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Rubber and Concrete: A Ugandan Basketball Story

Texas Legends assistant coach George Galanopoulos leads Uganda at AfroBasket

Stephen Omwony 
Ugandan National Team

The Silverbacks scored first. A blur of maroon and gold; Brandon Sebirumbi, a lengthy forward with dreadlocks down to his number, hardly left his feet to collect the rebound. Josh Johnson, an undersized guard who briefly played professionally in England before returning to the uneven concrete and dirt stained nets of Kampala, took the handoff and two dribbles and then fired the ball three quarter-lengths of the floor.

The pass found Stan Ocitti, a 35-year-old retired ballplayer turned agent, under the basket for an easy layup. Even with worn knees and invisible ankle weights, Ocitti out sprinted all five Tunisian defenders for the bucket.

“We don’t shoot well, that’s a problem that we have,” Mandy Juruni, the head coach of the Ugandan national team says. “We like running the ball a lot, and taking the ball to the basket. Our identity is really our transition basketball.”

The basket - not only Uganda’s first points at FIBA AfroBasket 2015, but at any major tournament ever – was the ideal start for the chronically underfunded, perennial doormat. If it hasn’t been the ragged training facilities, it’s been problems getting uniforms. If it hasn’t been the repeated losses at qualifiers to Rwanda it’s been FIBA’s stringent player eligibility requirements.

The next five minutes and eight seconds weren’t as seamless. The Silverbacks only managed one basket – an eight-foot banker from Ocitti – turned the ball over twice, missed a dunk and forced up bad shots with little to no ball movement. Their pace was disjointed and frantic – as if basketball is played in henhouses by chickens whose heads had recently been separated from their necks.

Led by 7’ NBA player Salah Mejri and naturalized American Michael Roll and playing in front of a homecourt audience, Tunisia was patient. They rotated, swung the ball to the open man, and successfully converted deep threes – a stark contrast to the Ugandan free-for-all.

“We really didn’t play to our potential,” Juruni remembers. “Maybe because it was our first time. We had really high expectations. The display that we put out there was not what we expected. That was a bit low.”

Down 12-4, Sebirumbi took a pass in the low post. Seeing a second defender move towards him and away from the three-point line, he kicked the ball out to an open teammate. Ocitti knocked down the shot, now accounting for all seven Ugandan points. Not surprisingly, the first effective ball movement of the game was between the two Silverbacks with the highest level of playing experience.

Sebirumbi was an outlier on the team: the son of Ugandan parents who emigrated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the 1980s on academic scholarships, he honed his game on hardwood floors, using leather basketballs under the tutelage of American coaches. For most Ugandans on the national team, it was chafed rubber and cement. In high school, Sebirumbi was a standout at Keller Central in DFW, averaging 11 points and 10 rebounds a game, before moving on to Division I Furman University and then pro ball in Portugal, Spain and Japan.

“Every two years (growing up) my mom would take me back to see our family,” Sebirumbi says. “Being here in the United States, I had the identity of knowing my heritage; my parent’s values and customs. My grandmother (in Uganda) lives in a compound where you take a dirt road to get there. You still had to put hot water in a tub and bathe yourself that way. But it didn’t matter. As a kid, it was just so amazing to see and be around family I don’t see very often, who are still such a big part of my life. I did notice that yes there is poverty, but I was just focused on the human element. I’m seeing relatives you don’t see very often; they are so kind, so nice. Every time I think of Uganda, I think of people’s faces.”

Though Sebirumbi grew up connected to his heritage, Uganda’s basketball exploits were a mystery.

“I never ever played basketball in Uganda,” Sebirumbi remembers. “Not until the Ugandan national team management contacted me and said ‘do you want to play? We see that you play basketball professionally.’ I was like ‘oh snap.’ I didn’t know anything about the national team. I didn’t know anything about basketball in Uganda.”

Wedged between three Tunisians, 36-year-old Henry Malinga impossibly pulled down an offensive rebound. At 6-foot-5, Malinga doesn’t have the prototypical body for a center.

“Size is hard to come by,” Albert Ahabwe, a slender 31-year-old who works in media and communications for the National Roads Authority in Kampala, and who moonlights as the volunteer team manager, says. “We’re a small people nation.”

Since 1999, Malinga has established a reputation in Uganda as a technician in the paint; a Hakeem Olajuwon of sorts. In the early 2000s, he had a chance to play in the United States, but was unable to get a visa.

