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Ex-players’ passion for game blossoms into popular league

VICTOR OTIENO            By VICTOR OTIENO            
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It is a Saturday about 10am and already, the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground in Kisumu County is teeming with activity.

Squeaking sounds and loud cheers from a group of spectators around the two open terrazzo basketball courts at the recreational centre rent the air.

This has been the situation at the centre on most weekends since 2014, as local basketball clubs battle for the bragging rights in the Kisumu County Basketball League (KCBL).

The surge in the number of spectators as the day progresses and their liveliness tell a different story – apart from football, the lakeside city residents also love basketball.

Neither the dark clouds nor the rumbles of the oncoming rain can send them away.

With the security lights around the courts on, sometime the matches can go into the night.

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This year, the KCBL will be clocking its sixth edition. It is among the few grassroots basketball leagues countrywide, with other popular ones being – Nairobi Basketball Association and Coast Basketball Association.

KCBL is the brainchild of three friends who are also former basketball players – Erick Odhiambo (chairman), Oliver Nyawanda (coordinator) and Ellie Mwallo (coordinator).

Odhiambo, is a former power forward at Highway Secondary School in Nairobi and Maseno University, while Nyawanda was a point guard at Kisumu Boys High School, Makerere University in Uganda and Kenya Basketball Federation (KBF) side Lakeside.

Mwallo played basketball while studying at The University of Cape Town in South Africa. Odhiambo said they were motivated by a burning desire to nuture young talents from the region.

“Our aim of forming the league was to provide an opportunity for young players keen to learn basketball and improve on their playing skills,” Odhiambo said.

“We found out that to achieve our goal we needed to have a league. It also dawned on us that a league would provide continuous development of skills.”

There were concerns that the plan may not take off as envisaged, but it picked up. Five teams; Andaki, Urban Ville, Natives, Kisumu Boys and Wazee registered for the first edition.

During the formative stages of league, games were played rotationally at Kisumu Sports ground, Kisumu Boys High School and Kisumu Polytechnic. Experienced players volunteered to officiate.

In the second season, the number of teams participating in the league increased to seven and more teams continued enrolling. In last season’s competition, 15 teams competed in the competition. It was the highest number of teams to have ever participated in the league since inception.

“Last year, the competition stepped up, because we had 15 teams competing from five when it started in 2014. It was good season, where young talents were nurtured,” Odhiambo said.

Out of the 15 teams, eight were from Kisumu, while the remaining seven came from neighbouring counties. Clubs from Kisumu County are All Stars, Maseno Dukes, Wazee, Wildcats, Urban Ville Tritons, Platinum, Baptists and CCK Titants.

Those from neighbouring counties include: Maranda (Siaya), Kisii Vipers (Kisii), Bay Lakers (Homa Bay), Sigalame Titants (Busia), Busia Raptors (Busia), Mbale Saints (Vihiga) and Team Sevens (Bungoma).

Under the scorching sun, the sizeable crowd goes wild in celebrations, as the teams on the court engaged each other basket for basket. Only the final whistle will send the spectators away from the place.

Unlike in other events and professional leagues where teams chase for cash prizes, here it is all about bragging rights.

So intense are the games that the officials are alert to get every call right. In 2018, table toppers All Stars boycotted the best-of-five series play-offs finals, protesting alleged poor officiating in the first match.

To avoid a repeat of the same, last season, KCBL involved the local KBF’s office in the officiating.

“It (All Stars boycott) was the worst experience, which we do not want to see happen again,” the chairman said.

KCBL’s mission reads: “To Identify and develop individuals with sporting ability within the region into talented basketball players by equipping them with the necessary on and off court skills, knowledge and exposure that would enable them play and enjoy the sport of basketball.”

To turn this mission into reality, the founders expanded the competition and formed a children’s league in 2017. It is dubbed Kisumu County Junior Basketball Development League.