Rwanda Energy Group (REG) Basketball Club did the nation proud when they made it to the playoffs of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) in March, a feat they achieved in style as they topped the Sahara Conference that had big teams like Tunisia’s US Monastir and AS Sale from Morocco. From the 21st to the 28th this month when the playoffs of the competition tip off in Kigali, REG will be looking to continue with their impressive run, playing before the home fans. Robert John Pack Jr, 53, an American professional basketball coach and former National Basketball Association (NBA) player who featured for teams like Portland Trailblazers, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks is currently the head coach of REG, and is the architect of the great strides the team has achieved recently. Last week, Times Sport sat down with him and talked about topics including REG’s spectacular show in the Sahara Conference, the less-expected win against US Monastir, the thrilling last-gasp victory against SLAC, as well as the team’s expectations going into the playoffs. Read the excerpts below: Is the BAL your first acquaintance with African basketball? This is my first encounter with anything on the African continent. Ive never been to Africa. So this is my first time. Everything here is a first time experience for me and, especially the basketball part of it. Ive never been a player or a coach here in Africa, and the new experience is very exciting for me. What have you learned so far during the short time you have spent working coaching the continent? I have realized that they have real energy for the game. The players, the organization seem to have a really, really good passion for the game of basketball, which for me is great because I love the game and I love to see that passion in other people about the game. So to be able to come here and coach a group of players and an organization thats really passionate about the game I love is really exciting for me to be a part of. What was the secret behind the impressive performance of REG in the Sahara Conference of the BAL in March? I think first of all, there was a great bond between all the players. They get along really well. When youre coming together in a short period of time, you need that chemistry. You need that bond because youre going to be in some tough situations and you need to be able to lean on each other to get through them. So, I think why we were so successful is the chemistry the guys created amongst themselves, the hard work we put in as a team - as the players as well as the coaching staff. It was a complete buying-in, everyone bought into completing this goal, completing the mission together. And I think that was the key to everything. I want to ask you about the victory against SLAC in particular. You called for a time-out with about 7 seconds to go, when REG was trailing by a point. What did you tell the players? Well, the first thing in those situations is: You guys should be calm and be ready to execute. Those are the situations in games that a lot of games come down to, and you have got to be able to execute. And first of all, be calm. So everyone can relax so we can get to our spots and execute perfectly. In those situations, it has to be perfect execution and down the stretch, we were able to get the ball into Thomas’ hands the way we wanted to create a switch with the big guy, we got a big guy with him and allowed him to make a play. And he did a great job, because a lot of times when you get the ball into the players hand that you want, they feel like they have to take the shot. In those moments, you put the ball into the players hand for them to make a play. If that play is a shot for them, its a shot. If its a pass - making the right pass to an open teammate, thats the right play. And he made the right play down the stretch. He penetrated, they helped, he hit Wilson (Nshobozwabyosenumukiza) for a wide open shot, and there was a perfect execution down the stretch. Tell us also about the game against US Monastir. How did REG manage to pull off a miracle victory against such a powerhouse? People may not understand it, but the loss to DUC (Dakar University Basketball Club) actually helped us in the Monastir game, because it got us refocused. There were some things that we had been doing that do not equate to winning. We were making some mistakes, but we were still winning games. Sometimes when you win games when you make a mistake, you get a false sense of security. And I think the DUC game really helped us realize we had to clean up some things, and we had really good practices leading up to the Monastir game. We were able to get two good practices in, we got a shoot-around in, guys were really focused, we were able to do some different things schematically on the defensive end. The guys really executed well, and I think that was the key. I think refocusing after the DUC game, locking-in and coming out with an expectation to win. We went into the game as a team, feeling that we could win that game. And I think you dont beat a team like that If you dont have that confidence that you can win that game, because if not, they can smell it and they will blow you out. We understand that you have been in Egypt, trying to look at the potential opponents of REG from the Nile Conference. What have you noticed about them? Well, what I was able to do is just watch a lot of all the other teams. You know, when you are at the beginning, you dont know who you are going to play, so youre just trying to watch personnel, see what the guys’ tendencies are, see how coaches