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Seem like Flavia Oketcho has played basketball forever

Flavia Oketcho (C) with her teammates

Flavia Oketcho (C) with her teammates

Sunday, September 24, Flavia Oketcho inspired her team, the JKL Lady Dolphins, to the playoff semifinals of the 2023 National Basketball League.

The Dolphins have been in every season semifinal (barring the 2020 and 2021 years of Covid-19) since they secured promotion to the top flight division at the end of 2017.

During that time, the Dolphins have won two championships in 2018 and 2019. In 2022, they lost the final to their fierce rivals, UCU Lady Canons 3-4 in a best-of-seven series final. The one common denominator in all these years of success for the Dolphins has been Flavia Oketcho, the indomitable captain of the team.

This is the twenty-second season of top flight basketball that Oketcho has played in, leaving her as a stand-alone among all women that have played in this division. No woman has played more seasons than her at the highest level of Uganda’s basketball pyramid. One can only be left wondering how Oketcho, 37, a mother, wife and businesswoman, has been able to build this kind of indefatigable status in such a physical sport.

While it has never been about the money, since basketball in Uganda is largely played under amateur terms, Oketcho’s commitment to the sport has been driven by the fact that she was born with a talent. She told The Observer: “God gave me a talent, and I have to use it. Fortunately for me, God has kept me healthy and because of that, I have only had to work on my mindset and work ethic. I believe I can still play competitively, and there is no reason why I should not.”

We have seen gold medalists struggle to keep their fitness after motherhood, but Oketcho said while the odds say she cannot still be playing, she goes out there to prove to herself that she can by being ever-present at the training ground.

One of her former teammates at the Dolphins, Angellah Lokwameri said she has never seen an athlete that respects her sport as much as Oketcho does.

Lokwameri said: “Unlike most basketball players, during the off-season, Oketcho will follow a training regime that is probably carried out by professionals in the Western world. She trains so hard. She hits the gym like no man’s business, and even watches her diet. She will check how much carbohydrates she ingests just to make sure they are the right quantities permitted for an athlete.”

Furthermore, Lokwameri revealed, Oketcho is always advising them to keep off their feet (get some sleep) as much as possible on game day. She adds that as much as Oketcho is a true leader, it is not just fashionable to her; it is culture and tradition that she showcases. Oketcho has a structured night life, where she will prefer to be indoors more than on the dance floor.

Flavia Oketcho and her JKL Lady Dolphins teammates celebrate the 2019 league trophy in the Lugogo indoor stadium

On top of that, she discourages her teammates from being so long on the phone especially in the night, when they have a game the next day. That said, Lokwameri is left in awe of Oketcho, an opponent domestically, yet a good friend.

But like many, one wonders who can lead a life like that of Oketcho. The kind that is so full of sacrifices just to keep at the level she has, in basketball. Well, only one person Oketcho can probably be compared to is Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward is 38 years old, yet in a recent interview, he revealed that he will most likely be playing football way into his forties.

It is very likely that Oketcho also draws inspiration from Ronaldo. She supports Manchester United, the club where Ronaldo is a legend. Notably, the intersection of Oketcho and Ronaldo is discipline and respect for their respective sports. This has, above all, resulted in longevity. In fact, just like Ronaldo, Oketcho has not even mentioned retirement just yet.

She probably sees no reason to, when she still goes onto court every week, and performs better than athletes who were born when she was already playing the sport.

At the recent Women’s Afrobasket (the biannual Africa Nations basketball tournament) championship, where Oketcho captained the Gazelles, the Uganda women’s national basketball team, countries like Senegal, who are record 11-time African champions, had 40-year-old players on their team, and still performing exceptionally; living up to the old adage that experience wins cups, despite losing it to Nigeria this time.

The Afrobasket championship was held in Kigali, Rwanda between July 28 and August 5. Uganda finished seventh out of 12 nations. That was Uganda’s highest-ever finish at a continental championship, where Uganda were making their second appearance in history. Overall, Oketcho is the first to admit that she did not have her best form throughout, although it was largely an issue that cut across the team.

Nerves and inexperience at the top level took their toll on the Gazelles. Yet, without doubt, Oketcho believes everyone gave their best for the flag. Over the years, Oketcho has been the knight in shining armour of women’s basketball.

