A Chronicle of the Past, Present and Future of Kenyan Basketball
Category: News
Co-op Team before playing Zamalek of Egypt.
Co-op Team before playing Zamalek of Egypt.

Y’all remember when Co-op was the baddest team in the league. Not the most recent version of Co-op with Peter Kiganya, Alan Ouma, Abel Nson and company – they are a great team in their own right – but back in the 90’s, there was a Co-op team that was just that damn good!

You would look at the schedule and circle the nights when Co-op was playing, knowing fully well you would get your money’s worth if you went out to see them play. On nights that they played rival teams like KPA, KCB or Postbank or even a little further back when they encountered Posta or CBK, those were games that you’d stand up a hot date for and willingly accept any repercussions.

I remember the first time I watched Co-op play which also happened to be my first time inside the Nyayo gym. I was in my early teens around 1996 and happened to be walking by the handball courts where the players warmed up before the game. They had on their trademark white and green uniforms and were sprinting back and forth. I had never seen that many very tall athletes all at once besides NBA on TV. After staring in bewilderment for a few minutes, I bought a ticket and went in.

At the time, I was just beginning to understand the game and appreciate the difficulty of various athletic basketball moves.

I remember sitting in the packed gym, seeing the floodlights come on and then, behold, the dazzling green-and-white come marching out of the locker rooms and into their layup lines. It was as close as it got to watching the NBA.

That Co-op team had an air of arrogance to them. They did everything with supreme confidence. Everyone stood to watch their layup line. The ease and finesse with which each player scored the basketball whether on a layup or a dunk was a thing of beauty. Just when I thought I’d seen a seemingly impossible reverse layup, it was topped by seemingly impossible two-handed reverse dunk. Solomon Onamu and Fred Omondi were stroking threes 3 feet behind the line and they barely touched the net. Ben Iraya, Ben Rateng and Mike Opel were dunking without breaking a sweat. It was overwhelming experience.

Most of today’s crop of players grew up in the 90’s and can relate to this period when Co-op was dominating the league. Most were in high school, college and/or just getting started in their basketball careers. NBA basketball had gone global with the exploits of the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics and MJ was quickly racking up titles with the Bulls. NBA games had made it to local Kenyan TV on Sunday afternoons. There was definitely a new buzz about basketball in Kenya.

Kenya basketball was also in its golden era – the women’s national team qualified for the World Basketball Championships in Sydney, Australia, the KPA men’s team defeated the vaunted Egyptian side Zamalek at home and the men’s national team made it to the semi-finals of the FIBA Africa championship which was hosted in Kenya. Things were looking up for Kenyan basketball.

Solomon Onamu, the heart of the team.
Solomon Onamu, the heart of the team.

At the club level, perennial contenders were Co-operative Bank, Sir Jeffrey Amugune and coach Thomas ‘Smatts” Olumbo’s Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), Ronnie Owino’s Posta, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) with Philip Omany, Sammy Kiki and Lawi Odera’s Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and Barclay’s with Isaac and Sam Omolle and Peter Odhiambo.

Jack Arum was the team’s first head coach. He overachieved in starting a team from scratch, with unproven players and molding them into a highly successful unit. He was an excellent motivator and gave that young team a world of confidence in their own skills and trusting in the team philosophy. Coach Arum currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland and remains heavily involved with the game. He has been running the annual Tom Munyama tournament for almost a decade which draws in various Kenyan teams from around the USA.

The next fortunate step in Co-op’s evolution came about due to the misfortune of Somalia. Former Co-op guard and coach Bosire Bogonko adds, “The turning point for Co-op came due unfortunately to the war in Somalia. One of the foremost coaches in Somalia history, Coach Osman Ali became head coach of Co-op and transformed the team into champions. He brought in most importantly, the fundamentals and then the plays, the system, the finesse and the flair with which Co-op played. He spent years purely working on the fundamentals of the team and the results were amazing. With the fundamentals down pat, Co-op became a brilliant half court offense team and excellent half court defense team.”

Coach George Ogolla Snr then took over the reins and amongst the many things that he added to an already excellent team, was the belief in “hard work pays.” Not only was Co-op one of the most fundamentally sound teams, one of the most talented and deepest teams but Coach Ogolla instilled an element of physicality and tenacity that was unmatched in the league. Co-op walked, talked and played like they were invincible. Coach Ogolla had them convinced that on almost any night, it didn’t matter how well their opponents played – Co-op would walk away with a W at the end.

“I am a coach who rewards hard work and I inspire players to reach for beyond themselves. I hate mediocrity. Players like Solomon Onamu, Dennis Orina, Ben Ratteng, Mike Opel, Ben Iraya, Ken Ondiek, Donald Ochieng, Serge Ngandu, Mohammoud Isse and Ochie knew this; they were no nonsense players. And every time we set targets, 100 percent of the times they delivered! We had goals and I reminded the team of our responsibilities and our legacy, “says Coach Ogolla.

“They played passionately, determined and consistently. We spread the bench to include a twelve man rotation, purposefully because of our ‘high octane’ style of play. We kept statistics, measured progress and improvement all the time. We made sure that we never wasted opportunities by playing high percentage basketball. I made it a criminal offense to miss free throws.”

Solomon Onamu with Serge Ngandu.

To examine the reasons for the success of this Co-op team, we have to break it down to its elements and also examine the unit as whole and see why it worked so well. We have already looked at the contributions of their coaches.

In terms of player selection, Co-op seemed to break the mold in their decision making. The blueprint on most teams was to acquire proven, young and developing talent from other teams and supplement that with new players from the high school and college ranks. Many of these players had been around the league for a while; many shared common backgrounds with other league players and played similar to other players at their position. In other words, there was not much differentiating many of these teams.

Co-op did things a little bit differently. They selected relatively unknown players from very diverse backgrounds and more importantly, selected players based on positions, roles and a great ‘fit’ for the team. They started out with Solomon Onamu, Ken Ondiek, Ben Rateng, Dennis Orina and Fred Omondi amongst others. Each of these players was terrific individually; as a unit they were remarkable. They also made very shrewd and fortunate recruiting decisions in selecting Mike Opel and Donald Ochieng straight out of Nyeri Baptist and also acquired Ben Iraya from the University of Nairobi Terror.

Later on, they brought in Mohammud Isse from Somalia and the DR Congo boys Toto Mukaz, Charlie Buzangu, Alaska Illunga Kupundu and later on Serge Ng’andu who started out with KCB. Each player brought a specific skill or set of skills and role to the team that complemented the rest of team. They also added the sniper Peter Kidiavai (Keegan), Tony Ayiera, Job Munene, Joshua Kobia, Kanyi, Ken Oliver and Edward Ochieng through later years.

Ken Oliver, Dennis Orina, Shaddie Obunga and Serge Ngandu.

Charlie Buzangu was one of Co-op’s more eccentric players. A jack of all trades, Charlie was as elite a defender as we’ve ever seen. When he put his mind to shut someone down, he literally put the clamps down on them. He also had one of the biggest mouths on court, his poor Swahili notwithstanding.

