UGANDA : NBA experience thrills Ugandan youngsters

FUTURE STARS: L-R: Lule, Enabu and Katumba after being picked for the US trip. Below, Lule aft er returning home. PHOTOS: ISMAIL KEZAALA

Basketball in Uganda is on an upward trend. From the national league to school competitions, there is sufficient evidence that basketball administrators have made an effort to uplift the standards of the game. But unlike Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda has not made any noteworthy basketball exports.

Last year, Tanzania actually had their first draft in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with Hasheem Thabeet becoming the first East African to attain that feat. The NBA is the home of basketball in the world and for an East African country to have a player in any of the NBA teams is an enormous achievement.

Uganda looks so far from getting her first draft but one gifted young player has a career dream of featuring in the NBA. James Lule was in America in October last year on a trip sponsored by Coca-Cola under their Sprite brand and got enough inspiration to pursue that dream. “I watched some NBA games on the courtside and felt like some day, I should play on those courts,” the 18-year-old player said.

Lule was among three players selected by former San Antonio Spurs star Steve Smith to take part in an NBA camp. Emmanuel Enabu and Derrick Katumba were the others picked by Smith as the country’s best upcoming players. The trio spent a week in America with the All-Africa select team undergoing intensive training and learning fundamentals of the game. Kenya had two players on the All-Africa team while Uganda, Angola, Tanzania and Mozambique fielded three each.

Although they lost most of the friendly games they played against American school teams, the boys had a lifetime experience. “It was thrilling,” Lule recalled.

For four days, they were in Washington DC and got a chance to watch the Wizards playing against Memphis Grizzlies. They later headed to Tennessee where they had a feel of college basketball and sat on the courtside as Memphis Grizzlies hosted Detroit Pistons. “Watching those NBA games is the most memorable thing that happened during that trip,” Lule reminisced. “It was inspiring.”

An ardent Detroit Pistons fan, Lule admitted getting selected from the hundreds of players to go to USA was a surprise but a reward for his determination.

“In 2009, I attended trials to go for the Basketball Without Borders (BWB) camp in South Africa but was left out. It was disappointing,” he revealed. “But this time round when they told me I had been selected, I was thrilled. There were very many good guys and you had to be very good to make the cut.”

Standing at 6 inch, 3 ft and weighing 75kgs, Lule has what most players in Uganda lack: physique. And he is still growing. “I have realised that we have the talent in Uganda but our players are not physical enough. It’s very hard to compete at the top level when you don’t have power,” he revealed. Born to Mr and Mrs Michael Nsereko of Ggaba Road, Lule’s love for basketball is unrivalled.

It’s too much that at times it rubs his parents the wrong way.
For instance while going for the NBA camp selection trials at UCU Mukono, Lule never informed his parents thinking they would stop him. “I only learnt that he was going for trials at the last minute,” his mother Deborah Nsereko, an accountant, explained. “I had no option but to drive him to Mukono and I am happy he made it.”

To make sure he doesn’t spend all his time playing basketball and forget about education, Lule’s parents advised him to leave St Mary’s College Kisubi (Smack) – a boarding school and join Mengo Secondary – a day school.

At Mengo, the parents are able to interact with Lule and make sure he revises his books regularly. “We want to monitor him properly,” the mother revealed. “We are in an environment where one can’t earn a living from sports. Much as we want him to do sports, he has to put emphasis on education.” And the progress in class is encouraging, at least from the mother’s point of view. “He is doing well,” the mother noted.

Lule is left with one year of secondary school education and wants to get through with it before dedicating most of his time to basketball. “I love basketball but I know education is important. However, soon I will start playing in the national league and see what the future holds for me,” he remarked.

His colleague Enabu is already a hit in the topflight league having played a vital role in guiding DMark Power to their fourth Fuba League title. Katumba is also a major target for the country’s top clubs and should make a breakthrough next season.

But Lule doesn’t feel any pressure to impress on the local scene. He displayed his skills in USA and there is a likelihood scouts can come for him anytime. Comfortable in every position on the court apart from pointing, Lule has only been a competitive basketballer for three years.

In 2008, he represented Smack in the National Schools Basketball Association (NASBA) tournament but they were knocked out in second round. In 2009 and 2010, he was part of the Mengo team that reached the quarterfinals in the NASBA tournament. He, however, hasn’t won any individual accolades. Having visited the US, Lule appreciated the hurdles Ugandans must overcome to make it to the top.

“There is need for the concerned authorities to invest more in basketball. The national team must participate in continental tournaments if we are to make a step ahead,” he noted. “The facilities in schools have to be improved.”

The third born of four siblings, Lule is following in the footsteps of his two elder brothers Peter Busulwa and Paul Kayongo. Busulwa plays college basketball in Utah, USA. Although none of his parents excelled in sports, Lule’s passion is a clear indication he will go places. “Ever since he was a child, he showed signs of liking sports and we are supporting him,” his mother noted.