There is a general consensus that she is the best female basketball player ever, born and bred in the Pearl of Africa. A legend!

For any athlete to be taken in such high regard would inspire you to be in a sport for the length of period Oketcho has been in basketball.

Oketcho explained: “Basketball is more thanasportforme.ItiswhoIam.Itis what has contributed to who I am today. And through it, I have managed to build something bigger. Hopefully, I can build a lasting legacy that will stay on long after I have left.”

Okecho takes on KCCA Leopards’ Sylvia Nakazibwe

Without a doubt, Oketcho already has a legacy built. Many upcoming players can possibly learn from her what it takes to remain as competitive as she is. She has also debunked a long running myth, that being a mother stops one from being in competitive sport for the long haul.

Oketcho, who is in a committed relationship with Richard “Chizzo” Lubega, shares 13-year-old Chantelle with the musician. Becoming a mother never slowed her down, contrary to what basketball lovers feared, and indeed Oketcho has had some of her best matches on the court after Chantelle’s arrival.

And while money has never been the greatest motivation to stay around long, a fact that has resulted in Oketcho laying a solid foundation for the growth of women’s basketball, she has used the platform for the greater good.

Playing basketball has over the years enabled her get an education. Beyond scholarships through high school at Kitante Hill, the sport’s benefits have included getting a chance to pursue a degree at the Uganda Christian University (UCU) over ten years ago.

Oketcho played a crucial role in establishing a strong UCU Lady Canons basketball club and inspired the team to its first championship in 2008.

Back then, before she joined the university, it did not offer scholarships like it does today. But Oketcho changed the tide, when she wrote a proposal in 2006 about how she could contribute to the growth of the university’s public relations through sport.

She suggested to the university that if they could offer her a scholarship alongside a number of other female basketball players, whom she listed, they would win the National Basketball League.

They did that two years later alongside the mates she had recommended to the institution. They included Brenda Mbone, Lorraine Akinyi and Celia Asila – all Kenyans.

Add another close friend of hers from Lady Bucks, Frances Nabulobi, who for good fortune, had earlier enrolled at the university; it was a match made in heaven. UCU Lady Canons are today, the record eight-time league champions – thanks to a foundation of winning that Oketcho laid.

Indeed, Oketcho has proved to be a game changer throughout her basketball career. At whatever club she has been, they have won a championship: Lady Bucks, UCU, KCCA Leopards and now the Dolphins. Yet, it remains a test, how she is able to balance between basketball, career, motherhood and being a wife.

She said laughingly: “I am a woman! We are the greatest multi-taskers that God created. So, I can handle all those roles. But that is largely because of the family support I get. Because of family, I am able to be a mother and wife in its true sense.”

Commonly referred to as ‘Flirsch’ because of her flashy basketball style, ribboned with art and flair, Oketcho has also ventured into business lately. She was recently seated in the company of the honchos of City Oilers basketball club, one of whom is Mohammed Santur and a director of City Oil the fuel company, Ahmed Hassan, the younger brother to Omar Mandela.

In light of that, Oketcho established a marketing agency, Flashbox, which aids in the promotion of sport. Earlier this year, Flashbox was involved in the deal that brought Stanbic bank on board as a sponsor of the National Basketball League. In 2021, Victoria University appointed her dean of students, but not even her job could slow her down on the court.

An only child, Oketcho grew up in Kololo with her mother, Edith Jamwa and stepfather Martin Aroma. Oketcho made her league debut back in 2000 under the guidance of coach Yunus Nkutu famously known as YY (not related to the bus company) in basketball circles.

He was assisted by coach Nimrod Kaboha, who in the earlier years of the basketball league in the mid-1990s, played for Falcons basketball club.

According to Oketcho, her debut came against one of her bitterest rivals, A1- Challenge. But to become a mainstay for her first team, six-time champions Lady Bucks, of which Oketcho was a part before it became defunct ten years ago, was in 2001.

That is also the year A1-Challenge’s star shooter and guard, Sera Yaweh – she had the responsibility of stopping Oketcho in their playoff quarter-final that ended in a 2-0 sweep – was born!

jovi@observer.ug

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