Ben Iraya remembers, “Charlie was a really good shooter and a great defensive player; with Sollo [Onamu] they were crazy! He also had the knack of getting under people’s skins with trash talking especially Ronnie Owino. Actually, he is the only guy that rattled Ronnie so much that Ronnie just could not play well against him. Also had a great sense of humor.”

Donald Ochieng was a big point guard who was an exceptional passer. He didn’t look to score very much but his size at the point guard position made Co-op considerably bigger and more difficult to contend with.

In conjunction with this exceptional guard group, Co-op easily had the best frontline in the league. There was no question about it. They had everything you wanted from your forwards. They had size. They had elite shot blockers. They were amazing rebounders. They were intimidating and physical. They had finesse and low post scoring. They could finish in traffic. They could run the floor. They had depth. They had it all.

“The front court is vital in any offensive set right from crashing the boards to providing good outlet passes, to running the floor either as lead or trailer, posting up well, having both a back to the basket and face the basket offensive ability, being able to shoot a decent 15 foot jump shot, setting the correct screens, rolling to the basket after the screen, being a good receiver of the ball in traffic, scoring in traffic and ability to kick out the ball when trapped; provides for a good post player. This is a skill set that the Co-op front court possessed to the last man. It was just the perfect fit to the guard skill set that they possessed and both front and back courts complemented each other flawlessly,” states Bosire.

Mike Opel, coming out of Nyeri Baptist after having an impressive high school career, brought his well-refined low post and mid post game to Co-op. It was impossible to defend him with single coverage and inevitably when help came, Mike was good enough to pass out of the double team to open teammates.

Mike Opel (L) with Serge Ngandu.
Mike Opel (L) with Serge Ngandu.

His fellow big Ben Iraya shares his thoughts about Mike, “I’d say Mike was the most underrated big man, mainly because of his quiet (almost gentle) demeanor but also because he was so talented that it appeared he was not working hard e.g. he could jump out of the gym but not many noticed that, because it was so easy. He was a great teammate and a great guy too.”

“Mike Opel could have easily played college ball successfully in the USA had he wanted to. He was so blessed fundamentally and his post play moves were way beyond his time. That is why he has played for such a long time,” adds Coach Ogolla.

Ben Iraya who came over from the University of Nairobi Terrorists provided the muscle in their frontline. He made it absolutely clear to opposing teams, by any means necessary that the paint was a no fly zone – you ventured in there at your peril. He did the brunt work of any great defensive team: winning the rebounding battle, creating extra possessions through offensive rebounding, anchoring the defense by being the last line of defense to finish off defensive possessions by securing the basketball. He was a very reliable free throw shooter and punished those who put him there.

“Coach Osman really helped me work on my game. It is regrettable that he left for the US before he saw what he created come to fruition. He spent many hours working with me on my post moves, rebounding techniques and position and shooting. I never brag (those who know me will tell you) but when I think about it now, I was not the easiest person to handle on the low post, all because of Osman Ali,” says Ben Iraya.

Benson Rateng aka Ratts shored up their frontline. He brought additional size and depth to their forward base. He was well known for his automatic bank shot reminiscent of a certain San Antonio Spurs hall of famer; a skill that earned him the nickname “Chairman of the Board of Governors.” He had also had a very polished low post game with an assortment of deft moves, pristine footwork and deceptive quickness for his size. Co-op began playing him at the small forward position and this causes a nightmare matchup with other small forwards who were either too small to guard him or too slow to stop him.

Serge Ngandu who later came over from KCB also brought a power game. He was spectacular at finishing in traffic and with authority when guards would drive the lane and drop if off to him. A jokester off the court, he was a beast on it.

Toto Mukaz was an enthusiastic shot-blocker. Blessed with supreme timing and natural instincts, Toto made shot-blocking an art form. It soon became clear to opposing players that you were better off shooting jumpers than getting your shit sent back every single time.

Together with his kinsman Alaska Illunga Kipundu who would later move to Posta, this Zairian duo dramatically changed paint scoring in Kenya. Guards learnt to be to craftier or to quick-shoot before these dudes could react. Alaska was infamous for shouting, “Utakula hiyo mupira!” to his victims each time he blocked a shot.

In later years, Co-op got valuable contributions from  Gilbert Owiny, Dan Sibukho (Madan), Alvin Norman, John Odhiambo, Andy and Gringo who later went into coaching.

Ben Iraya recalls, “It is these big guys that made me the player I was. It started at practice and it was an everyday thing. It made games easy especially because Kenyan refs called games so tightly. If you breathe on someone, it is a foul. We rarely called fouls in practice unless it was a blatant amputation. I will forever treasure those scrimmages; wish we had recorded them, it would make really good viewing today.”

It didn’t end with the guards or the forwards for Co-op. With just that lot, Co-op was prepared for just about any game situation. They could throw in several combinations of players and get results. But Co-op went beyond that. They had role players for just about any scenario. The testament to a great team is usually their depth. Key players cannot perform at their peak for the entire game and need breathers. You have to deal with foul trouble and players struggling either offensively or defensively. There are injuries and player absences during the season. You also need specific skills for specific situations, some which are done best by specialists. This is where the bench comes in. And, by Jupiter, Co-op was deeper than Uhuru Kenyatta’s pockets!

Owiti ,Martin Adungos,Serge Ngandu,Owino, Babia Konekone and Ken Ondiek.
Owiti ,Martin Adungos,Serge Ngandu,Owino, Babia Konekone and Ken Ondiek.

Bosire states, “It is important to have depth in any team. This allows everyone to play to their maximum without exerting themselves, this allows for injured players to take their time to recuperate completely, this allows the coach to rest players who are exhausted and still know that the replacement will still perform at the same level. There were times when crucial players were injured for long periods and yet the team never faltered or lost its step/swagger. Co-op’s bench was 22-man deep!”

“Talking about their depth, “Omosh Tunya adds, “they had some very solid role players who discovered what they were good at and that’s all they really worked on improving. An example was Peter Kidiavai (Keegan) who became one of the baddest three point shooters in the game. That’s all he worked on. It made it really easy for Co-op to get whatever they wanted.”

“If they wanted a quick two, they brought in Ben Rateng with Donald Ochieng who was perhaps the only true point guard Kenya has ever produced and Dennis. If they needed threes, they brought in Solomon Onamu and Peter Kidiavai or Ken Ondiek, all who could shoot your lights out at the drop of a dime! It was very difficult to match up against them, “says Omondi.

“Most the guys mentioned above would have started on any team in the league at that time, so it was great having them on our team. Starters and backups, we challenged each other at practice and played as a team. We also kept the camaraderie off the court. The significance of this was trust which for me was (and is) the foundation of a great team. It develops over time and takes even more time to grow. Sometimes it never does leading to supposedly good teams being underachievers,” affirms Ben Iraya.

In addition to the superiority of their coaching and player personnel, Co-op had the benefit of having an exemplary owner. The support and financial backing of Co-op Bank was vital to their success on the court. The Bank took great care of the team in many different ways, ensuring that team had only to worry about playing well.

