miami] Heat, back in Cleveland, or now in LA. I'm a LeBron James fan,” the rumble confirmed once more.
Beast recognises beast.
The exuberance of youth. The class of 2018 wasn’t just flush from the success of the senior Sharks side in the Currie Cup. That success at Newlands was the cherry on a gleaming piece of rugby confectionery, whose layers were Under-19 and Under-21 success.
Assistant coach Sean Everitt did exceptional work and those players are now putting their hands up. The upshot is that coach Rob du Preez can call upon those rising stars who secured the Currie Cup, but also look to unknown talent to shock a few, unsuspecting teams. The free-running Aphelele "Brenda" Fassi, for example, is unknown beyond South African waters.
This kind of hidden menace permeates throughout the squad and the Sharks will surprise teams along the way.
The Sharks have gotten desperately close to Super Rugby glory before – and then fallen at the last hurdle. No one will forget 2007 and a leaping Bryan Habana muddying Durban waters with a last-gasp try.
Mental scars of the past still haunt the Sharks and that weight of expectation, when the competition narrows into the final stages, seems to turn their legs heavy. Call it fitness, if you will, but the men from Durban consistently finish with a whimper, rather than a roar.
Planet (Power rank)
After winning the Currie Cup, confidence is soaring by the sea. The road to Super Rugby success for South African teams is often paved with domestic prominence. The Bulls did it, the Lions have too, and the Sharks maintain that they took a lot from winning the way they did. It told a young squad, ahead of its time, that they had to raise their ambitions somewhat.
The Sharks know they can dance with the local stars, now it’s time for them to shed their travelling scars. Forever, as those from Wakanda might say. If they can do that, the juggernaut will be hard to halt.
The Sharks have depth in every position, plus a wealth of experience from several respected Springbok players. They have the unpredictable boost of youthful stars and have made some astute acquisitions in the coaching department. It is a potent mix.
The team has a stadium hungry for more glory, in a year in which several of their rivals are rebuilding completely.
The only thing that could stand in the Sharks’ way is themselves. If they can manage their game time, keep their big squad hungry and avoid banana slips on the road, they have every right to dream.
They won the Currie Cup by looking at the bigger picture and will simply have to roll out that massive canvas once more.
This is part three of four in a series of profiles on the South African franchises who will be flying the flag in this year's Super Rugby.
Part one: Super Rugby Superheroes | Siya Kolisi
Part two: Super Rugby Superheroes | Wandisile Simelane
Part four: Super Rugby Superheroes | Duane Vermeulen