By Charles Mutebi
You know the story. The fat cat always takes the beauty, the lion always gets the jewel. And for many rival fans, there is only one reason behind City Oil’s historical 2013 National Basketball League (NBL) Championship.
Money. But, truth be told, there is a lot more to City Oil’s title than the dough. Lest we forget, no one really considered City Oil title contenders at any point of the regular season or, less, at the start of the playoffs.
In fact, there were doubts City Oil would even make it past the first round of the NBL playoffs, where they were drawn against a KIU Titans team that had swept them in the regular season.
KIU, fourth, had finished one slot ahead of City Oil in the regular season and no one would have been surprised if Nimrod Kaboha’s Titans won the best-of-three series. City Oil themselves were not sure they would beat KIU, even though the Titans were without vital forward Edwin Kateregga, side-lined with a season-ending knee injury.
At that point, no one was really touting the money argument. And by the way, university sides like KIU and UCU invest, in any given season, tens of millions of shillings in their teams through player recruitment, scholarships and welfare.
And still the only university side to win the title in the modern-day 18 year-old FUBA national league is Makerere, back in 1995. Therefore, to reduce City Oil’s success to the weight of their ATM card would not only be inaccurate but an oversight of valuable lessons which can benefit other teams seeking NBL glory.
City Oil went from NBL debutants to NBL champions first and foremost because of the club’s hierarchy. The quadruple of Silva Rugamba, Grace Kwizera, Mohammed Santur and Hassan Ahmed meant City Oil’s boardroom was occupied by a fantastic four of sorts.
Their passion for basketball, proved by constant investment of their personal resources, and their vision for where they wanted City Oil to go created a blueprint that was always going to attract success.
When City Oil was founded in 2011, the plan was not to pursue national domination. A group of retired FUBA players who kept in shape through weekly pick-up games at Kabira Country Club had seen their passion for competitive basketball rekindled.
They decided to found a team in FUBA League. “But the problem with the third division is that the majority of games are played at awkward hours like Sunday morning,” recalls City Oil General Manager Rugamba.
“So we decided that we should qualify for the second division to get better playing hours.” Before long, the vision evolved into something more ambitious.
City Oil battled hard to qualify from the second division, negotiating tough series against Diamond and Bushcourt to reach the playoffs finals of the 2012 FUBA Division 2. City Oil could have easily failed to gain promotion but they did. And that changed everything. Once City Oil reached Division 1, now the NBL, Rugamba and Co. decided to go all out.
That led to the next crucial step in the club’s march to the NBL success, intelligent player recruitment.
Smart and responsible recruitment policy
The task of building a competitive side was spearheaded by Rugamba. City Oil had a clear idea of the kind of team they wanted – and it obviously helped that they could afford it.
And much to their credit, City Oil did not want an all-star team made up all of Uganda’s best players. “Many of Uganda’s best players came asking us to sign them but we refused because we did not want to weaken the league by taking all the big names,” explains Rugamba.
As a result, the only player eventually signed from a title contender was Jimmy Enabu, and even he was released amicably by D’Mark Power. Enabu would be the club’s first major signing and he went on to have his best season yet, standing out as the most consistent guard in the 2013 NBL.
Enabu’s performances this season have been a validation of his incredible talent, which previously only shone sporadically. Enabu was to be followed by Ramadan Arou (Kenya) and Kami Kabange (Rwanda) as the other big signings.
Arou and especially Kabange were too hot to handle for the NBL. Kabange was the best player across the season, consistently standing out in the big matches.
Kabange and Enabu scored 27 and 20 points respectively as City Oil defeated the Falcons 74-62 in Game 7 of the Playoff Finals, a testament to their worth. But in addition to the big names, City Oil also decided to sign talented young players for the future. In came Daniel Juuko and Sam Kalwanyi from Rez Life and the Charging Rhinos.
The pair struggled through the regular season but they came good in the playoffs. By the Finals, Juuko was starting point guard and Kalwanyi had improved enough to stand in for Arou, who was plagued by injury in the series last three games. City Oil also signed Yusuf Muhammed and Andrew Opio from Miracle but neither turned out as useful as hoped and the former is likely to be released.
The new signings, which also included Henry Mulira, were added the veteran core that had led City Oil for the past two years and a team had been assembled. All that remained was to find the right coach to make it all work.
And for that, Rugamba and City Oil turned to the man who had just led the Warriors to the championship. The man who doubles as the national men’s coach. Mandy Juruni.
City Oil bosses hold Juruni in very high regard and they insisted throughout the 2013 season that anyone looking for the best basketball brain in the NBL needed look no further than their bench.
Juruni has a deep insight of the game, which was evident through his illustrious playing career, which incidentally ended with the diminutive guard leading City Oil to NBL promotion in 2012.
Juruni is mastering the art of building teams that play a special brand of high-octane basketball, with intelligent off-and-on-the-ball motion.
Some of City Oil’s performances against Power in the playoffs semifinals and the Falcons in the Finals were just amazing. It was hard to believe this was a team that had been together for just one year.
Juruni’s Warriors side that won the 2012 championship was very different in character from this City Oil team. And for Juruni to find a way of getting both to function optimally is a great testament of his coaching nous.
This was one of the most competitive seasons in the history of elite national basketball league, with a Finals that had the fifth and seventh seed from the regular season. And it is just remarkable that City Oil went on to win it. No one saw it coming.