Solomon Onamu replies “In every sport, players are always motivated with the sponsorship that goes on behind the scenes. It is always good to know that at the end of the day, you had the training and game allowances and for many of us, a job to fall back on in the course of the week. It always would give us a peace of mind and an assurance. Co-op Bank gave us so much support and to be honest paid both the players and coaching staff much better than the other teams which made the players motivated and inspired to go out and play basketball.”

Solomon Onamu with Dan Akeyo in front of the White House in DC
Solomon Onamu with Dan Akeyo in front of the White House in DC

The significance of this support or lack thereof is noticeable in teams that lacked any semblance of support. Such teams usually don’t last long in the league due to their instability. The costs involved in transportation, accommodation, league fees, medical and training supplies are far too great for any self-supporting individuals to bear over time.

Former Coach George Ogolla Snr states, “These guys thrived because they had a whole hearted support right from the CEO and top management all the way, I suppose to the cleaner at Co-op Bank.  I will give you an example, when I was negotiating my coaching terms, I laid on the table a huge remuneration package on a one year contract that would include my statistician and these guys paid without blinking an eye! Now that’s how serious their management team was, led by One Allan Kioko.”

“The bank played a major role in the success by ensuring a good number of players were employed in the bank, they paid player allowances, ensured that apparel and kicks were available for both practices and games, ensured that there were enough basketballs for both practice and game, paid the league fees, paid transport to and from game venues, ensured accommodation (4-star accommodation for that matter) was available when the team travelled out of Nairobi. Basically allowed the players to concentrate on being the best they could possibly be,” chips in Bosire.

Very popular amongst all players was the team physician Ali Dab, always ready to administer treatment and whose jaws were always hard at work. Co-op was also fortunate to have the services of one of the best statisticians in the game, Shaddie Obunga.

You put together all these pieces, you make them fit and work seamlessly together and you have the makings of a great team. Co-op did just that. They introduced a different pedigree of basketball to Kenya. Watching them play was a show of outstanding skill level, exceptional team chemistry and coordination, astounding fluidity and synchronization and team unity and understanding. The execution of plays at the fundamental level was simply amazing and awe-inspiring.

Former Kenya University Pirate Robert “Jiggy” Odhiambo remembers, “I always dreamt of playing for Co-op. I used to walk home from Upper Hill to South B just so that I could pass by Nyayo gym to watch them train. It didn’t help that Fred Omondi who taught me basketball played for Co-op. This was the time when the Chicago Bulls were busting into the scene as well. Watching Co-op practice and play was like watching the Bulls.”

Serge Ngandu with Gilbert Owiny ( Shawn Kemp)
Serge Ngandu with Gilbert Owiny ( Shawn Kemp)

There is no question that Co-op raised the bar when it came to professional basketball in Kenya and the East and Central Africa region.  They won a record 7 league titles between 1991 and 2000. They would also win 4 regional titles. That is the definition of dominance.

Some would say that Co-op’s first league title in 1991 was ‘soft’ because of the withdrawal of the KECOSO fraternity teams which left Co-op with fewer Goliath’s to slay on their way to the championship. They played an upcoming Postbank team in the finals which was not yet up to the task of challenging Co-op.

The climb to the top may have been easy for Co-op but the real challenge lay in staying on top of their competition. Games are somewhat easier when you are a middle of the pack team or a poor team trying to get better. Losses are acceptable. You don’t always expect to win. No one runs extra laps in practice or shoots 1500 shots after practice trying to beat you.

But, when you are the defending champs and your team has more talent than Sir Ferguson’s lads, then everyone and their grandma wants to see you lose. To many fans (and even opposing players), the loss of such a team seems like divine punishment for having the audacity to stack the odds so much in their favor. There are many parallels one can draw from the reactions of fans to that Co-op team and to the 2010-2011 Miami Heat.

Every other team in the league wanted a piece of Co-op. It didn’t matter if it was pre-season, regular season, tournaments or playoffs. If you were playing Co-op, then this was the game to prove to the world that they were beatable and knock them off their mighty pedestals.

Ben Iraya confirms,” Every team wants a share of you to see if they measure up against you; they play harder, foul you harder and hit you harder. Everything is stepped up a few notches. The hardest thing is that you have to measure up in return. To me, that is why it hard to be on top for long, because while every team meets you twice a year, you have to play all of them – so they play us  only twice a year, but we have to play all of them collectively twice a year. We had to bring it on every single game, you switch off and it’s an upset and I can tell you that the fans love upsets!”

Once Co-op was at the top of the league, they held on admirably for almost a decade which in the recent sporting world is a fairly long time to be a highly successful team. With other contending teams scouting their plays and learning just from playing them several times through the years, it’s surprising that Co-op held on for so long until the age of the core unit became a factor in their performance.

After looking at the reasons why Co-op had all the ingredients to be a successful unit, we can now examine the reasons why they sustained this success for such a long period of time.

Co-op Team
Co-op Team

In my opinion, the most important aspect of their sustained success was Co-op’s coaching. The ground work started with Jack Arum which was then revolutionarized and optimized by former Somali national team head coach Osman Ali to George Henry Ogolla and Thomas Olumbo assisted by current coach Carey Odhiambo. All these coaches were great instructors and each added his own element of philosophy, perspective or approach to Co-op’s already diverse book.

Solomon asserts, “I am sure many will agree that Co-op is one of the first teams that came with plays and moved away from the so called ‘running game’. I think times have changed, but back then, we had a great impact since almost all the teams had to adjust to playing games with proper systems and plays to match us and catch up with the times. Team had been so accustomed to street basketball until then that you immediately noticed most coaches adapting to this new game and going technical. Long after teams had adjusted, KCITI came along coached by American coach Tony Mauldin who then continued to promote this more technical game.”

“We played a very organized brand of basketball and utilized diagrammed and choreographed plays a lot. I hoped that we inspired many a team to have use plays as a means to an end, which is to get two or three points as efficiently as possible. Things happen, not by accident, but by a designated plan thought out and executed perfectly,” adds Ben Iraya.

“Co-op introduced a very tactical rotation that took run-and-gun teams time to figure out. My predecessor former Somali National Basketball team Coach Ahmed Osman   who left in 1995 has to be credited for what he had introduced prior to my taking over the coaching tenure. Coach Osman had done an excellent Job in building a structure which I inherited and was now my obligation to develop and take to another level. I was already successful when I was approached to join the team as head coach in the 1996-97 season. I was already pulling my weight among the big boys of coaching, not just in Kenya but Africa,” concludes Coach Ogolla.

There is no mystery or secret to it. If your coaching allows your team to score quicker, more efficiently, with more diversity and can defend the other team with  more speed, size, strength, wits and desire then that team will win games much more often than it will lose.

Serge Ngandu walks away from the scene of an injured Railways player.
Serge Ngandu walks away from the scene of an injured Railways player.

The second reason for their sustained success was their preparation for games. Through its early years, Co-op developed a very studious approach to practices. Many players actually looked forward more to practices than actual games on the weekend and some would openly say that actual games were much easier than practices.

“We believed in preparation, every facet of it. We practiced four days a week with Fridays off. Our practice sessions were the key to our success. They were intense, purposeful and intended to get the best out of everyone. There was such a strong attention to fundamentals that it sometimes looked like we were in a beginners’ session!”

