On the first day of the spring semester, Springfield College welcomed a group of international guests. Four basketball coaches from Uganda visited the birthplace of basketball on a frigid Wednesday afternoon, marking their first time outside the boundaries of the continent of Africa.
Through the International Sport Connection (ISC), the coaches are able to tour the United States to get a better understanding of American athletics and share their perspective on coaching with people throughout the country.
Ugandan basketball coach Ayeet Timothy Odeke spoke for his colleagues in expressing his excitement to be at Springfield College and in the United States.
“We figured the birthplace of basketball was a good place to start,” said Odeke with a smile.
As the coaches nursed their jetlag on the lounge chairs of the Richard B. Flynn Campus Union, Odeke said America and Springfield College were quick to make an impression on him.
“We love it here. It has been one day, and we already feel like this is home,” said Odeke. “It feels like Uganda; everyone is so welcoming and warm.”
Similar as it may have seemed, the coaches said there are significant differences between the state of basketball in Uganda compared to the United States. The East-African Republic of Uganda did not gain its independence until 1962, and until recently, the economic instability of Uganda made it one of the poorest countries in the world.
Basketball has existed for only 30 years in Uganda, but visiting coach Immaculate Nalwadda says the popularity of basketball is on the rise in her country. “We have limited facilities and the love for the game isn’t there yet,” said Nalwadda. “But it is growing very quickly compared to other sports.”
Soccer remains the most popular sport in Uganda, bringing in upwards of 60,000 fans to a Ugandan National League game compared to an estimated 5,000 fans for basketball games, said Odeke. The coach added that basketball in Uganda really caught fire in the 1990s when players such as Michael Jordan and Nigerian-born NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon graced the game.
Reflecting upon their careers of playing and coaching basketball in Africa, the four visitors say that basketball gives individuals and communities an amazing opportunity.
“Basketball helps the youth get involved in something productive and beneficial,” said coach Nicholas Twesigye.
Odeke says the opportunity to play basketball can open doors for the Ugandan youth.
“The lessons that can be learned through sports are things that can be returned to the community,” said Odeke. “Players become responsible members of the community and they become leaders.”
The many benefits of athletics are ingrained into Springfield College culture, and the Ugandan coaches see the sport having a dramatic impact in Africa.
“Basketball is a life-skills teacher that is rich in the values and character builders we all need,” said Odeke. The coaches turned to one another in response to Odeke’s statement. Twesigye proclaimed, “Endurance.” “Perseverance,” added Odeke. Nalwadda proudly stated, “Courage.”
The coaches all consider their relationships with their athletes to be their most important focus. A game-winning buzzer beater or a national championship is rewarding to both athletes and coaches, but for the Ugandan visitors, the sport of basketball has much more to offer.
“A coach is the second father or mother to the child, the child’s number one advocate,” said Odeke. Odeke concluded with a laugh, “A coach is almost everything.”
Odeke recalls a specific memory that he says justified his entire coaching career. Odeke once coached a boy named Julius who he says was a below-average basketball player.
“Everyone was always asking me why I bother with Julius,” said Odeke. “People would tell me that he was a waste of my time.”
Odeke rolled up his sleeves and mentored Julius with a level of patience that confused many. Julius improved so much that he earned court-time in a championship game, and Odeke says what happened in that game was a miracle.
“Julius went out there and became the star of the game,” said Odeke. “Everyone who spoke badly of him swallowed their words.”
The four coaches agreed that coaching and the sport of basketball would not be the same without players like Julius.
“We don’t do it [coaching] to win. We do it for the love of the game,” said Odeke. “It is far more gratifying to see a player become a better person in the process of playing the game and to know that you contributed toward that as a coach.”
Odeke, Nalwadda, Twesigye and Carol Nyafwono finished out their first day in the United States by watching the Springfield College women’s basketball team defeat Mount Holyoke College 66 -57 at Blake Arena. The foursome will travel to New York City, California and Texas to speak with Americans and gather knowledge to bring home to their hardwood in Uganda. The coaches consider their trip to be an instrumental step in bridging the gap between their home country and the birthplace of basketball.
Odeke says that gap is actually much smaller than we think. “We are all faced with different problems, but sports have the power to unite us.”
Sean Seifert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org