Malinga kicked the ball out to Ocitti beyond the three-point line. Again, Ocitti drilled the shot, cutting the Tunisian lead to 15-10.

“My mentality was like ‘okay, let me try to have a positive impact by showing we can compete at this level; that we’re not scared; that we have some experience competing against NBA players and other top international players,’” says Ocitti.

In 1988 when Ocitti was eight, his father, a journalist, took a job with a European media company moving the family from their one-room home in Kampala to the German river-city Cologne.

“We were in a poverty-stricken area,” says Ocitti of his childhood in Kampala. “Just one room, that was it. It was poverty at its worst, so it was quite an experience at a young age that I still remember.”

After moving from Cologne to Amsterdam, Ocitti picked up basketball thanks to taunts from local Dutch children as he walked by an outdoor court. Determined to prove his athletic salt, Ocitti bicycled daily to the nearest slab of concrete with a usable hoop – all of three hours away from his home. At 18, he walked on at the University of Connecticut, winning a national championship in 1999. After transferring to and graduating from the University of Binghamton in 2003, he embarked on a 12-year professional career, making stops in Norway, Austria, Hungary and Japan, before becoming an agent. In 2015, Ocitti returned to Uganda for the first time in 27 years to represent the country at AfroBasket.

“Being from Uganda, it’s my home, it’s where I was born,” Ocitti says. “I was like if I go there, I get a chance to play for the national team and get a chance to see where I’m from. I get to see relatives I haven’t seen in 30 years. It just made sense in terms of growth.”

With Sebirumbi in early foul trouble, Ocitti was now the largest Ugandan body on the floor – forcing him into a defensive matchup with Mejri. Off another Tunisian miss, he pushed himself down the court in the direction of his country’s hoop, as if the full measure of his life traveled down his legs and out his feet with each thunderous step. The ball came to Ocitti beyond the three-point line; he dropped it perfectly through the net. Ocitti had single handedly kept pace with Tunisia, scoring the first 13 points in the first major tournament in Ugandan basketball history.

“At that point, we're thinking if he keeps going like this, he might get 40 - and we might have a chance,” Ahabwe says. “Watching Stan in that first game was inspiring. He brought something we were not accustomed to: 6-foot-9 guy that could shoot the ball that well. It worked perfectly off our running, transition game. The problem was, Brandon got into quick foul trouble and so we had to play Stanley long minutes - a 35- year-old body; he got banged up and ran out of steam late.”

On their next three defensive possessions, Uganda committed a shooting foul, gave up an alley-oop to Mejri, and then committed another shooting foul. With a six-point deficit looking like it could swing to 60, Juruni called a timeout.

“The ball pressure has to be better; they are driving so easy; let’s talk on defense,” Juruni, soft-spoken and middle aged, with an appearance that belies the inexperience of youth and the wisdom of longevity, shouted to his Silverbacks, most of whom stood a full head taller than him.

Juruni started playing basketball at nine, picking the game up from an older brother returning from the United States.

“When I started playing I was tiny,” he says. “I started playing for a club, so I was taught basketball the right way. We had an American coach who really taught me the fundamentals. Not so many players in Uganda have that opportunity to grow up under a coach. Usually, Ugandans just get the ball and go to a court and do whatever – so they miss out on a lot of the fundamentals.”

The first time Juruni played in an indoor gym with wood flooring and a dimpled leather ball, he was a high school student. The best team in Kampala, his high school squad was invited to Minneapolis to play against their American counterparts.

“It was a bit cold,” Juruni says. “It was our first time on an indoor gym; it was very difficult for us. At that time, it was very hard to get basketballs of good quality. We used to play with rubber basketballs. When we got there, we were just amazed by so many things: The level of the players we were playing against was way better than us.”

Juruni’s first coach, an American UNICEF worker saw something in him. “You are going to be a great coach one day, he told me,” Juruni remembers. “Every time he could not make practice, he would delegate me to take over. That’s how I got started in coaching.”

The timeout didn’t help Uganda’s stagnant offense. With under a minute left in the quarter, Kassim Nagwere, a 6’3” guard off the bench hit a pair of free throws, giving Uganda their first points from somebody other than Ocitti.

With the quarter closing, Tunisia pushed their lead to 24-15.

