Described by many as one of the most exciting players in the local basketball league, Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre (IPRC-South) forward Sunny Niyomugabo is an inspiration to the upcoming youngsters.
Talented with a height of 1.95m and leaping ability along with the quickness and strength to frustrate Guards out on the perimeter, the 25-year old is one of the few forwards in the country that are capable of limiting opposition penetration and forcing turnovers.
He started his ‘professional’ career with former league side KBC before joining APR and later Patriots.
The Rwanda international holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Kigali Independent University (ULK) and is currently working as an assistant lecturer at the Huye-based IPRC-South.
Recently, Saturday Sport’s Geoffrey Asiimwe caught up with Niyomugabo and he narrated his inspiring journey to the helm of the sport he “loves with a passion.”
Born in Goma-Tsetse, Democratic Republic of Congo on October 1, 1990 to Medard Gahunde and Elizabeth Nyirakanyamibwa, Niyomugabo is the third born in the family of eight—five boys and three girls.
He attended Ecole Primaire Mukamira in Rubavu District for his primary education before joining ESSA Gisenyi also in Rubavu where he studied all the six years of the secondary school level. In Advanced level, Niyomugabo pursued Mathematics Physics and Chemistry (MPC), completing in 2009.
In 2011, he joined Universite Libre de Kigali (ULK) pursuing a bachelors degree in Economics and graduated in 2014. After graduation, he started working with IPRC-South as an assistant lecturer.
“It is a good experience playing with your students, we normally make jokes during training as players but in class we mean business,” he described how he combines both tasks, and manages to succeed at both.
The soft-spoken star is a big fan of NBA side San Antonio Spurs and for inspiration, he looks up to iconic duo of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bean Bryant, who are both now retired.
Niyomugabo spent most of his childhood as a humble school boy with no idea of what basketball is. Instead like many kids, he grew up playing football but also just for fun.
He narrates that, “I started playing basketball in 2004 while in senior one at ESSA Gisenyi, it’s where I first saw my fellow students playing it and with time, I picked interested in trying it, that is how it began for me.”
However, he notes that playing basketball in the beginning was just for fun and he never expected to reach such a level of playing for most of the top national league clubs or even for the national team.
“While in senior four, I was picked for the first time to represent my school (ESSA Gisenyi) in the inter-school competitions, this was a big motivation, especially that I started to play the game just three years earlier,” he recalls.
While in senior five, Niyomugabo reveals he was named the school captain and around the same period he was recruited as part of Marine Basketball Club reserve players until 2009 when he completed his senior six. After completing senior six, he was promoted in the senior team and started playing regularly.
“Competing in different inter-school competitions and also training with the senior players at Marine BBC were my biggest motivation to work hard and raise my level of playing,” he explained.
In 2010, he got his maiden call up to the national team by the then U-18 head coach Prosper Mihigo for the 17th FIBA Africa Men’s Under-18 Championship that was held in Kigali when Rwanda finished in sixth place.
After a fairly convincing display with the national team during the continental youth championship, Niyomugabo joined former league side Kigali Basketball Club (KBC) and helped the Kacyiru-based side to claim the 2010/11 league title.
Following his impressive display, the forward attracted attention from different league clubs including APR and Espioir, but he chose the former, signing for them for the 2011/12 season.
Under the guidance of long-serving Kenyan trainer Cliff Owuor, Niyomugabo and his new team went to finish second in the league, behind archrivals Espoir for three seasons in a row.
After three seasons without winning the league, Niyomugabo crossed to the newly formed Patriots, for 2014/15 season, signing a one-year contract—at Patriots, he reunited with his former coach at KBC, Cyrille Kalima.
The 25-year old played a key role for the league debutants, but the Kagugu-based side could only manage second place, as Jean Bahufite’s Espoir maintained their tight grip on the local league for a fourth year running.
When his contract ran out, he joined IPRC-South, which had finished fifth on their league debut the previous season.
At the beginning of last season, IPRC-South, guided by the vast experience of Niyomugabo, stunned defending champions Espoir 83-64 to win the pre-season tournament before losing the league title to Patriots on the final day of the campaign.
However, IPRC-South made up for missing out on the regular season league title by defeating Patriots 3-1 to win the best-of-five playoffs final series.
It was history made for the Huye-based club that lost Game 1 but recovered to claim the next three games on the way to a historic first major title in the club’s short history, having made their national league debut 18 months earlier.
With that achievement, IPRC-South along with Patriots will represent Rwanda at next-year’s FIBA Zone V Championship in Dar es Salaam.
Niyomugabo got his first national cap in 2011 for 17th FIBA Africa Men’s Under-18 Championship.
His first call to the senior team came in 2014 during the FIBA Zone V tournament that took place in Kampala, Uganda. He has also featured for the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) team that has won EAC Military Games basketball title for two years in a row (2015 and 2016).
Best and worst moments
“My best moment was winning the playoff trophy this year, especially coming from behind to win the series 4-1 while the worst moment so far was the three years I spent in APR and we finished second for three consecutive seasons. Also losing the league title this year at home ground.”
Niyomugabo, who is still single, says, “I am still at a local level but I feel I can reach a higher level, so my aim is to keep working hard and pray that I shall get a fresh challenge from a better league than ours.”
“My appreciation goes to former national team coach Mihigo, he gave me my first call to the national team in 2011, which was a dream come true, that was really the stepping stone to where I am today and another person is my brother Habakkuk, he has encouraged me since I started playing basketball.”
What others say
IPRC-South head coach Charles Mushumba, says, “Niyomugabo is a leader with vast experience, talent and was a big addition to the club last season. He has all the ingredients to be one of the best basketball players that Rwanda has ever produced.”