“We worked big against big, small on small, big on small, two’s and three’s etc. We had shooting competitions, conditioning and running, free throws etc. After practice I was usually out of sorts. The team was really self-motivated and we were also able to pick each up when lapses occurred. No one liked missing practice; it was like missing out on a good thing!”

“We were such a competitive group and this was reflected in the scrimmages. Indeed the coaches, time and again reined us in by refusing to allow for scrimmages, especially before big games for two reasons: to avoid potential injuries, and, to maintain a competitive mindset for the game (to avoid leaving it all at practice with nothing left for the game). Many a time losing was not an option!” remarks Ben Iraya.

Solomon adds, “We usually had Mondays off as a reward if we played on Sunday and won.  If we played poorly or lost a Sunday game that we should have won then we would train on Monday. On the first weekday of training (Monday or Tuesday), the coach would get us in for team meetings and working on weaknesses where we fell short. We would start with analyzing the stats for the past game. Tuesday and Wednesday would be normal training days where we would work on our fitness, plays and game situations. On Thursday, we would focus on our opponents for the coming game (if we had a game) and individuals given extra work outs if needed.”

Co-op Team
Co-op Team

Coach Ogolla agrees, “The only way to stay above the rest was to practice the best and the hardest. In other words, as Michael Jordan would put it, our training main training philosophy was “begin practicing at perfection.””

“I was privileged to have been exposed to modern trends of coaching in the USA by my mentor Coach Bill Trumbo. Over the years, I developed a coaching philosophy, I called it the BCZ. At Co-op, we incorporated BCZ in every vein of what we did.  Be it shooting, dribbling, playing defensive or offensive, BCZ concept had to be applied. BCZ simply means “BEYOND COMFORT ZONE.”

Forgive me but I will digress a little from basketball and share a story with you.

Hermes Melissanidis from Greece won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He was a professional – a full-time athlete who committed his life and thousands of hours to mastering his craft. He performed his gold medal winning routine with a broken rib that almost kept him out of competition but he decided not to give up his pursuit of his ultimate life’s goal to nurse his rib. Ribs can heal – a chance at the gold may never come again.

After turning  in an amazing performance, the Greek journalists who were very excited, came up to him, stuck a microphone in his face and asked with great enthusiasm, ‘How does it feel to produce a performance of a lifetime here when you needed it the most? How did you achieve the peak moment of greatness?’

He was so angry. He had to bite his tongue not to say something regrettable. He could see that these journalists had no understanding of athletes or of performance. So he smiled and gave the expected answer.

But what he wished to say was this: ‘Don’t you understand that this was not the performance of a lifetime. I have performed this exercise in practice ten thousand times. Five thousand times I have done better than this. I did not have to exceed myself or go beyond my limits. I have trained for years to reach this level. This is it. I am capable of this every day. It was not by accident.”

The third reason behind Co-op’s sustained success was simply good timing. The core group of players joined the team relatively young and it took them many years getting to know each other, build relationships and develop individually and as a team.

Of great benefit was the instruction of Coach Osman fairly early in their careers. His emphasis on the fundamentals, reliance on plays and systems and stress on committed teamwork wove unyielding bonds between the members of the team. From this, a trust developed between teammates both on and off the court. In any given tough situation, both in life and on the basketball court, you had people you could count on for support and you were equally ready to provide the same support and reliability.

The reverse of this can be seen in great teams that were hastily put together and were successful for the most part but when adversity struck, lacked the trust, the support and belief to overcome and therefore underachieved.

Co-op also caught a lucky break when the KECOSO fraternity boycotted the KBF league and made the path to the first championship in 1991 somewhat lighter. By the time the boycotting teams returned to the league, Co-op had tasted victory and learnt the sacrifices needed to get there. It became harder for these teams to defeat a champion than to beat a team that had never won.

Co-op Team
Co-op Team

It is notable that Co-op’s core group hit their peak in the middle of their championships run through the mid 90’s.

“I found the following players at their peak: Guards Dennis Orina, Donald Ochieng, Solomon Onamu, Shooting Guards Mohammoud Isse, Kennedy Ondiek, Peter Kigadi, Small Forwards Argwings Kodhek, Serge Ngandu, Benson Rateng, Mike Opel, Power Forwards Job Munene, Benjamin Iraya and Ochieng “the blek”, Babia Eshokoro Kokonekone.In my time Co-op really had only one natural big Man Martin Adungosi,” says Coach Ogolla.

In basketball, when a player is said to have hit their peak, it usually means that confluence of two parts of their game: the physical and the mental. When young players start out, their bodies are still developing and filling out but their raw athletic ability is almost at a maximum. They run like antelopes and jump like rabbits. But their mental game usually lags far behind in development. Many skills have yet to be developed. Their understanding of the game, of efficiency and advantages still requires repetition and exposure to perfect.

Peter Kidiavai (L), Solomon Onamu and Mohammud Isse.
Peter Kidiavai (L), Solomon Onamu and Mohammud Isse.

As players hit their mid to late 20’s, their understanding of the game grows exponentially from plenty of playing time and also from constant repetition of specific situations and reactions. Their bodies too are much stronger and better taken care of. These two parts of their game meet at very high level to provide career season outputs.

It is almost unfair that more than a handful of Co-op players were hitting this stride together. The fact that this close unit stayed together for so many years is almost unheard of. It speaks volumes about the management of Co-op and its ability to retain its players and also to the players who stuck with Co-op for so long, even with limited roles, when they could easily have started for any other team in the league.

During Co-op’s reign, they faced a number of challengers, at home, regionally and also continentally. At home, their biggest challengers included:

  • KPA which had a brilliant lineup that included Lawi Odera, Sammy Kiki, Anthony Ojukwu, James Catwright Omondi, Peter Kiganya, Ken Omollo(Peno), George Kinyajui amongst others.
  • Posta which featured the incredible Ronnie Owino, Ben Wanjara, Ronnie Swaka, Mike Kimani, Jeff Ohaga, Peter Otieno amongst others.
  • CBK which listed Jeffrey Amugune, Thomas Olumbo, Elvis Ochieng ,Gabriel Ingosi amongst others.
  • KCB’s Robert Omolle, Juma Ikaapian, Greg Odera, Alex Aluga.
  • Barclays with Phillip Omany, Isaac “Iceman” Omolle and Big Sam Omolle, David Mwangi and Peter Odhiambo.
  • Railways with Tony Ayiera, Justus Akhwesa, Tom Opar.

Other teams included Postbank, Ulinzi, Gilgil Complex and KGGCU. An endless list players that faced off against Co-op included Andrew Odhiambo, Alex Mureithi, Kalulu, George Owino, Morris Shitsama, David Arika, Ben Oluoch, Robert Mwangi, Ronnie Nungo, David Odhiambo, Michael Obudho, James Nyasimi, Fred Onyach, Kevin Wafula, Dan Omusinde, Vincent Okutoyi, Joshua Rutuna, Ben Onyango, Emmanuel Ochieng, Danston Ojoo Ajulu, Humphrey Buda, Mike Oketch, Oscar Onyango, Tom Opar, Joseph Macharia.

