There is a trend that has gone totally unnoticed in Rwanda. A curious one at that, one that makes little sense given the circumstances. A drive across Kigali city will show in more vivid ways what I’m trying to explain here.
Each and every basketball court in the city, mostly between the hours of 8am to noon and 4pm to 6pm respectively, will be packed to capacity with toddlers, teenagers and young men alike, all playing their hearts out and dreaming to one day make it big and play the game professionally.
Everyday, Monday to Monday, without fail.
The levels of commitment and competitiveness will astound you, considering that there is really no tangible prize to be won, no real returns for all that effort and spent energy.
Just what drives these young men is the question that comes to mind, and the answer is simple. There has been, for the better part of the past decade or so, an almost fanatical following for basketball in Rwanda, especially among the youth.
For a sport that has for long been considered to be in disarray in its management ranks and eternally in the shadow of more popular sports like football, this continued interest from the youth is somewhat baffling.
There exists no tangible programs to develop basketball from the youth ranks, and apart from a nominally successful high school basketball program and the national basketball league, which rarely has more than ten teams competing, there is no organized system to help develop these young men.
And so they just go out and play, hoping against hope to make their mark and become successful.
But the winds of change may be blowing, as the recent highly-encouraging run by the Rwanda Basketball Senior men’s national team suggests.
The team, making only their second-ever appearance at the Afrobasket competition in Libya, wildly exceeded expectations to finish 9th.
Despite failing to advance to the quarterfinals of the event due to an inferior scoring margin compared to the teams that advanced, Rwanda showed that it is a basketball force to be reckoned with on the continent, convincingly beating African basketball powerhouses Cameroun (82-69), Senegal (72-59), closely outplaying hosts Libya 80-77 and finally topping Egypt 78-75 in a nail-biting contest, Egypt having beaten Rwanda in two previous match-ups on our home court in Zone 5 qualifiers.
The win secured Rwanda the number 9 spot, Egypt having to settle for 10th.
The outstanding play of guard Kenny Gasana, who averaged a shade over 16 points per game for the competition, and the constant double-double threat of center Robert Thompson and solid contributions from Matt Miller, has basketball fans daring to believe that the time is now for Rwandan basketball to finally take off and claim the heights that all basketball players and fans alike have always known it can achieve.
Also, behind the scenes, off-the-court developments lend credence to the excitement of basketball fans, as the Sports Ministry has committed itself like never before to the game, pumping an estimated Rwf200m into preparations for the Zone 5 qualifiers hosted by Rwanda earlier this year, and also pulling out all the stops to fly in and accommodate Rwandan players based abroad to boost the squad.
Does this mean that the Rwandan basketball landscape is finally shifting? Will the local federation get its feet wet and finally put in some work?
Will there be a better organized local league, and youth programs put in place to help develop young talent? Will Rwanda one day be considered along the likes of Angola and Nigeria, who are Africa’s undisputed kings on the hardwood?
As the saying goes; only time will tell. Most fans and players I spoke to scoffed at the idea, saying this recent success is based on the recruitment of foreign-based players, some not even of Rwandan nationality, and just serves as a cover –up to the more serious under-lying issues that continue to plague the game of basketball in Rwanda. But for now, the performance of the team and the preparations put in by the technical staff to pave the way for this success is definitely something worth applauding.