BARELY four years participating in Rwanda National Basketball League, Patriots are one of the biggest basketball clubs in the country. But that is not the whole story.
Whenever they play, Amahoro Indoor Stadium (Petit - Stade Remera) is always a sellout. The Kagugu-based side have conquered the hearts of many – especially those who bother to regularly follow the sport.
Very few, if any, will deny that Espoir and APR have always been the major basketball powerhouses on domestic scene over the last fifteen or so years. But that story is no more.
The rise of Patriots in 2014, and then Rwanda Energy Group (REG) in 2016, has seen the two former giants finding comfort in the ‘average team’ status.
Henry Mwinuke’s Patriots were the first side to challenge Espoir for the league title in 2016, dethroning the Nyamirambo-based outfit after winning the championship four times in a row.
Times Sport caught up with Bryan Kirungi, the Head of Basketball Operations at Patriots, to understand the story of the young guys determined to become the future ‘hall of famers’.
“Patriots Basketball Club was founded by a group of friends who played basketball in the past, either in high school or leagues from all over the world before 1994. We are from crosscutting backgrounds as we have senior government officials, private business people and the civil society, to name a few. It’s really a diverse community,” Kirungi said.
He says that the founders used to play the game of basketball during on evenings as they were trying to find something that can keep them fit as they grew older. Later, they realized that they also needed to do something for youth development, and basketball was all they had in common.
“We used to summon young people who love the game, pick them from school or at their job placements, and mentor them for professional life. Ideally the objective was to get them to actually be better citizens, but through the game of basketball,” he narrates.
Patriots head coach Henry Mwinuke gives instructions to his players during a time-out in a past game against REG. File photo.
Title-decider for playoffs title today
Patriots have won two leagues titles and represented the country at the Zone V championship in Uganda last year where they came out second in the regional tournament.
Today, they take on their nemesis REG in Game 5 of the best-of-five playoffs finals at Amahoro Stadium in a winner-take-all much awaited clash. The two archrivals are level 2-2 in the series.
While Patrick Ngwijuruvugo’s REG seek to end the season on a high, Patriots are battling to complete a local double after dethroning the former to win the 2017/2018 league in June.
Should Patriots overcome REG tonight, they will become the first side to win the playoffs title back-to-back since 2015. The later had won it since 2012.
Patriots and the NBA dream
“Our ideal as a club is to produce the best basketball players and responsible citizens for country and continent. At the moment, we have five university fresh graduates, four players already placed in jobs and some who are still pursuing studies at university,” Kirungi states.
The dream for the Kagugu-based team is to African champions, and see one of their players one day joining the famous American National Basketball Association (NBA) topflight league.
“Our goal is to grow the game of basketball locally and draw more fans at stadiums. Today, the stadium sells out only when we are playing. Lately, some opponents are picking up, which is very encouraging and healthy for the growth of the sport. We commend the good job done by the likes of REG and, Espoir and APR who have been around for longer. We push the agenda together – it can’t be all about us,” he explained.
Kirungi thinks that for the group, the dream is to see the league growing bigger and stronger so that young Rwandans – both boys and girls – can aspire to play at the highest level.
The team is yet to sell any of their players to a foreign club but they are in talks with Israeli’s Maccabi Tel’Aviv and some other teams in Europe.
When asked who the players in question are, Kirungi declined to disclose the names.
90 per cent of Patriots players are Rwandans, which Kirungi says is Patriots’ ideal. Only two players, Kenyan Micheal Makiadi and DR Congo-born Junior Kasongo are the foreign players on the team this year.
Aristide Mugabe captains the team for the last three years. He also serves as captain for the national senior men’s basketball team.
“One thing we take pride in is that five of our players are on the national team,” he says.
“If we could have three Patriots players in the NBA or five playing in Europe, we would have achieved what we really intended to. But that’s not how we really measure our impact, the most important contribution is to have these young men and women become better citizens and leaders, and set example for younger generations,” he noted.
Given the resources the team has, Kirungi says that they have not been able to get into the women’s league, but underlined that they are aware of the gender ideals of the country.
“It’s just a matter of time; I think in the next one or two years we should be able to establish a women’s team,” he revealed.
According to Kirungi, the club plans to construct their own ‘fully equipped’ arena in future, a place to call home, and get rid of the current training court at SOS Children’s Village in Kagugu.