Serge Ngandu with a Posta player.
Serge Ngandu with a Posta player.

Solomon refers, “I was lucky to have played through three generations of players and I want to name a few of the players who I matched up with through my days at Co-op.”

“Offensively, apart from Dennis who was my team mate and probably knew me inside out from practice and whom I regarded as the best defender, I always found it hard to play against the likes Lawi Odera, Bob Omolle, Kalulu, George Owino (Owish), Ben Oludhe who were all very good defenders at their time.”

“Defensively, due to my size and my strengths, I was given the task of taking care of all sorts of players, ranging from tiny point guards to huge small forwards. Back then, for example, we would be playing CBK and in one part of the game, I would be guarding Gabriel Ingosi and end up marking Sir Jeffrey Amugune since he was a shooting guard like me. Or we would be playing KPA and one minute I am guarding Sammy Kiki, the next I’m banging with Isaac Omole (Ice) or James Cartwright Omondi.  Or with Barclays, guarding David Mwangi in their hay days and then ending up with Philip Omany, goodness!”

“My biggest challengers who gave me nightmares on the night before games, to name but a few were, Ronnie Swaka(too  fast and elusive), Ronnie Owino (too strong and clever), Owish (too talented), Kalulu (technical), Tom Opar (hard worker), Kiki (too good), James Cartwright (athletic), Lawi (gifted with ability), Omany(a fine player), Ben Oludhe (an all round workaholic), George Ogolla -Opops (Could run for Kenya) and Thomas Olumbo (Magic Johnson like guard).”

Regionally, Co-op had many encounters with APR from Rwanda and teams from Tanzania, Congo and Seychelles as well as having to face a fellow Kenyan team, usually in the finals of these regional games.

Coach Ogolla remembers, “In 1995, Coop won the league and by virtue of being the champions, they were Kenya’s legitimate representatives for FIBA championships 1996. At that time their coach was leaving and I had coached KCB lioness to lift the first East and Central Africa Championship trophy in Harare, Zimbabwe. Posta and KPA were giants in 1995 and 1996. For Co-op to emerge as the premier crème de la crème they had to turn table on these two giants.”

“In 1995 when I came in, all the games used to be nerve-wrecking one point-difference games. I brought in the pressure defense, full court press from start to finish. I thought, in order to make a difference, we had to change the soft-looking Co-op into a battle-hardened, hard core defensive team, and that’s what made a difference. “

“That year we dethroned Posta as the East and Central kings by a whopping 40 points and took league by thrashing KPA by 30 points in the final. That’s what I call making a statement! In my view 1995 -1996 and 1997 were great years for COOP.”

Solomon recalls, “One of my best games of all time would have to be the finals of ECSBC against APR Rwanda in Tanzania. We had lost to them in the preliminaries and then met them in the finals and really set the record right. We played well as a team in the finals and I ended up as the MVP and also Most Defensive Player. I felt much honored.”

Internationally at the continental level, Co-op met Zamalek and Al Ahly from Egypt but never quite got over the hump. The Egyptians teams always seemed to be ahead of the Kenyan teams especially in terms of size and it was evident from the accounts of Co-op players who had visited Egypt on return legs that their basketball program from the grass roots level was far more advanced than what we had in Kenya.

Looking back at the entire decade from 1990 to 2000, it’s impossible to miss the impact Co-op had on basketball not just in Kenya but in the Eastern and Central region of Africa. There are the titles, players, coaches, fans, the tradition and more.

Furaha Odari (R) with Serge Ngandu (M) and Mike Opel (L)
Furaha Odari (R) with Serge Ngandu (M) and Mike Opel (L)

Longtime bigman Ben Iraya adds, “It is my hope that Co-op basketball made an impact in these ways: Preparation – we took pride in the way we prepared and it showed in how we played. I saw a little laxity in the importance given to preparation in the last years before I left. I strongly believe that it all starts with preparation – coaching, player participation and skills all coming together for a common goal.”

“We used played organized basketball and utilized diagrammed and choreographed plays a lot. I hoped that we inspired many a team to use plays as a means to an end, which is to get two or three points as efficiently as possible. Things happen, not by accident, but by a designated plan thought out and executed perfectly.”

“Respect for opponents – I hope that we showed this by preparing and getting ready to play at all times. We wanted to beat you, but also respect you effort and challenge. Many a time, I did not feel this was reciprocated and sensed that there was a drive to humiliate and embarrass others. I hoped that the Co-op teams of the day were respectful and yet able to compete at the same time.”

“Personally – I did not always acknowledge it to other players on the court by letting them know it (and it may seem like I was not a good sport in that), but I had tremendous respect for all my opponents. For me to acknowledge was to give in and I never gave in. I acknowledged all my opponents (especially the bigs) by preparing for them and giving them a handful of me. I hope they felt it every time they played against me.”

Bosire says, “Co-op bank was both equally loved and hated. This fuelled a fire in all other teams to aspire to beat Co-op. Even up to today, whenever teams play against coop, they play with such desire. It is like they are making up for the days they used to be whitewashed by the great Co-op team of the mid to late 90s.”

“Secondly, Co-ops success brought about a belief in the half court set. Kenyan basketball is mainly run and gun but with the success of Co-op using a half court set basically, allowed more teams to experiment with the half court set. Winning 4 league titles in a row also fuelled other teams to try and emulate that. So far, Ulinzi has eclipsed that record with 5 straight league trophies (2002-2006), KCB came close with 3 straight (2007-2009) and would have made it 4 in a row were it not for Coop bank reclaiming the same in 2010.”

“Coop bank basketball also brought about a belief in developing the fundamentals of players and many teams these days have a significant portion of their training sessions geared towards basics.”

Coach Ogolla sums it up, “Co-op Basketball brought satisfaction and enjoyment inside the court and also players like Mike Opel, Ben Iraya, Solomon Onamu, Dennis Orina, Kennedy Ondiek and Serge Ngandu became role models for upcoming players outside the court. Anyone who watched Co-op play will tell you that their brand of basketball put emphasis on greater teamwork, endurance, commitment and hard work. Their game was built upon and promoted these same factors.”

“As a coach I believe in transferable concepts and these values Co-op embraced are values that are needed wherever you go in order to be successful, be it in basketball, any other sport or even general activities of life. Co-op basketball heralded the message and passed to society that good teamwork, commitment and hard work (in the form of a sport) itself is a huge service and social responsibility.”

“Besides this factor, basketball teams improve by imitating each other; when standards are very high, teams must play smarter to be worthy opponents. So I suppose Co-op had an indirect impact on raising the standard of basketball teams in Kenya. We encouraged players to be students of the game and by practically playing high-quality basketball the standard for measuring teams and players was greatly improved.”

“If you want to know the quality of sports in any nation, measure it by the quality of their champions, Co-op basketball raised the bar by parading and identifying players with good potential, who in fact grew up to be great basketball players in Kenya.”

“Apart from playing basketball to provide entertainment, I was inspired that we encouraged Co-op to model values that ensured continuity through impartation and that was our way of showing our concern for our immediate basketball fraternity. I still make a point to point to all players who I come contact with that our basketball goals must be higher than just 10 feet.”

