ELIE Kaje had astoundingly humble beginnings, yet he has gone on to become a prodigious basketball player – one of those that are defining the game at the moment.
Just like in many other cases, a number of fans that follow sports stars have a partial picture of the life of the player – mainly the success enjoyed on the pitch or court. However, very often, there is always more to the story.
For Kaje, a 26-year-old who has represented the national basketball team for about six years, in addition to a glowing career with a number of local clubs; fans may miss the background tale of how the star had an uncertain and challenging start to his career, for instance he played without pay for almost four years in the earlier days of his career.
Fortunately, challenges like these came together to bring forth a radiant basketball career for Kaje, a power-forward who is one of the best rebounders in domestic basketball.
Kaje grew up trying many sports including rugby, football and basketball.
“From a very young age I played football, as a goalkeeper. After sometime, my mother was concerned and didn’t like the idea of me playing football,” he recalls.
“However, she was still supportive and wanted me to engage in sports, perhaps so that there would be no other bad things to distract me. And, indeed, sports was of help to me.”
At that time, his elder brother Bunene Kajeguhakwa was already a basketball star, and even played for the national team.
But, Kaje himself was not so much interested in the game.
“Sometimes he would bring me basketball kits, but I didn’t get into the game. My mother asked me which game I want to play, and I told her that I don’t have equipment for any sport. She bought me a basketball, and I immediately started to train at Kimisagara Youths Centre where I also met other children who always came to practice.”
In December 2011, Kaje says, former Espoir basketball coach Prosper Mihigo came to Kimisagara Youth Centre to look for young and promising talents and picked the best five, including now France-based Placide Uwizeye. However, Kaje was not at practice that day. A few days later, Mihigo was told that there was another good player he missed and what’s how Kaje joined the former champions aged 17.
Life at Espoir
Here, he saw some new things. For instance, he was getting a small stipend for transport so he could easily get to the practice, and that was motivating for him as a young lad.
“As a young lad, I was very happy for the gesture and it gave me extra motivation to work hard and earn a spot into the team’s starting line-up. I wanted to be the best at my position.”
His first game came late December, 2011, against then biggest rivals APR.
“My first game was against APR – the strongest team at the time. It was a scary start to my career, I even considered lying to coach that I was sick so I don’t have to face the likes of Mike Buzangu, Bienvenu Ngandu, Kami Kabange and late Presta Malemba on my league debut.”
“We lost the game, and I picked a minor injury,” he vividly remembers, and his side finished third that season, only after champions Kigali Basketball Club (now-defunct) and APR.
The rebuilding process resulted into a formidable blend of young talents and a few established players, and the club would go on to win back-to-back four consecutive championships between 2012 and 2015.
But, during all this time, Kaje did not have a salary to talk of until 2015 – his final year with the team.
“Until 2015, I was not paid and I did not complain. I played basketball as a hobby and never stopped working and dreaming, it was just a matter of time before I made it to the top.”
2016 – Present
After five years and four championships with Espoir, Kaje was signed by Patriots, in 2016, who were relatively young in the league.
“I was looking for a new challenge, and I viewed Patriots as a perfect opportunity.”
With Patriots, he won the 2017 playoff games title among other titles during his two-year stint at the club before crossing to rivals Rwanda Energy Group (REG) in 2018. The latter were champions of the 2016-17 season.
Since his move to REG two years ago, the black-and-red outfit have finished second after Patriots in the league, including last year when they were stunned in epic game 7 of the playoffs finals.
Kaje, whose current contract with REG runs until the end of the 2021-20 season, is in his third year pursuing a bachelor’s degree in finance at the Kigali Independent University.
He was part of the national team that competed, in 2017, at the 29th African Basketball Championships (AfroBasket) finals in Tunisia.Follow https://twitter.com/NkotanyiDamas