by Sande Bashaija
For a good number of years, Ugandan sides have struggled to match their counterparts in the Africa Zone 5 region.
Falcons (2000) and Lady Bucks (2004) were the last clubs to rule regional basketball but tables have since turned against the Ugandans.
Yet the general consensus is that Uganda’s basketball league ranks up there compared with neighbours Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi.
Kampala City Council (KCC Leopards), have in the past three years carried the country’s flag. Throughout their campaigns, KCC Leopards have been nearly women. At last year’s edition in Ethiopia, they finished fourth. Now, KCC are leading the women’s charge as the Sprite-sponsored tournament begins at YMCA, Makerere and Namboole today. But can the mayor’s girls or any other team keep the trophy home?
“There are high chances we can win the tournament and qualify for the Africa Championship,” KCC Leopards coach Timothy Odeke said on Thursday. “We have had good preparations and when you look at the talent in our squad, there is no doubt we shall do well,” he added.
With MTN-Fuba League champions UCU Lady Canons having pulled out, Uganda’s hopes obviously lie in the Leopards and A-1 Challenge.
The two sides have the necessary experience but who says the foreign legion is limited in that aspect.
“I am only worried about KPA (Kenya Ports Authority). It’s the kind of team everyone would love to avoid,” Odeke said, acknowledging the threat presented by the Kenyan women league champions.
Most KCC players still remember how KPA overturned a 20-point deficit to beat them in the 2007 Zone 5 inter-city tournament in Nairobi.
Good for KCC, they have beefed up their side with the recruitment of Uganda’s best female basketball player, Flavia Oketcho and other youngsters. The depth is a big plus.
But like A-1 Challenge, lack of pre-tournament action seems to be the biggest hindrance in the 2007 league champions’ preparations.
“Apart from A-1 Challenge, other local teams are not very competitive. So it would be a waste of time to play build-up games with them,” Odeke noted.
A-1 Challenge overran KCC and negotiated the MTN-Fuba League first round unbeaten, making them the most feared local team - on paper, at least. But all is not rosy in the A-1 Challenge camp. “To play in such a tournament, you need to dedicate at least two weeks to residential training. But you realise that most of our players can’t leave their jobs to enter camp,” A-1 Challenge skipper Ali Mavita revealed early last week. “It’s a tricky situation for us.”
Mavita’s team comes up against equally experienced but better prepared opposition in the 10-day tournament. A-1 Challenge’s best performance in the Zone 5 tournament came in 2006 when they finished third in Nairobi. They won’t complain of inexperience, it’s their chance to try and go one better. “We shall give it our best shot. But it won’t be easy,” Mavita, one of Uganda’s best female players, noted.
Rangers’ wild card
The withdrawal of Lady Canons opened the door for Kampala International University (KIU) Rangers to represent Uganda as the third team.
Fourth on the league table at the close first round, KIU Rangers have their match-ups in the tournament but can’t be counted among contenders for the top prize.
The Kasanga-based team should, however, be able to outlast Somalia’s Heagen and Ethio Water (Ethiopia), with home ground advantage as their biggest strength.
From Rwanda, APR carry with them loads of experience, making them fierce title contenders.
Burundi’s Berco Stars and Tanzania’s JKT look outsiders but can’t be taken lightly bearing in mind their consistency in international competitions.
For Falcons, record champions of the local league, this tournament brings with it special memories.
Their mettle is tried and tested. They defeated Seychelles side Premium Cobras to lift the regional trophy in 2000 in Kampala and have been to the semifinals twice (1999 and 2001).
And they are not taking this year’s edition for granted.
The six-time league winners are fresh from a build-up tournament in Kigali, Rwanda. “The Kigali trip was key in our preparations. People will see how good we are,” Ssimbwa said on Wednesday.
Ssimbwa’s charges put up a commendable show against the Rwanda national team, losing 93-117, edged CSK 77-74 and comprehensively defeated Marine 87-65 to complete their tour last week.
There couldn’t have been a better way for Falcons to build up for the zonal challenge. “We are in upbeat mood. If all goes according to plan, we should be able to make the final,” promised Ssimbwa.
Lack of funds ensured Falcons missed out on last year’s tournament held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and it’s only now that they can make up for that disappointment.
Their ambition is unquestionable and with Stephen Omony back in the squad after a professional stint in Seychelles, Falcons look well-equipped to compete favourably.
Of course there are teams like KPA (Kenya) Bilpam Warriors (Sudan), Haegen (Somalia), New Stars (Burundi) and Kenya Commercial Bank to worry about but Falcons have faced most of them before.
Whereas Falcons can boast of good preparations, DMark Power technical director Peter Mubanda is sweating over his team’s readiness. “I wish I could say things are okay,” Mubanda told Scoreline when asked about the developments in his team’s camp. “Our big players are busy with work while others are at school. It’s a difficult situation,” Mubanda noted.
Bring in the fact that the reigning league champions last played a competitive game on June 26 and it’s a hell of worries for Mubanda.
All he can pray for is that his talented players can rely on their natural abilities and give their fans something to smile about. That they can. How about Warriors?
Tanzanian Ramathan Abdulahi and Kenyan Martin Okwako have given Warriors enviable depth. The duo’s performances in the league have been awesome and they can sure help Warriors mount a challenge in this tournament.
Thank God, there is no Egyptian team taking part.
Not to count off the rest of the opposition, but its time for Ugandans to make their home ground advantage count. It’s only unfortunate that all games are to be played outdoor because Lugogo is undergoing renovation.