There can only be one word to define the legendary Co-op team of the 90’s: THE DYNASTY. It surpassed many expectations, it transformed the basketball culture in Kenya, it defined dominance and sustained it, it captured the desire and imaginations of many fans, it inspired competition from its many foes, it set the standard of achievement, it created role models and in the process of doing all these things, it became an icon of Kenyan basketball. It is for these reasons that we salute the Co-operative Bank team of the 90’s, the management of Co-operative Bank, the coaches, players and training staff and all its fans.

Co-op Team all dressed up with the popular team physician Ali Dab (L)
Co-op Team all dressed up with the popular team physician Ali Dab (L)

To all former and current Co-op players, coaches, opponents and fans, feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences about this Co-op team in the comments section.

[I am indebted to the following for patiently answering my endless questions and for their time and effort in digging up old memories/letting me violently rob their pictures and for sharing them with me for the benefit of all. Words do no justice to my gratitude: Solomon Onamu, Ben Iraya, Bosire Bogonko, George Henry Ogolla Snr, Omondi Tunya, Robert Odhiambo and Jonah Andwati. ]

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INTERVIEW WITH WYCLIFFE OCHIENG.

ON NOVEMBER 19, 2011 BY NIKSEGOIN KENYA BASKETBALL2 COMMENTS

Wycleff stretches before the game

How did you get into the game of basketball? Who were some of your early influences when you started playing?

Well, I never was a basketball fan to start with. As a matter of fact, whenever the basketball was on national TV on Sundays at around 2pm, I used to leave and go play soccer which I loved so much. I was really good at it. I was one of the best in my estate. It was when I joined Kisumu Boys High school that I decided to play basketball. The soccer coach would not let me play on the team for almost 2 years because I was tiny so I took to playing basketball and soon after, I became serious about the game.

I remember going to Kenyatta Sports Ground and watching players like Simon Bolo play. He was so smooth and talented. You had great shooters like the late “Dumars” (brother to Ronnie Owino), Bosire Bogonko who was so good with his left hand finger-roll and the baseline drive, “Paxon”, “Mwalimu” and John Ian Baraza “Otwal” who was a great shot blocker and had one of the most convincing shot fakes I have ever seen. You also had some post players like Jeff and Phillip and a guard named Felix.

We’ve talked before about your childhood days playing in Kisumu. What was it like growing up and learning to play there? I’ve heard it was one of the toughest places to play basketball.

Oh my goodness! It wasn’t easy at all to play in Kisumu especially at Kenyatta Sports Ground with these guys. I couldn’t play with them because I wasn’t as skilled as they were and I was really small. These guys were good; they were bigger, smarter and could play for hours, trash talking with each other.

My high school friends and I had to find other times for ourselves to play. We would go to the grounds as early as 8am on Saturdays and play till 10am when the big boys would show up and play all day till evening. All we could do was watch and learn.

Wycleff sets up the offense.

Going into Kisumu Boys, did you have any basketball skills and did foresee yourself having a future in basketball?

I never had any basketball skills going into high school. I had never played the game before I stepped onto that high school court. I didn’t see myself playing basketball for long; I was just playing it to keep me occupied and to pass time when suddenly I had so much interest in it. I would say it was God’s doing and guidance. He put my heart into this game and I thank Him for that.

Let’s talk about your high school career. What was the school’s basketball situation like when you first got there? Who were some of your teammates at that time and who was coaching the team?

The Kisumu Boys basketball team was one of the best in Nyanza Province at that time. They were coached by Mr. Timon Oyuncho. With the help of stellar guards, Bosire Bogonko and “Dumars” helping train the team, we got even better and made it to the nationals twice.

When I joined the team, it comprised of:  Patrick “Paddo” Odhiambo, Steve Onunga, Lovell, Fredrick Odera “Biggie”, Ondijo the famous “Gidi Gidi”, Keens and Rahim Jonzi of the music group “Jomenes”, Richard “Mueller” Badia, Edward Okeyo, Steven Ong’olo and Patrick Ojil.

Wycleff Ochieng with the KCITI team.

As a young point guard, what were the challenges you faced tasked with being the floor leader of the team. What other skills did you have to develop to be a more effective player? Was the point guard position always your natural position or were you inclined to be a shooting guard?

My biggest challenge at the time was my height and my body. I was too tiny and it made scoring the basketball difficult but my speed was my advantage. I had to improve my ball handling, court vision and scoring skills and this is where Bosire and the late Dumars came in to help me. I had to put a lot of extra effort to maximize my talents in spite of my lacking size. I thought it would be best if I played point guard so that I could have the ball in my hands and control the game.

What are some of the areas in your game that you feel improved drastically from the time you got to high school to your senior year. What are some of the things that you did either in school or away from it that helped improve your game. Was there a part of your game that when you played your very best, you were hard to stop?

By my senior year, my ball handling had improved so much as had my shooting, penetration and passing. I would wait for the NBA Action program on Sundays after the NBA game and pick up a few moves from the great plays. I would also skip the rope a lot at home and dribbled for hours on the gravel just behind our house.

I always felt so comfortable pushing the ball down the floor and I could not be stopped at this. Whenever defenders tried to pressure me, I would shake them and put them on their heels and if anyone came over to block my shot, I would create for my teammates.

Wycliffe Ochieng with the trophy after winning the East and Central Africa Club championship.

What were your successes as a player and as a team in high school? Talk a little about some of the important games you were part of in your high school career. Were there any games that you still remember that you played your absolute best? Who were your teammates as you finished your career?

My biggest success in high school was that I was a dependable player for my team. I would say that the games I played in Kampala, Uganda at the Abraham Lincoln tournaments were my best in high school.  Another great game I had while still in high school was when I was selected by Kisumu Posta to play for them in the Kenyatta Day tournament. We played against Nairobi Posta and I shot the ball so well being guarded by the famous Ronnie Owino and coach Thomas Olumbo’s brother.

As a team, we were the Nyanza provincial champions twice and also made it to the nationals twice. In my last year, my teammates included: Patrick “Paddo”Odhiambo, Richard “Muller” Badia, Steve Olweny, Geoffrey Odhiambo, Edward Okeyo, Steve Ong’olo, Omollo, Fredrick Odera and Dickson Masudi.

It appears that you joined KCITI shortly after your high school days. Tell us how that opportunity came about? What was that experience like under Coach Mauldin and having such a talented team to work with? What were the practices like at KCITI and who were your teammates?

Both the men’s and women’s KCITI teams came to Kisumu in October of 1999 for the annual Kenyatta Day tournament. Before the game, they held a basketball camp and I thought it would be wise to attend and learn a few more things about the game. They held a few scrimmage games under the watch of Coach Cliff Owuor who noticed my game and thought I had the potential to be a good player. I later won the Most Promising Player award and was offered a scholarship by KCITI College. I joined the team in 2000 after high school.

