• Eldonets made history as the first team from Eldoret — and indeed, the entire North Rift and Western region — to feature in the top tier KBF league.
•However, Ouma and the other coaches soldiered on knowing that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
• “With an average age of 23, we had the youngest team in the league. All in all, we managed to gain enough experience with our aim being avoiding relegation,” Ouma says.
Eldoret is more renowned as the roots of athletics with many of Kenya's celebrated athletes owing their existence to the North Rift city.
However, a debut appearance in the Kenya Basketball Federation Premier League for local boys, Eldonets, is gradually putting it on the map as a basketball hotspot.
Eldonets made history as the first team from Eldoret — and indeed, the entire North Rift and Western region — to feature in the top tier KBF league.
Their arrival on the big stage is a product of seven years of ingenuity, determination and patience by Maurice 'Mori' Ouma — the brainchild behind the team, alongside other former Eldoret-based basketball players.
The club consists of men and women's sides as well as a junior team that feeds the senior teams with a steady supply of quality graduates. The junior team is made of primary and secondary school-going children.
“In 3-5 years, the team will have a new breed of players and that is our biggest target. They will take the team to greater heights,” added Ouma.
The long, challenging journey
Forming Eldonets was not an easy task and raising up 'baby' to the point of gracing the Premier League alongside seasoned sides was as an even tougher undertaking.
However, Ouma and the other coaches soldiered on knowing that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
“For 10 years, we were fighting to have a team from Eldoret in the league. We managed to register a team, Eldonets basketball team, with the Kenya Basketball Federation (KBF) league. That was the beginning of a tough, long journey,” says Ouma.
Whereas the men had to build their time for six years in Division One— before graduating to the Premier League — the ladies' team is still in the second tier but slowly and surely on their way to the big stage.
The story behind the men's journey to the top tier was laden with financial challenges as well as lack of accommodation and adequate playing kit.
"Players had to foot their own bills while training and playing kits were luxuries. We pooled our resources together, playing with one uniform for six seasons, which at the end of the day served its purpose,” Ouma says.
The solidarity that characterised the Eldonets family was sometimes tested as some of the players could not make it for away games.
“Sometimes, only three of us would make it for certain games. On certain days, we would borrow players from other clubs to meet the maximum number of starters. On other days, we did not even have a full team and that is how we survived through the storm,” Ouma recalls.
Fruits of perseverance
All these challenges were soon forgotten when the men's team stormed into the KBF Premier League in 2019.
With that came good tidings, most notably, from Platinum Credit, who chipped in with sponsorship.
"We were lucky to get Platinum Credit sponsorship through a former player. He presented our case and the management agreed to support us, which was a great achievement,” Ouma says.
Additionally, Eldonets benefited from two new pairs of playing kits to replace the one they had used during their six-year stay in Division One.
Each player also received a new pair of sneakers.
In their first appearance on the big stage, they impressively reached the first round of playoffs where they lost 2-1 to Nairobi City Thunder in a three-game series.
“With an average age of 23, we had the youngest team in the league. All in all, we managed to gain enough experience with our aim being avoiding relegation,” Ouma says.
A basketball convert
Ouma was initially a footballer at Columbans Primary School and Eldoret Harambee High School (now Bishop Delany Memorial) before a disagreement with his coach soured his love for the game.
“I used to be a defender before I decided to play basketball in Form Two after disagreeing with the then football coach. After one year, I was named captain and after completing high school, I started coaching my school team,” Ouma says.
Afterwards, Ouma moved to Nakuru where he juggled between coaching and a playing career at Nakuru Basketball Club.
He also coached Mount Kenya University, Nairobi campus team.
However, the need to nurture basketball talents in Eldoret was constantly nagging him and two seasons later, he packed up his bags and returned home.
Looking at the growth of his brainchild, Ouma does not regret his decision to turn down the chance of playing for a Nairobi-based basketball side.
"If I could have gone to Nairobi, I could have secured a good team to play for. But I believe it is more fulfilling to build something from scratch and watch it blossom into something great regardless of the challenges," he says.
Although he is a FIBA Level II coach, the lanky Ouma is still yearning to improve his coaching skills.
One of the key preoccupations for Ouma currently is to propel the ladies team to the same level as their male counterparts.
"The ladies' performance is good and we are just building on it. This will take time just like it was for the men's team. We have to be patient," he says.
The ranks of the men's team has also been boosted by the recruitment of new players in readiness for their second season in the top league.
“We have maintained many players who are in university and recruited six to replace those who will be leaving,” he says.
The new players include Humphrey Leslie (Eldoret Polytechnic), Dennis Omache (Kisii University), Philip Omondi and Collins Wekesa (Nairobi City Thunder).
Ouma's sights are also trained on the junior team for whom he envisions basketball scholarships in Kenya and abroad.
"Many of them are in class eight and have started securing basketball scholarships at various secondary schools. We started the team four years ago because we also wanted to empower them in their respective schools," Ouma says.
Each of the teams trains separately although the men's and ladies' teams occasionally play mixed games in case of time constraints.
"The ladies for two hours beginning 3 pm and then the men’s team join in from 5 pm to 7 pm. Standing for four hours and giving instructions is not an easy job. But when you have a passion for something, you can’t lose hope," he says.
The prevailing coronavirus pandemic has, however, affected their training programme and restricted them to just personalised activities.
Suggestions for improvement
On a large scale, Ouma dreams of a future where basketball will be as prominent as athletics in Eldoret.
"When building stadia, we should also be considerate of other sports, such as basketball and not only athletics, football and maybe, volleyball. It is sad that 64 Stadium and Kipchoge Keino Stadium don't have basketball courts," he laments.