All I could do was stand and wait behind a towering wall of Rwandan basketball players. All I could see were arms — much longer than mine — reaching, searching and fumbling through a bag of jerseys and matching shorts in the trunk of a compact, red Toyota.
These guys were my teammates. My United Generations for Basketball (UGB) teammates for the Rwandan Basketball Federation (FERWABA). It was 5:30 p.m. on Friday, November 16 and I was last-minute sketched into the roster as “KAIRYS, Nicolas” for my debut as the only white guy anywhere near the scorer’s table at this year’s FERWABA Preseason Tournament.
I thought I had waited patiently enough to get my turn at choosing my game-worn getup when someone blurted to me, “Here, you’re Curry,” and flipped me the #30 jersey and shorts. I didn’t complain.
I was about to ask where we were supposed to change, but then I watched all the players plop down and drop their previous outfits at the back of the Petite Stade Amahoro parking lot.
Not only 24 hours before, I had only met these dudes for the first time.
Back in Boston, some of the past fellows mentioned I might have an opportunity to play organized basketball in Rwanda. For obvious reasons, I thought that’d be pretty damn cool. I stayed in shape all summer playing basketball at an LA Fitness in Florida, so I thought I’d be able to hang.
After a drawn-out out conversation on WhatsApp, Yves, the UGB head coach, told me I could show up to practice on November 15. We were slated to go to Kigali on that Wednesday anyway, so that was no problem.
When I showed up to the KIST practice court, Yves told me that with my IQ alone, I’d more than likely be a good fit for the team. He hurriedly sketched the team’s pick-and-roll and out-of-bounds plays for me to memorize on the fly. During practice, I won a free throw competition (my high school coaches and teammates would never believe that, but it’s true) and I held my own in a 5-on-5 scrimmage, so I guess that was enough to solidify my place.
All I needed was a copy of my passport and some general background information and, before I knew it, the next day I was lacing up my Paul George’s, throwing on a light blue UGB shooting shirt and locking arms to pray in a pre-game huddle with my squad.
While running onto the court at Petite Stade Amahoro, I could feel hundreds of fans staring at me. They were probably wondering why the hell I was in full uniform. If they thought I was some kind of secret-weapon, Jimmer Fredette type, then they would soon sorely be mistaken.
I meandered around the backs of each shooting line, still trying to formulate the correct line switches, so that I wouldn’t look like a fool. I dapped up our fellas after each made jumper. There was Gustave (our captain), Pirlo, Olivier, Ampire, Theo, Di Di, Gakuru, Landry, David and Eric.
When the buzzer sounded, our assistant coach, Remy, informed me that I wouldn’t be allowed to wear my cross necklace. I took it off, told him I trusted him not to lose it, and closed his fist with my chain tucked inside.
I started the game… on the bench. It didn’t take long for me to realize that these games were for real, and that our team was clearly outmatched. The pace of play and transition moved extremely fast, sometimes a bit out of control too. Nearly every rebound was nabbed 8-9 feet in the air. Nothing like the LA Fitness I was used to picking up in.
I asked David — he seemed to have the best English on the team — next to me on the bench why we looked like a high school team compared to FERWABA’s other clubs. He said UGB didn’t have the budget to pay its players unlike a few other teams in the league. That meant Yves took the opportunity to make UGB almost like a developmental bunch. Made sense.
Although we got off to a quick start with a couple threes, our lack of experience and size caught up to us. We got killed on the boards, hacked too many shooters and couldn’t close out.
I came in two-thirds of the way through the first quarter. Let’s just say it had been awhile since I’d last played a game this intense. My conditioning could’ve been better. I contributed some pesky defense that resulted in a few turnovers and I slotted some decent passes. I’m no scoring machine, but I knew I needed to get at least one shot up eventually. To stay in tune with my jersey designation, I took a non-contested jumper from Curry range and I’m embarrassed to say it fell short of the rim. I joked after the game that my 2K rating must have taken a massive hit following that airball. I stayed in for a few more possessions, but the constant transition got to me and I asked to be taken out. As I high-fived the coaching staff, I saw Remy decided to clasp my necklace around his own neck. Solid way not to lose it, I suppose.
The halftime break killed any kind of momentum we had in the first half. Our opponent, IPRC-Kigali started to go on a run and controlled the game. Once in the driver’s seat, they were comfortable trying rim-rattling dunks and deep threes. We were clearly the away team too, because the packed stadium was loving it. I tried to keep the mood light on the bench, so I joked around with my teammates about the refs and our struggles in my limited Kinyarwanda vocabulary.
Yves’ substitutions were a bit questionable. A few other players and I, who logged significant minutes in the first half, ended up not playing at all the entire second half. Oh, well.
The final buzzer sounded. I stretched with the team, gathered my chain and left.
I went into the game not expecting to dominate. Thank goodness I set my standards low. I was an average-to-below-average player Friday night. But, I was a player. In Rwanda’s Basketball Federation.
Who would’ve thought, huh?