It wasn’t any easier playing at KCITI. The players were highly skilled and well trained. The practice sessions were so programmed and meticulously detailed. I had thought that I had acquired all the skills necessary for my position only to realize that I was a long way from being at the level needed to play on the KCITI team. It was very difficult to even play in the practice sessions between the purple and white teams let alone substitute guys like George Kinyanjui and Robbie Owira during real games. It was the same scenario in Kisumu all over again!

Wycleff with the KCITI team

I had to do something about it. I started working out earlier in the morning at 6am, then watching college games on video and practicing with the lady-cats in the afternoon.

The men’s team was so strong, fast and had great chemistry. I remember watching them defeat big clubs like KCB, Railways, KPA and the rest during friendly games and tournaments. Coach Tony Mauldin was and still is a great coach to me and an even better person. He had so much knowledge about the game and remains a humble and a God fearing man. I learn so much from his practice sessions and his way of life.

The team that I played featured Collins Wande, Ken Oliver, Jacob Chalo,  the late Geoffrey Oburu, Dennis Oketch aka Dino, Ambrose “Lusweti” Simiyu, John Ian Baraza “Otwal”, David Mugoye, Peter Nalo, Patrick “Paddo” Odhiambo, Martin Ombok, Norman Blick and Jack Omoro.

Wycleff chilling with the Coach T9 and Paddo on an international outing.

KCITI caught everyone by surprise with their running game, their plays and their versatile offense. Tell us how that scheme fit your individual style and why it was so successful against other teams.

Well, I never watched the Wildcats play in the premier league because I was still in high school in Kisumu. I played for them in the UCBL for about 2 years before it collapsed. Playing in the UCBL was a good experience for me because everyone had to perform or else you wouldn’t play until you made improvements.

KCITI’s style of play suited me and I loved it. It was one that was organized, fast paced and every player was on the same page on every situation, be it on offense or defense. We shared the ball and made the extra pass for each other. This is one of the reasons the team out-played other college teams and even the premier league teams. Our intensity on defense was unmatched and our execution on offense was the admiration of many.

Wycleff calling out a play in Qatar.

We have to talk about your handles. How did you develop that? Was it something that came naturally to you or something you really worked on? Not to embarrass folks, but do you remember any guys you crossed over silly throughout your time in the league?

I give credit to God for how much He has blessed me with skills in this game. Everything I have acquired and the player that I am now is all by His grace. I would not be who I am today without Him.

They say that if you want something so bad, you have to be willing to pay the price for it. When I first came to KCITI, I had thought to myself that I could handle the ball well not matter who I played. This ended when the KCITI players played defense on me. They played the 1-2-2 high press that trapped the point guard along the sidelines. I remember killing my dribble so many times and turning it over trying to pass it.

One day after practice, I approached Robbie Owira who game I admired. He was so skilled on the court with his handle and poise that he made it look so easy on the court. I asked him if he could help me with my guard skills. He showed me many drills that he did and also watched me improve as the months went by. I would get to the court early in the morning and work on my handles and stay after practice at night with Robbie when everyone else had left.

My two best crossovers were against Tom Opar of Ulinzi and the other was against one Congolese fellow who was playing for Barclays Storms. Both of these defenders literally fell and sat down on the floor! [Apologies to Tom Opar]

After your time with the Wildcats, how did you transition into playing in the League? Did anyone mentor you when you first started playing in the League? What were some of the challenges you encountered when you first started playing in the premier league.

With the help of Coach Cliff Owuor, I started playing in the league with Ulinzi. After 2 years I went to Postbank for a year. Shortly after Co-operative Bank approached me to play for them and I joined them towards the end of 2003.

In high school, my mentor was Bosire Bogonko. He taught me so much. When I got to the premier league and joined Co-op, Dennis Orina became my mentor.

One of the challenges I faced in the league remained my small body size but quickness and handles made up for this. There was a lot of player hating when I joined a team and the players at my position would feel threatened that I had come to take over their positions in the team. I later learnt that this was the same on any team.

The support, encouragement, love and trust that I got from most of the Co-op players and Coach “Smatts” Olumbo helped make me comfortable in the league and from there I was able to take my game to the next level.

Wycleff listens to coach T9 during the East and Central Africa Championship.

What was your experience lacing it up against some of the league’s top point guards like Ben Oluoch, Simon Mugambi, Ken Oliver, Apollo, Collins Wande and others? How did you fare against them? What were things that you were able to learn from watching and playing against them?

It wasn’t that easy playing against these guys since they were guards who had already made a name for themselves and didn’t want to give any less than what they were known for. They always played hard. When playing against them, I never looked at it like I was trying to prove a point. I was just trying to bring the best out of me and competing against the best. I did ok in the beginning but with time I got much better playing against top level guards. It taught me the importance of having poise, game awareness and being a leader by words and action on the court.

Were there players in the League who challenged you as a player? Did any particular player(s) impress you that you played against? Talk about some of the coaches you’ve had in your career.

Yes, there were players who challenged me defensively. Honestly speaking, I loved playing against Paul “Apolli” Oloo of KCB and Ken “Achillu” Oliver. These guys were out there to stop me and didn’t want anyone to go by them or score. Playing against them helped me measure my game and made me better.

Another played that impressed me was David Mugambi from University of Nairobi Terrorists. He was a very good point guard.

The coaches who have had the most impact in my career are Bosire Bogonko and the late Dumars in high school, Cliff Owuor and Tony Mauldin at KCITI and “Smatts” Olumbo, Arwings Peter “Gringo” and Carey “T9” Odhiambo in the premier league.

Wycleff celebrates with Co-op teammates at the East and Central Africa Championship.

What are some of the achievements you’ve had playing in the KBF? How did your game evolve from your early days to the peak of your career? Did you start doing things differently? Is there any particular year or number of years that you felt you had truly reached the peak of your career?

With a lot of humility, I would like to say that I am happy to have been a force to reckon with and this is a great achievement for me considering what it took to get me there. I hope this remains until the end of my career.

Watching different players that I admired like Robbie Owira and Dennis Orina helped me but what helped me most was watching many NCAA basketball games on video. It is from these tapes that I learnt to sharpen my skills and improve my point guard skills. I could pick up skills from the players I watched and incorporate them into my game.

I also started doing things differently. I realized that most players were bigger than me and making layups wouldn’t be easy. I developed a better pull up shot and jumper and quickness with the dribble or to get open.

Between the years 2005 to 2008, I would say that I was at my peak in Kenya. The sky is the limit for me. I still want to keep improving mentally, physically and skill-wise before I retire.

Explain how you approach the game from practice to the actual game. How do you stay committed to the game and how do you maintain your body to perform at this level throughout?

I believe that how one practices is how he will play. Whenever I had my mind right in practice games, actual games became much easier for me. I wish I knew back then what I have come to know now about basketball and how my body works and how to take care of it. I would have done much better. Simple things like eating well, sleeping well and practicing correctly prepare your body to perform at high levels and the cycle continues. I would also do basic meditations where I would envision myself in game situations and work my way around these situations in my mind.

Wycleff postgame with his Co-op teammates.

Were you a part of any international assignments either on the club level or as part of the national team. Talk about your experiences there and who your teammates and coaches were.