Moments before the buzzer, Stephen Omwony, a 35-year old guard-forward that Juruni calls “the legend,” took quick jab step and then launched a contested three. The basket was good – 24-18. If Malinga is Uganda’s answer to Olajuwon than Omwony is Jordan.

Ahabwe cites Omwony as the reason he originally became interested in basketball.

“When I was about 13, a Sprite (sponsored) team came to our school, led by a young Stephen Omwony and played a pick-up game against our school’s best. Steve dropped a 360-windmill in traffic. It was the craziest athletic thing I’d ever seen any sportsman do. At that time, I just used to go to the court to watch. I could barely bounce the ball, because there’s not much basketball in Western Uganda where I come from.”

The next three quarters were as uneven as the first. Ocitti wore out, scoring only seven more points. Omwony got hot for 15, but there was little else. Tunisia built a comfortable lead, winning by 22. Two days later, African powerhouse Nigeria throttled Uganda 98-59. A four-point loss to Central African Republic followed and then a 31-point drubbing at the hands of Senegal.

“I was blown away,” Ahabwe says. It was hard to get there; we went through a lot; worked too hard. We went there to compete and we felt like we could have done better.”

The silver lining came in Uganda’s last game of the tournament against Zimbabwe in a match that determined last place. Behind Ocitti’s 27 points and 7 rebounds, the Silverbacks won their first game at a major tournament.

“There’s a struggle in everything,” Sebirumbi says. “We didn’t have the smoothest (tournament). There was a struggle in being prepared. I think they thought they were going to have more funding. That was a big part. Still we persevered. We did the best we could. It’s these little things that mean a lot. It’s like, if there’s more (financial) support, it pushes the team further. But they stood their ground and kept it moving. It really was one of those experiences you have to go through. You have to show up and go through the tournament to come back and know how to prepare better. We can all say we should have prepared better, but maybe that’s because as a group we hadn’t been there.”

American missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers brought basketball to Uganda in the 1960s. The first Ugandan’s to play the game did so on patches of grass and dirt, using backboard-less netball hoops. Though the popularity of the game spread slowly, it did reach the highest level of Ugandan socio-politics.

Notorious dictator Idi Amin - whose eight-year reign of terror saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ugandan civilians – was said to be enamored with the sport. Grainy footage exists of Amin and a group of diplomats playing a game of pick-up basketball. Amin, in a form fitting blue track-suit, huffs and puffs around the court before banking a shot granny style. Amin’s status as a hoops-head goes even further as it has long been rumored that he employed former Seattle Super Sonics enforcer John Brisker as a mercenary. It has been said that Brisker was killed by firing squad after Amin fled Uganda.

The national teams’ first foray into competition with a nation outside of East Africa came in 1972 against famed Russian super-team CSKA Moscow.

In an exhibition match at the newly opened MTN Arena, CSKA Moscow did battle with a Ugandan squad coached by an American CIA operative named Jay Mullen, who fell into the job after earning a reputation as a ballplayer during pick-up runs at the YMCA.

The game against the Russians ended when a Soviet player snapped one of the rims off its’ backboard with a thunderous dunk.

In a 2015 Buzzfeed story about the game, Journalist Shaun Raviv wrote:

The Ugandans didn’t win. The Soviet team was too big, too polished, too experienced, and the Ugandans too raw, getting by on 99% heart. When the rim came down, the score reflected the difference in the teams’ skill levels. (The Uganda Argus reported that the Soviets had 87 points, but the Ugandan score in the Library of Congress’s archived edition is too blurry to read. It looks closest to 33.)

But Mullen had done something even better than win. The game ended with two fistfights, two ejected players, and the country’s only indoor basketball facilities destroyed. His team hadn’t been humiliated, and, though they had won, the Soviets didn’t look like untouchable superheroes.

Political instability of the 1970s and 80s stalled the growth of the sport. Still, the game inched along. Tapes of NBA games would find their way to Kampala months after they had been played. In fact, the first time both Juruni and Ahabwe saw an NBA game, they watched pre-recorded NBA Finals matchups – the 97’ Bulls against the Jazz in Juruni’s case and the 01’ Lakers against the 76ers in Ahabwe’s case. Years later, that same thrill from the highest level of professional basketball in the world exists in Ahabwe, who says he wakes up at 2 a.m. multiple times a week to watch Warriors or Celtics games.

In 1995 a professional league was established, and though most games are played on rugged concrete with fans watching from plastic patio chairs, the players continue inspiring the next generation.

