Interviewing Brian Kirungi, president of Patriots BBC, before the inaugural season of the BAL

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For the last year, I have been following the creation of the Basketball Africa League, or the BAL for short. This features twelve of Africa’s top basketball clubs battling it out in a league backed by the NBAThis new venture will hopefully be a perfect opportunity to showcase the talent of a continent that created stars such as Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Joel Embiid, giving them the platform they deserve without having to join the European leagues or those in the U.S. In my excitement to learn more about the league, I arranged a meeting with Brian Kirungi, the president of Patriots BBC, who will be representing Rwanda in the inaugural season of the BAL. He was a delight to interview, and conveyed the passion and thought that had gone into getting the Patriots ready. 

May you quickly introduce yourself? 

My name is Brian Kirungi, I am a practising attorney, but I double up as the Patriots president. I have been President for the last three and a half years. Before that, I was Vice President Technical, and I, with a friend and a couple of other players did start this basketball club in Rwanda in 2014. 

What does it mean to you, the staff, and the players to be playing in a league backed by the NBA? 

In terms of professionalism, in terms of size, in terms of business, talent, the NBA is the best. So, playing in that space or at least aspiring to be as good as an NBA team, I think, is good for us as an organization. I think it is good for the players, it’s good for the countries that they represent. I think it is a huge opportunity to actually bring sports to the front, in terms of what it can do to transform our economies. 

The Patriots also had an unbeaten record in the qualifiers of the BAL, how confident are you before the start of the season? 

It was for us, getting down to the preparation. We took it seriously from the start. We knew what it meant to participate in the inaugural [season of the BAL]. It’s expensive to bring in top players, talent in terms of coaching staff, in terms of players that you beef up with, your own locker players in terms of how they prepare, nutrition, so it’s quite expensive on our clubs. But we knew what it meant. And we took the risk and I think we are here. We are lucky that we had a beautiful run. We hope it can continue but I know the quality and the history of some of these clubs, I can only promise you that we are ready to compete and we shall put our best foot forward. 

The Patriots are in a group with Rivers Hoopers, U.S Monastir, and GNBC who you actually beat in the qualifiers. So, who do you think is your biggest opposition? 

So with GNBC Madagascar, we’ve had history. We have played against each other twice, and luckily we came out on top twice. But they were very close so, they are very good competition. We expect a very good game against them. In terms of history, tradition, experience of the playing style, the magnitude of the organization, I think Monastir [Tunisia] presents the biggest challenge and definitely we want to shake the status quo; we are new in this game. But we have learnt quite a bit, we’ve been following up on what they are doing in their country, both in terms of the organization, but also in terms of how they put together their clubs and teams. So again, we will compete, but I think Monastir and Rivers Hoopers [Nigeria] present us the biggest challenge. 

On Monday, the internet got wind of rapper J. Cole playing for you this season. What do you think he adds to the Patriots as a player? 

Of course, we pushed him against all other players we have been looking at. We let the coaching teams examine his fitness, examine his level of skill, examine the contribution that he would bring to the club. And, as of today, the coaches are comfortable he will provide good value to the team. I think what he really brings is the ability to shoot the ball and that’s an area we have been struggling with, as an organization. So, his shooting ability, his team play, his ability to rally people around him is what we are going to need in this period. And the grit, coming from the bottom, struggling to get to the top, knowing what it takes to get results, the level of professionalism in his other life. All those things brought together is what we are going to ride on and ensure that all our other 11 players can learn from him, and say, ‘You know what? There is nothing that is not surmountable if you just put your heart to it, and put in the work’. And basically, that is what we are trying to learn from him and hopefully that is what will carry us to a good time. 

Do you think there are any advantages for the Patriots, from playing in your home country Rwanda? 

There is a lot of advantage playing at home. We are home. Most likely we will have our top leadership at these games. Our top leadership have been very supportive to us on our road and as we organise ourselves, both morally and financially. So, yes, there is some advantage, added pressure if you like. But I think we have been here before and we like to play for the country. We’ll definitely do that. And unfortunately, because we are living in times of COVID, the arenas won’t be as filled as we would have loved. If that was the case then maybe our 6th man would carry us. We won’t get a lot of that because of the limitations on numbers, but we know we can feel the vibrations through the city, the radios, the TV, everything is rather supportive so, we will carry that spirit with us. 

With the hope of the BAL to grow in the future, are there any plans for a women’s team alongside the men’s? 

Yes, now personally when I first finished my professional career in Uganda, I did actually start with a couple of friends a women’s basketball club called A1 Challenge. So, I am very aware and alive to women in sports first of all, but also women in basketball specifically. I coached them for 4 years, I know what it takes to get women to play the game at this level, I know the value they bring to the game, their attitude and their approach to the game is slightly different to what the men give so yes I am very alive and aware of that, and definitely that’s our ambition. I think two things are very critical to us at this stage. We have come now to this level of professionalism so the next is having a women’s team and having an academy, because those are the 2 things that really can sustain us. Without a women’s club, without an academy then you don’t have any pipeline, so yes to answer directly, we are definitely putting a women’s club on the agenda. 

We have seen the announcement that the BAL will be streamed on ESPN Africa, are there any plans for games to be streamed overseas?

Yes, definitely, [the BAL] will be watchable around the world. A lot of global channels have signed partnerships with the BAL. Yes. So, the games will be watchable from all over the world.

Are there any plans to release any Patriots merchandise in the future?

We are definitely trying to go professional. Of course, there is having people support your team but there is also making some revenue from some merchandise. So, yes, we actually are finalising licensing deals with providers who can provide us with all the merchandise.

Why should fans who are undecided on who to follow, support the Patriots?

You know the name Patriots alone, we love our country and standing for our roots. You know the history of Rwanda; we have started from a low place but it is a country that has picked itself up in terms of its economy and has sports getting there as well. So, if you support the Patriots, you are basically supporting the story, the Rwandan story of resilience, of the awakening of dreams coming true, of in many cases, punching above your weight. We have a huge history that we think people wherever they are, should be rooting for us. But most importantly, also I think, we are a big club. We are on the table now, we are ready to compete as a worthy opponent. You should support us for our story but also the club that we have become.

Thank you very much Brian Kirungi for your time.

We wish the Patriots all the best in the BAL. You can cheer them on via the BAL website