By William Ruthi
Standing at 6 feet 6 inches and weighing in at 108 kgs, Peter Kiganya is a head or two above the average guy on the street. And the same could be said of his game. He’s easily the most experienced and successful Kenyan basketball export.
Peter Kiganya (left) in action in the Argentinian basketball league. He is the only African in the league. To verify that, you only have to make a quick run through his lengthy rÈsumÈ. It’s an impressive cocktail encompassing several continents including outings in the US, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Rwanda, Egypt, and now Argentina. Yet this gentle giant with an endearingly quiet mien and dazzling smile is virtually unknown in Kenya.
Kiganya took up basketball due to a quirk of circumstance. In high school, theatre and music were his passions.
But in his final year at Eastleigh High School, he finally agreed to take up basketball after much prodding from his teachers and schoolmates, who thought his towering physique was the perfect match for the game.
“I was pushed into it” Kiganya told Fever Pitch in a recent interview. “Basketball wasn’t my thing. I only went into it reluctantly”.
His big break came in 1992. While trying to prop up his fledgling acting career at the Kenya National Theatre, he was offered a chance to fly to the States to audition for a role in the basketball flick, The Air Up There.
“I remember meeting Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and former Laker James Worthy. Believe it, I wasn’t in awe of these players, even Jordan, then…but I think meeting these guys piqued my interest in basketball somehow”.
Upon returning to Kenya, Kiganya took up basketball with zeal, playing for KPA, Lifebuoy and Kenya Airways basketball teams and rapidly earning a call up to the national team. In 1997, he joined college basketball powerhouse Kenya Christian Industrial training Institute (KCITI), then under American Coach Tony Mauldin. It was a turning point in his career. His outstanding form for KCITI helped him land a basketball scholarship to Abilene Christian College in Texas, USA, launching what has been a long and varied international basketball journey.
“Going to college and playing ball was a thrill for me” Kiganya recalls. “I earned a lot of experience, playing with guys who had been in the game from as early as third grade”. A man among boys, as his coaches liked to describe him, Kiganya was soon logging in 25 points a game for the Wildcats, a team in the Lone Star Conference in the US. He was a two-time All-American, Co-MVP of the Lone Star Conference and pulling in 10 rebounds a game was ranked fourth in the nation, all the while working towards his Bsc in electronic media.
After graduating in 2002, Kiganya was drafted by Chile’s Espanol de Talca for whom he soon proved a star performer. Regularly posting 29 points a game or more, Kiganya was voted Best Import Player. 2004 found him playing for Welcome in Uruguay where he was named Most Solid Player by the press association. And in the off-season the same year, Kiganya was invited to play for APR in Rwanda during the 10th anniversary of the country’s genocide.
For the last one and a half years, Kiganya has been strutting his stuff for Echague Atletico in Argentina. The South American country has undergone a basketball revolution in recent times, trouncing the American Dream Team in the 2002 basketball championships and at the 2004 Olympics.
They love their basketball heroes in Argentina and fans refer to Kiganya as the ‘African Lion’, perhaps a paean to his agile and powerful style. The forward’s biggest assets are his court ken and long range shooting, qualities that have earned him respect and admiration from fans and peers.
“The expectations are high” Kiganya said. “Your passion must match that of the fans. Every night, you go out and run the floor, give 100 percent”.
Though thousands of miles away from Kenya, Kiganya is quite at home in Argentina. “The people are affable, always asking after your welfare, insisting on a handshake.” On his off days, Kiganya runs basketball clinics for kids or takes off on a fast spin with a teammate or just takes a lazy stroll on the beach.
Looking back on his long career, Kiganya, who grew up in Eastlands, has few regrets. Actually, maybe only one. “The one thing that has eluded me is the NBA (National Basketball Association),” he said.
“Man, I’d give anything to play in the league. Even if it’s for a minute…”
The odds, he is well aware, are enormous. Only one out of a thousand prospective players makes it to the NBA. There are other leagues of course, but with millions of dollars and endorsement perks, the NBA is the league of dreams.
At 33, time is not exactly on his side and he knows the odds are stacked against him.
In the end, however, Kiganya’s glass will be half full, not half empty.
There are other ventures to pursue. With his degree in media, music production is close to his heart, and so is inspiring dreams in young ones.
“I have had an extraordinary career, going to all these places and being able to actually earn a living playing this game. I have been blessed.”