“The league is mostly amateur really,” Ahabwe says. “Almost everyone who helps in organizing the league is a volunteer. Most people who run the clubs are volunteers; it's just some players getting paid, and it's not that much money, and a lot of guys playing for university teams on scholarships. Financing is a huge problem. Sometimes we go half the season without a sponsor. People make do, sacrifices are made to play the game.”

Despite the financial obstacles the league faces, games are played at both a surprisingly high level and in front of rabid fans.

“It is a very, very, fast-paced game,” Ocitti says. “Everybody from the guards to the bigs really run the floor. I was pleasantly surprised at how popular basketball has become in East Arica. I had no idea it had such a huge following. In Uganda, the fans are intense and very loyal to their teams in the (domestic) league. Some games get so packed there is only standing room in the (MTN) gym.”

Albert Ahabwe, Mandy Juruni, Stan Ocitti and Brandon Sebirumbi all use the word preparation when describing what went wrong at AfroBasket in 2015.

Training camp for the tournament started that August, two weeks before tipoff against Tunisia. Away from the Boda-boda’s and Matatu’s; away from the congested streets and chaos that a-millon-and-half residents bring about, MTN Arena stands in the Lugogo section of Central Kampala.

More Soviet airplane hangar than gym, MTN Arena is the only indoor basketball court in Kampala.

“A basic-level American high school would protest if they were made to play in it,” Ahabwe says.

There had been rumors that China – who has already built a soccer stadium in Kampala – with their ever-expanding footprint in Uganda, would build another basketball gym. But thus far, nothing has materialized.

Constructed in 1970, MTN Arena’s wood floors were ripped out in 2009 and replaced with rubber to cut down on maintenance costs.

“The current facilities that the national team uses are really bad,” Ocitti says. “In 2015 we practiced there, and the floors are basically cement. It really affected some of our international players. Brandon (Sebirumbi) for example; it put his knees in really bad shape. Myself, my knees at the tournament, I felt after practicing on those floors, I wasn’t able to move as well as I would have liked. Compared to the other top countries (in Africa) the facilities are really bad.”

Compounding the problem, both the national team and professional league in Kampala share the gym with billiards, netball, badminton and a host of other events, often sending basketball to an outdoor court at the YMCA.

“Sometimes, we have to practice on outdoor surfaces, where guys like Stan who have been on wood most of their lives have issues with their knees” Ahabwe says.

On each end of the court, inspirational slogans adorn the walls: The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital. And, Opportunities don’t go away, they go to someone else. Bright yellow plastic seating line each side of MTN Arena. The capacity of 800 can be pushed to 1,200, meaning watching basketball in the gym can be as uncomfortable as playing basketball in the gym. The stands feature slogans as well, most prominently hustle and heart set us apart.

With a complete lack of resources, hustle from people like Ahabwe, Ocitti - who has taken on an active role in recruiting U.S. based players - and general manager Mohamed Santur, is how Uganda qualified for AfroBasket in 2015 and again in 2017.

“I got invited to join the team in 2013 by Mohammed Santur because he’d seen my work in the basketball circles (of the professional league) and the passion that I had for the game,” Ahabwe says. “The national team was in shambles at that time. Often the team would fail to make it for tournaments due to lack of funds, and when they did make it, they would be ill prepared or lack basics like good jerseys or equipment. It was a bad situation. The team had nothing and there was no individual or group directly responsible.”

The lack of funding's impact on the national team is three-fold. The gym the team uses is so subpar it influences performance; the domestic league is unable to adequately develop local players; training camp runs shorter for Uganda than most other national teams.

“Other countries get a month to prepare for a big tournament,” Juruni says. “We could not afford to do that, we could only practice for two weeks. I think we have the talent to compete, but again, the bulk of the players play locally, so they are not as exposed as the players from Nigeria or Senegal. The bulk of their players play in better leagues.”

The Ugandan government kicks in little money, and the team has been dependent on private donations to stay afloat. In 2015, some believed that they were close to falling short of the money necessary to travel to Tunisia.

"The funding in terms of the government has been really, really poor,” Ocitti says. "It’s frustrating because you see how much money they give to other sports like soccer, which gets hundreds of thousands. For basketball, you are asking for seventy-five thousand or hundred thousand or even less, and that small amount of money is so hard to get, and most of the time we have to wait until the last minute to know if we are going to get the money. Or, the money goes disappearing through corrupt means and channels. Without the private funding, we would most likely not be able to participate in these tournaments."