Yes, I played in international assignments both at the club and national team level. The first time I was called up the national team was when I was 20 yrs old. I never made the final roster for 3 straight years. I finally made the final cut and played my first international game against Egypt.

I must confess that I felt inferior playing against them. It was my first time seeing players that big, in great shape and very poised. Their game was on a whole other level. However, after this I played in many games against Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda.

In my national team duties, I came to learn that basketball is not only about running and depending on fast breaks to score, as many Kenyan coaches have instilled in players. No disrespect to the national team coaches at that time but a change in our style of play was inevitable for the team to do well. The running game was not working for us. Many of our coaches do not have to urge to learn and try other coaching ideas or different styles of the game. The game has been evolving and many still hold on to the same mentality that has not been successful to their teams.

I was fortunate to play alongside Greg Odera, Ben Oludhe, Ancette Wafula, Moses Shida, Dan Gaiko, Collins Macharia, Simon Mugambi, Dan Okwiri, Yoni Wanambiro and our national team head coach was Ronnie Owino.

As players, we all have those nights when everything goes your way and you end up having a career night. Are there any games that you recall that you played exceptionally well and surprised yourself with your performance?

Two games stand out that I can think of where I scored more points than I ever imagined. In one tournament, I remember scoring 41 points with 11 assists and 5 rebounds. The one was in 2008 in Mombasa in a playoff game against our rivals KPA. I shot the lights out that game, making 9 of 11 three point shots and had 10 assists and 4 steals. I ended up with 37 points.

Wycleff with the Co-op team at the East and Central Africa Club Championships

You have had the luxury of playing with many great teammates throughout the years. Tell us about some of these team mates and some of the great moments you have shared with them.

Some great teammates that  I have been blessed to play with include Dennis Orina, Mike Opel, Peter Kiganya, Donald Ochieng, Richard Osano ( all of Co-op) and Collins Wande. Playing alongside the KCITI players was a lot of fun but with Co-op, it’s so much more, especially with the current team.

On every trip, before, during and after practice sessions, we have a great time. We joke around a lot, we tease each other and there’s a lot of laughter. It’s a great group of guys.

Here in Doha, Qatar, I have played with some ex-NBA players and many others who have played top flight basketball in Europe. The great moments I have had with them are when working out together and learning from them. But it’s not as much more fun as playing together with the guys back home.

Wycleff’s debut in Qatar

A few years ago, you decided to play basketball overseas in Qatar. Tell us how that opportunity came along. How was your transition living and playing so far from home? Talk about your game and experiences playing there.

Towards the end of the 2007 premier league season, a Canadian/Somali man approached me after a game at the Nyayo gym. He told me he liked my game and asked if I was interested in playing at a higher level. I said yes and he asked me to get him a video of my game and luckily I had one already. He returned in 2008 with the good news that the team in Qatar liked me and wanted me to play for them.

Playing away from home is not easy. I miss my girl so much, I miss my friends and the fun we always had. I miss home-cooked Kenyan meals and I miss playing in the KBF league. But I had to come to terms with the situation and move on if I wanted to make it here.

I did well in my debut here in Doha but as time went by, I realized I needed to change my game again and to learn and adapt to a different kind of professional basketball. Much of the game here involves screens, pop outs, hand offs, slip and dives and plenty of game awareness. You have to know when to go fast and when to slow it down. I also had to get stronger and gain some muscle weight but be even quicker. It was a big eye opener and every week brings something new to learn.

During your off-season, you regularly come home and play with Co-op Bank especially during their international games. Explain how this works out for both you and Co-op and the benefits to your game.

I would like to thank the Co-op team management for the open door opportunity that they have given me to play for them in international games. Playing with them during the off-season has helped me stay in shape and I keep adding to my game each time. I would also imagine that my teammates learn from my experiences and from playing with me. The thing I love the most about it the fun we have on those international assignments. The international experience is of great value to us all.

Wycleff with his Co-op teammates in Dar es Salam.

When you look back at your entire career, what are some of the best moments that you have had as a basketball player. Does this compare to anything else you have done in your life.

Much thanks to God, the game allowed me to get a college scholarship and free education. It has also allowed to be self-dependent and to put food on the table for my family. I have also travelled to many countries and currently live overseas because of the game. Basketball has shown me the way to live a good life and it introduced me to God.

What would you say was your greatest asset(s) as a player on a team? Is there an aspect to your game that goes under-appreciated to many?

Good handles, quick pull up jumper, court vision and crisp passing are greatest assets to a team. Being a good leader on the court was one thing I came to learn later. It’s one thing that is becoming more appreciated about my game.

There is a general consensus amongst many of the people who have seen you play at the top of your career that you are definitely amongst the top Kenyan guards the country has produced. What does this mean to you?

Wow! Wow! I am truly humbled to hear that, what an honor! It really means so much to me that I am considered to be amongst the top Kenyan guards in the country. I could not have made it though without God’s grace. Much thanks to God and all the people who have helped me get there.

Wycleff stuntin’

When your playing days have come to an end, what do you see yourself doing and will you remain involved with basketball? What are some of the things you are interested in besides basketball?

I would love to remain in the game and share what I have learnt in this game of basketball and make others better just like I was helped to get to the level that I am now. Hopefully, things open up and I get the opportunity to teach others as well.

God willing, I would like to venture into business. I am already thinking of doing so before even that time comes.

Wycleff kicking it with teammate Patrick “Paddo” Koriana and Peter Kiganya.

At the end of the day, basketball is just a game. Family comes first. Tell us about your family and how they have helped shape you into the man you are today.

We are a family of six; I have three sister and two brothers and thanks to God by His grace, both of my parents are still alive. They live in Kisumu. Many at times I have been down in various aspects of life and they have been there to help and support me.  They have helped my stay strong in tough situations where I would have quit.

Mercy, my other half, has been there for me and stuck by me from the days when I had absolutely nothing to where I am today. Through thick and thin, she has really kept me in check and never gave up on me or our love. She is constantly encouraging me to look to better days and expect greatness out of myself. We have been blessed with a little one who is giving me the strength to push on in life and be the best man I can be for them.
I must say that knowing God and trying to live a good life has been one of the most important things that has helped be who I am today.

Are there any words of advice that you would give to the current and future generations of Kenyan basketball players looking to follow your path and carve out a career playing the game.

I would tell them to be good listeners and be eager to learn.  Learn to practice hard and smart and give your best when you play. It doesn’t matter if it’s in practice or games. Do not settle for average performance because this will just make you an ordinary player. The difference between ordinary and extra-ordinary is that little extra effort.  So do that little extra. You have to be willing to pay the price to get the results you want. It won’t come easy. Get out of your comfort zone.

Have the initiative to go beyond what the team trains you. Waiting to work out together with the rest of the team will not put you a cut above the rest. You have to put in some extra work to separate yourself from the ordinary.

The most important thing of all is that you have to involve God in all these things. Pray about it; ask His guidance and his blessings on your efforts. Do your best and let God do the rest. You have to believe that you can be the player you want to be and have faith that God will get you there. And if by His grace, you get to that place, do not think highly of yourself and look down upon others. You will quickly be humbled.

Wycleff rises for the three point shot in Bujumbura and you know its going down.

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