Chris Walters Junior Nkurunziza is one of the top basketball players in Rwanda.
He plies his trade with the reigning hoops league champions, Patriots. Nkurunziza is an inspiration for those who are interested in the power of sport in reshaping and giving hope to people.
Commonly known Walter, he lost his father in 1997, when he was only two years old. Six years later tragedy struck again-he lost his mother in 2003. Together with his three siblings, they were raised by a paternal aunt.
Despite the difficult childhood, Nkurunziza has managed to rise up through basketball, a sport he describes as his life.
His journey can be summarized in the words of American retired professional basketball player, Michael Jordan; “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”
Saturday Sport caught up with the talented and ambitious youngster and he narrated his journey to the helm of local basketball.
At such a young age, Nkurunziza has already captained the national team. He has also won several titles with his local club Patriots.
Born on December 25, 1995 in Nyakabanda sector, Nyarugenge District to David Charles Nkurunziza (RIP) and Antoinette Murengayire (RIP), Nkurunziza is the third born in the family of four-three boys and one girl.
He attended Kacyiru One primary school and APAPER Sonatube, all in the City of Kigali for his primary education before joining Petit Seminaire Virgo Fidelis de Karubanda, in Huye District, Southern Province for his Ordinary Level studies.
Nkurunziza later joined Groupe Scholaire Saint Joseph Kabgayi, in Muhanga District, for his Advanced Level, majoring in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics before joining Lycee de Kigali where he completed his secondary education in 2014.
Currently, he is in second year at University of Tourism, Technology and Business Studies (UTB), pursuing a bachelor of Business Information and Technology (BIT).
Apart from Basketball, the 1.94m tall star, who weights 90kgs, says that he looks up to NBA’s American professional basketball player LeBron James and is a great fan of English Premier League side Arsenal. Listening to music is his preferred leisure time activity.
Nkurunziza never had a chance to enjoy the love and tenderness of his parents but appreciates the upbringing he and his siblings received from his aunt, whom he says raised them like her real children.
“It is difficult to describe your childhood without your parents, but after the passing of our parents, I was taken in by my aunt together with my siblings and she raised us like her own biological children,” he says.
Nkurunziza says he was “born a sportsman” but he never thought of playing basketball. His childhood passion was football and was twice selected by two football academies.
“I was a good striker during my primary school and I was known for scoring spectacular goals, actually I dreamt of playing as a professional in Europe.”
But things changed when he joined secondary school in 2009, when many advised him to try basketball or volleyball because of his height.
One of his friends and current team mate at Patriots Basketball Club, Steven Havugintwari, who was then in senior three and playing basketball convinced him to try out basketball, at least, just for fun.
He recalls, “Actually, I happened to like basketball after football, so it was easy for me to make the switch, and when I returned for senior three, I brought all equipment and that was the start of my journey in basketball.”
In the same year, he played for his school in the interschool’s competitions.
Following his successful display in interschool’s competitions, national U18 head coach Moise Mutokambali, who was then coaching Lycee De Kigali (LDK), offered him a scholarship to play for them which he turned down after failing to get a place in the boarding section.
Saint Joseph Kabgayi, coached by former Espoir head coach John Bahufite, also expressed interest in him and offered him a scholarship, he joined the school and left after two years before joining LDK.
While at LDK, Nkurunziza was named on the national youth team by head coach Cyrille Kalima that competed in the 2014 FIBA-Africa U-18 Championship that was held in Kampala, Uganda.
He noted, “That was the biggest moment I had in basketball because apart from making it to the national team, I was named the captain and we managed to win a silver medal after losing to Uganda in the final.”
After FIBA-Africa U18 Championship, coach Kalima, who was also the coach of the former national league side, KBC, recruited him and promised him first team action.
In mid-2014, Patriots Basketball Club was formed and registered to play in the national league and it recruited most KBC players that was collapsing then. Nkurunziza was among the players that started with the Kagugu-based team, which was under Kalima.
In their first season (2014/15), Patriots did not win any silverware after finishing as first runners-up behind Espoir in both the regular season league and playoffs.
However, in the 2015/16 campaign, Patriots scooped three titles including the national league, Gisembe Memorial International and Heroes Day tournament on top of winning bronze on their debut at the FIBA-Africa Zone V Club Championship in Dar-es-Salaam, with Nkurunzizi at the center of this success.
Best and worst moments
Nkurunziza says, “My best moment was last season when we won the league title against IPRC-South, in what was a very tight race, we almost lost the game, while the worst moment was in 2015 during Jean-Guy Rutayisire memorial tourney, we lost to Espoir in the final by a difference of just one point.”
Future plans and ambitions
“I normally say that basketball is my life, I owe everything to basketball from education, house rent to mention but just a few, and I have really fallen in love with the game. I want to play it at a professional level probably in Europe and I hope at one time I will achieve it,” he told Saturday Sport.
The 21-year-old says, “I would like to thank the coaches whose hands and guidance I have grown through, these coaches include; Mutokambali and Kalima, these men have always told me that I have a talent and I should exploit it, which gives me strength and courage to work hard and aim for greater heights.”