coach their players, their rotations. So youre trying to do that as a whole. As it got narrowed down and started to look like we were going to be playing the Cameroon team FAP (Forces Armées et Police Basketball), and I really started to lock-in on that team. They are a good team, they play really hard, play physical, they have guards that can really shoot the ball and were going to have to be prepared. And right now thats who were preparing for. Theres no other game that matters until we play FAP. Thats the team that were focusing on now, trying to get into their personnel, the tendencies that they like to do and be as mentally and physically prepared for that game as possible. Do you hope to have some friendly games before the playoffs tipoff? Thats the plan. I think thats in the works and that would be really great and really beneficial to us to be able to get some friendly games in, because you practice so long against each other. Sometimes you need a different body, a different jersey to go up against to try to see how things that youve been working on are looking against different competition. I think getting some friendly games would be really helpful for us leading into the playoffs. What are your targets as a team in this tournament? Obviously we want to go all the way. Thats the target. But what we do from the beginning, everything has been about everyday getting better. The goal has been to get better every day, and I feel like when we come to practice individually and as a unit to get better that day, it has led to us having some success, and thats the same approach weve taken to this. Our first game is against the Cameroon team (FAP), thats the only thing we could focus on - getting prepared to get better every day and have a good showing in that game. And then once we take care of business there, then we will move on to the next team. But right now our focus is to get better and be prepared as best possible against FAP. The playoffs are taking place in Kigali and the fans will be coming in numbers to the Arena to support. Are you counting on the home advantage? We are counting on them to be crazy. I want the fans to be excited, energized, because it is great to be able to play in front of your home crowd. We had not got the chance to do that. Our first games were in Senegal. Now we are home. We have our crowd behind us. We want to use all that energy that energy that we are going to play with combined with the energy from the crowd to lift us to victory. You looked at the other teams and how they play. Do you think that REG has what it takes to compete with them? Im confident in my group. I mean, my guys fight - theyre fighters, theyre competitors and Im confident in them. They showed in Dakar that they are willing to fight and compete for each other and for the win. And I feel no different going into this and Ive watched those other teams, I dont feel my team is inferior to those teams. I think we feel like we can go in and compete and thats what were going to do. No matter what it looks like on paper, those teams still have to come play the game. They cant win the game on paper, so you have to play the game. And I feel like my guys will be prepared, and my guys will compete to the end. Are there any teams in particular that you are wary of? FAP! The other teams don’t matter right now. The only team that matters is FAP. We cant get to the other teams if we dont take care of our business against FAP. I want my own - everyone in the building, thats our main focus. We have to win the first game and thats our first opponent. So when we move on, we will shift our attention to the next team. But right now, the first team and our main focus is to be prepared mentally and physically for FAP. How do you think the BAL helps African players to take their game to the next level? I think it helps them tremendously because you get to compete against better talent, you get to compete against your whole continent and you get to see where you measure up. Individually and as an organization, you get to see where you are and the things that you need to add, improve, whether it is player development, physical training, all of that. You get to see where you are when you go up against better talent or better competition around this continent. So I think it is only going to be great, moving forward in the future for these guys and this team, particularly to play against this talent and take from it everything they can, so they can go back and develop and be better next time. Do you see yourself continuing to work with African basketball? I can see that. Obviously, my focus has been right now - this year. I havent thought about anything else. My whole focus has been to give everything I can to my team right now. Im focused, because I expect when they (players) come to gym every day, they give me everything and I give them everything, and thats all my focus has been on. Once this is complete, then Ill shift my focus to what Ill do next season. But just to answer your question, can I see myself? Absolutely. Ive enjoyed my experience. I think it could be even better in the future. But right now Im focused on this team and helping it reach the mountain top. Finally, send a message to the fans. Invite them to come support you when action gets underway. Come out, be crazy. We are going to give you everything. We are going to play hard. We are going to compete for you. Bring all that energy. Eat a lot of sugar, so your energy can be up and be crazy. I want it loud and crazy in there. We want that home court advantage. We are looking forward to seeing you.