With the inaugural Basketball Africa League (BAL) just around the corner, the Kigali Arena – host venue of the Final Four and Final next year – is fast becoming a household name among the fans in Rwanda.
The state-of-the-art facility, which was inaugurated last month during Game 1 of the National League Playoffs between the eventual winners Patriots and REG, was sold out as President Paul Kagame graced the occasion.
For the Rwandan players, having a magnificent arena like this is a dream come true. It is a huge improvement from the nearby Amahoro Indoor Stadium also known as ‘Petit Stade’ for its rather small capacity that only accommodates up to 3,000 spectators.
Patriots captain Aristide Mugabe (C) receives the league trophy from Rwanda Basketball Federation’s president Desire Mugwiza (L) after his side beat REG 65-59 in Game 7 of the playoffs finals last Saturday.
Once again, the 10,000-seater Kigali Arena was a sellout during Game 6 and 7 last weekend as the fans embraced it in its splendor and came out in big numbers to cheer their favorite teams.
Former national team captain Aristide Mugabe, who has won the league title an impressive seven times, has played widely on the African continent for over a decade and is ecstatic about the latest achievement in his neighbourhood.
He spoke exclusively to FIBA.basketball, “We played Game 1 at the launch. It was out of this world. Playing in front of the President [Kagame] was such an honour and a blessing. Winning that game was a super feeling. We are still excited about the Arena. It feels so unreal to us.”
Mugabe, who is the Patriots captain, led his side as they overturned a 3-1 deficit in the Best-Of-Seven series to lift their third topflight league trophy and will represent Rwanda in the BAL Qualifiers as they attempt to join the elite class of teams in Africa.
For a team formed five years ago, Patriots are looking to make their name further known outside the Land of a Thousand Hills. It is a mission Mugabe and his teammates look at as a means to inspire a new generation of Rwandan basketball players – that they too can shine beyond their borders.
“The growth is visible yet we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to be done but I am happy with the steps that we have taken. The league is growing and every season, we have new and promising players making their mark and the competition is high.
It is no longer one club winning the championship unbeaten as it used to be.”
“I am so excited about the BAL. This is an opportunity to showcase our talents and the level of Rwandan basketball. Of course, it is challenging because we want to be among the top teams so we have to be very well prepared.”
“But we are confident that we can do some real good work over these BAL Qualifiers. We also thank the people behind this initiative like FIBA Africa, NBA. We are thankful for this.”
Patriots want to go all the way to the Final Four that will be hosted at the Kigali Arena but they will have to go past the very best from the continent.
“That is our objective, and we know we have to fight hard for it. It is not going to be easy but we believe in preparations and our team leaders will make sure that we go there to win and qualify for the Final Four. The rest will be history because playing in front of our fans will be something extraordinary.”
“This means a lot to me. It is a dream come true. I have played in different arenas in Africa but playing in your country’s arena feels different. I feel like playing in the NBA right now,” Mugabe said excitedly.
For Mugabe and the Patriots, this is the beginning of many opportunities to showcase Rwandan basketball to the world. The task is visible and they are up for it.