"We source funds from the government and from the corporate fraternity,” Ahabwe adds. "Sometimes when things are thin, people still reach into their own pockets. It's still tough, but there's a team in charge of things and making a great effort. We still aren't well financed enough, but we're competitive. We have qualified for AfroBasket back to back, and have been able to invite and cater for our foreign based players which previously was impossible."

The first time A’Darius Pegues tore his ACL he was a senior in high school. It was a hop-stop gone awry. The second time, he was at Western Kentucky. After practice one afternoon, his knee swelled and that was it. No McDonalds All-American game, no Sweet 16.

“I knew what I was capable of,” Pegues says. “I couldn’t help that I had those knee injuries at vital times. My senior year I was nominated for the McDonalds All-American game. 2008, we went to the sweet 16 against UCLA, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. I know if I was allotted those two years, I’d have been in the NBA; I’d have been a draft pick.”

The second knee injury coupled with the birth of a child pushed Pegues into a phase of his life where he refers to himself as “a working man.”

“I worked at Rent-A-Center for a couple of years,” Pegues says with a chuckle. “I’m 6’11. I didn’t see that for my life. I knew what I was capable of. I knew that I had an unfortunate occurrence of events. Just sitting there working, it was like a depression. I couldn’t accept that for myself. Being a manager at Rent-A-Center, I didn’t see that for my future. I had put in too much work.”

In 2014, at 26, Pegues graduated from Campbellsville University in Kentucky.

Pegues long winding basketball journey alone made him the perfect fit for the Ugandan national team. That, and the fact that he’s 6’11 and north of 250 pounds. A veteran of the LNBP in Mexico, Pegues was recruited this year by Ocitti to play for Uganda. Although Pegues has no Ugandan heritage, national teams can play one naturalized citizen.

“I knew nothing at all about Uganda,” Pegues says. “I watched videos on YouTube, that was all the knowledge I had about the Ugandan national team.”

In this years’ Zone 5 qualification tournament for AfroBasket, Pegues led Uganda to a silver medal averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game.

“Their heart stood out,” Pegues says. “They play a great transition game. Fast and furious. We’re brothers; were family. I feel like this is a group of guys that I will be in touch with forever.”

Pegues isn’t the only key addition to this year’s Silverback team. George Galanopoulos, a 28-year old NBA G League assistant coach with the Texas Legends will be the lead coach for Uganda at AfroBasket, with Juruni as an assistant coach.

“He’s a hard worker, and a good scout,” Jameel Warney a player for the Legends in 2016-17 says. “He’s going places. I saw it on social media this summer - I was surprised. It’s a big honor. He’s a smart guy, he’s going to be well prepared – he’ll know the teams’ strength and weaknesses. He’ll bring a lot of toughness to that group.”

At 16, Galanopoulos started coaching fifth and sixth grade AAU players in his home state of Illinois. At Indiana University, he was a manager on the basketball team. After graduating, he spent three seasons with the now defunct Bakersfield Jam of the G League, and has additional experience coaching in the National Basketball League of New Zealand.

“If you had asked me what I knew about Uganda, I’d have said it’s a country in Africa, that’s about it,” Galanopoulos says. What happened was my head coach for the Legends – Bob Mackinnon – lives in North Carolina. Stanley Ocitti lives in North Carolina. They were at the same gym one day. They started talking. I guess he put in a good word for our head coach. He couldn’t do it, so he recommended me for the position. I’m very thankful for my head coach for recommending me, and Stanley and them for putting the faith in me to try to help them out. What I sensed from them was an urgency to improve and kind of think outside the box – come across the waters to find an American coach that maybe brings a structure and organization that I think they are really searching for; to kind of prepare them better than years past.”

Looking at the field of this years’ AfroBasket that will feature such players with NBA experience as Gorgui Dieng (Senegal), and Ike Diogu (Nigeria), Galanopoulos is concerning himself with improvement more so than anything else.

“What’s most important is that our focus and collective mindset and approach to our practices and training camp needs to be on improvement,” Galanopoulos says. “Simply improvement. We can’t be worrying about the past. Maybe the lack of success or worrying about winning a certain amount of games. Our focus has to be on maximizing the time we are together – specifically the two-week window leading up to the games. There needs to be more organization in what we are trying to accomplish as a team both offensively and defensively. And it needs to be taught specifically and consistently every single day. The preparation before the game, scouting reports, watching film; from my understanding, those are things that need to be improved.”

