For different reasons, many young players tend to shy from being in the spotlight especially early on in their careers, but not Espoir basketball club youngster Emmanuel Iyakaremye, who instead, appears to enjoy the attention.
At 23 years, Iyakaremye, nicknamed ‘Zulu’, is already playing in his third season in the national basketball league, and with his indisputable talent, he has been tipped to go on and become one of the best point guards that Rwanda has ever produced.
According to observers, the youngster is not far behind the likes of Aristide Mugabe (Patriots) and Ali Kazingufu Kubwimana (Rwanda Energy Group), who are regarded as the best point guards in Rwandan basketball today.
With a combination of excellent game-reading and lightening speed, Iyakaremye is a tough defender, capable of limiting penetration and forcing turnovers. Offensively, opponents always have a hell of a time defending against him.
Saturday Sport caught up with the former APR basketball club wonderkid, who averages at least 15 points, six rebounds, and a steal per game, and narrated his fairytale rise and his future plans.
Born on June 7, 1993 in Bugoyi Sector in Rubavu District, Western Province to Emmanuel Niyonzima (RIP) and Francoise Kankyera, Iyakaremye is the second born in the family of six – four boys and two girls.
How did he come to be called Zulu? “I asked my parents the same question and my mother told me that immediately after I was born, a Zulu man from South Africa came at the hospital and asked my mother if he could carry me in his hands, and from that time, I was nicknamed Zulu by my mother,” he disclosed.
He attended Rubavu-based Gacuba 1 Primary School before joining Gacuba 1 Secondary School.
After completing Senior Two, he switched to Groupe Scolaire Saint Joseph Kabgayi in Muhanga District, where he completed his ordinary level examinations in 2013 but unfortunately did not do well in the final exams.
He then went to Lycee de Kigali in 2014 where he repeated Senior Three and this time he passed with good grades which enabled him to join Groupe Scolaire APE Rugunga for his A’Level. He is currently in Senior Six pursuing History, Economics and Geography.
Iyakaremye, who stands at 1.74m and weighs 83kg, says he looks up to American professional basketball star Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I like his style of play; he is a point guard like me but a more versatile player, who is capable of playing in any position, something that I want to add to my game,” he explains in an exclusive interview with Saturday Sport.
Zulu was born into a sporting family — his young brother Bonheur Hategekimana is the first-choice goalkeeper for national football league side SC Kiyovu, while his other brother is a weightlifter.
Nonetheless, as a child, Zulu did not have any special interest in sports, he says. “I never played any sport in my childhood and I had no interest for anything called sports unlike my brothers who began playing at a very young age,” he recalled.
The youngster reveals that he only started picking interest in sports, particularly basketball, when he was in Primary Six, and this was also ‘forced’ on him by his aunt, who he admits was always “on my case’.
“During my Primary Six, my aunt pushed me out of my comfort zone and that is when I began to try out basketball, but just for the sake of impressing her,” Zulu recounts.
A hidden talent was discovered as soon as Zulu started to hold a basketball, quickly convincing the games master to include him in the school team despite the fact that he had not even learnt all the basics.
He says: “When I started playing everything was just happening fast, I remember I didn’t even know any rule but I could shoot and score three points from any angle something I think convinced my school team coach that I could actually play.”
In 2012 while in Senior Two, Zulu featured for his school in the national inter-school sports competitions which had attracted several schools including St. Joseph Kabgayi that was by then coached by Jean Bahufite, the current head coach of national league side Rwanda Energy Group (REG).
“We (Gacuba 1 Secondary School) won the title after defeating College Ami des Enfants and it’s from there that I was spotted by Bahufite, who convinced me to join him at St. Joseph,” he explains.
However, because of concentrating more on basketball than reading books, Zulu’s performance in class declined and he failed his national O’Level exams. He decided to leave St. Joseph to join Lycee de Kigali in 2014, a move he says opened the doors for him to play in the national league.
After joining Lycee de Kigali (LDK), Zulu met his old friend Parfait Ishimwe, who happened to be the captain of APR Basketball Club, who asked him to join them in their training sessions — it is here that he caught the eyes of head coach Cliff Owour.
“Cliff was really impressed with me and when he proposed that I sign for APR, I didn’t need a second thought to say yes, I agreed to play for them and I made my debut in the 2013/14 season. It was hard to get playing time but the coach believed in me and kept encouraging me not to give up.”
In Zulu’s first season, the army side finished in third place behind champions Espoir and first runner-up Cercle Sportif de Kigali (CSK).
In his second season, 2014/15, Zulu became a regular player and APR finished second, again behind Espoir, the club he later joined thanks to Bahufite, who first spotted him during inter-school competitions earlier on.
However, his debut season with the Nyamirambo-based Espoir, who had won the league four years in a row, they finished in second, behind Patriots.
Last year, the young point guard helped Espoir to the Gisembe Memorial tournament title, his first major piece of silverware before competing at FIBA-Africa Zone V Club Championship that was held in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania where the Rwandan side could only reach the quarter-finals.
And, this season, Zulu helped Espoir to the final of the Heroes’ Day tournament losing to IPRC-Kigali.
Best and worst moments
“My best moment was signing for Espoir a club I had dreamt to play for in my career and my worst moment was losing the Heroes’ Day title. We never saw that defeat coming because, before the final, we had never lost to IPRC-Kigali,” says Zulu, who hopes to lead his team to the league title this season.
Future plans and ambitions
He says: “I dream of playing at the highest level as a professional, most preferably in the United States. I believe I will be able to achieve it sooner rather than later.”
“I would like to, first and foremost, thank Cliff, who helped me to overcome my weaknesses which included inferiority complex, he built my self-confidence. I’m also grateful to my teammates Olivier Shyaka, Pascal Niyonkuru, to mention but a few, who have helped me to improve and become a better player.”