Beyond just the additions of Pegues and Galanopoulos, training camp leading up to the first tip on September 8th was held away from the harsh terrain of MTN Arena, in Alexandria Egypt. A massive coup for the Ugandans.

Unfortunately, the elimination of one set of obstacles gave way to the creation of an entirely new set.

In 2015, Sebirumbi, the son of Ugandan born parents, but himself born in the United States, was forced to play as a naturalized player. FIBA requires non-naturalized players to prove that they had obtained a passport from the country in which they compete by the age of 16. Two of Uganda’s best players Sebirumbi and point guard John Balwigaire are viewed as naturalized citizens by FIBA because of the absence of an issued passport prior to their 16th birthday. With Pegues playing as a naturalized player, both Sebirumbi and Balwigaire will be unable to play at this year’s AfroBasket.

“Our best players are barred from playing,” Ahabwe says. “FIBA eligibility rules. Yeah, he’s born to both Ugandan parents, but in the States. That makes us less competitive. Because they didn’t get a Ugandan passport before 16 they can’t play. The whole Nigerian team were born in the States. I guess different rules apply differently for different nations. We have appealed to the highest offices of FIBA. These are not players we’re picking up and naturalizing. These are Ugandans who just happen to have been born away from home because of our political turmoil of the 80s. Our situations as countries need to be considered – but who cares about a small team like Uganda? FIBA won’t have it. You have to understand that our history is different from most of these European nations. This has to be considered before they stop kids from having an opportunity to represent their motherland.”

The general belief around the team is that FIBA Africa doesn’t want to upset the status quo by giving smaller countries competitive advantages over the perennial tournament winners.

“You’d think that it would be the other way around and FIBA would be breaking their backs trying to help the countries that are not as strong in terms of their basketball development and allow them to have their best players,” says Ocitti.

“One of the feedbacks we have been getting from other countries is that smaller countries like Uganda and Rwanda should not be allowed to participate because that brings down the level of basketball in Africa at these tournaments. Ugandans overseas, there is only a handful of us, whereas countries like Angola and Nigeria have a ton of talent they can pick from and they are given all the opportunities. Doors open wide; there is no real struggle when they are trying to get their players eligible for these tournaments.”

Undeniably, had Balwigaire been allowed to play in 2015 and both he and Sebirumbi in 2017, Uganda would be a more formidable opponent.

“Uganda have been the victims of a ruling that needs clarification,” Júlio Chitunda, a journalist covering FIBA Africa for FIBA.com says. “I don’t really know why John Balwigaire wasn’t allowed to play at AfroBasket 2015. Especially because he played for Uganda during the qualifiers a few months earlier. Clearly with Balwigaire on the team, I am sure Uganda could have done better than they did in Tunis. Once and for all, it’s time for national team’s directors to be able to figure out what FIBA eligibility rules stand for.”

Uganda opens AfrobBasket in Dakar against historically dominant Angola. Few expect them to be competitive. Though, grouped with middling teams CAF and Morocco, Uganda is in a good spot to make it out of the first round.

“If Uganda wins at least one game in their group, which is frankly possible, they could write a new chapter in African basketball history,” Chitunda says. “Keep in mind that the teams that finish in the first two places of Group B in Dakar will advance to the quarter-finals in Tunis. So, for a country that will be competing at AfroBasket for the second straight time in more than three decades, reaching the quarter-finals would mean a tremendous success.”

Uganda, as told by the men of the national team, is not the country the outside world believes it to be. “Uganda isn’t the richest country. But, the gloom that is pictured is a dramatic exaggeration,” Ahabwe says. Undoubtedly, things have changed for the better over the past two-decades. Still, the scars of despots remain with a per capita income near the lowest in the world and rates of alcohol abuse near the highest in the world.

“All Uganda needs is a gym with a wood floor,” Sebirumbi says.

Though he is only speaking of the development of basketball, the optimism that permeates from those involved with the national team is enough to convince that all the country really needs is a gym with a wood floor. They don’t need to win games, they just need to be able to play them.

“I love this game,” Juruni says. “Basketball means a lot to me. It has given me an education. It has taken me places and I have built a network around the world because of this game.”

Basketball is a lifelong love affair. And as Ocitti and Omwony, now both 37, illustrate, you play until your body is as worn as the rims at the park.