Omondi sharpening Cobra’s fangs ahead of the BAL
SOUTH Sudan’s Cobra Sports Club have risen from their pit and will use the next two months to patiently prepare to strike when they make their debut in the second season of the Basketball Africa League (BAL). Cobra’s dream feat which was achieved in December during the Elite 16 Division East qualifying tournament in Johannesburg, […].
SOUTH Sudan’s Cobra Sports Club have risen from their pit and will use the next two months to patiently prepare to strike when they make their debut in the second season of the Basketball Africa League (BAL).
Cobra’s dream feat which was achieved in December during the Elite 16 Division East qualifying tournament in Johannesburg, South Africa, helped enhance South Sudan’s growing basketball reputation. The club’s Kenya-born coach John Omondi concurred with the sentiment and also felt qualifying for the BAL has enhanced his reputation as well.
“Qualifying (for the BAL) is a big thing for us. It has put South Sudan on the map. That is where they belong,” said Omondi speaking via Zoom from his South Sudan base on Monday. “For myself, it was a breakthrough because it was my first international assignment. Helping the team qualify for this tournament is a big milestone for my career and CV.”
While Omondi’s name will shine bright for this historic achievement in South Sudanese basketball, he says he did not solely join the club to help them qualify for the BAL. He wants to help nurture young and untapped talent in that country.
“Looking at South Sudan from a basketball perspective, they have a lot of height. They have players all over playing basketball at a high level. Right now, the potential is coming to the fore,” said Omondi, who credited the involvement of former NBA player and now South Sudan Basketball Federation president Luol Deng.
“The president realised the need to return home and help improve the structures. Through his leadership, there have been changes. He has used his time to make sure the national team is vibrant. He also supported a number of the local leagues.
Omondi raved about working with players from South Sudan while in Uganda, so when Cobra came with their offer, it was a no brainer. The opportunity to pique his curiosity about players from that part of the world had arrived.
“At my previous team in Uganda, I worked with several South Sudan players. Now I am happy to have the chance to find out what makes these players great. Cobra has given me an opportunity to see and understand them,” said Omondi. “There is a lot of height here, and some of the players don’t understand how important that is in basketball. Realising that this is a hub of height, we must tap into it and get the best out of it.”
On the playing front, qualifying for the 12-team BAL tournament was initially a toll order for Cobra, who appointed Omondi a month (September) before the zonal qualifiers, meaning he had little time to acquaint himself with the team. The South Sudanese club suffered defeats against Burundi’s New Star (67-46) and Kenya’s Ulinzi Warriors (47-53), but good fortune found Cobra as they received a wild card entry into the Elite 16.
Cobra did not waste their second chance in the final qualifying tournament and left South Africa with a 2-2 record. After losing their opening group game against Mozambique’s Ferroviario Da Beira (76-46), Cobra would avenge their defeats to Ulinzi and New Star.
In their second group stage match, Cobra marched to a 77-67 win over the Kenyan club and secured their qualification for the next round. In the semi-final against New Star, they had to sweat for their two-point victory (78-76).
Cobra would eventually lose the dead-rubber final game (95-61) against the undefeated Beira. It did not matter, as the men from South Sudan had achieved their mission at the second time of asking.
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Omondi reflected on the degree of difficulty that the qualifying process presented. He pointed out that his team jumped through a hoop or two to qualify for the tournament that will tip off in Dakar, Senegal (March 5-15) and then move to Cairo, Egypt (April 9-19) and finally Kigali, Rwanda (May 21-28).
“When I took on this assignment, I knew that we had a short time to get this group of players ready. When we arrived in Tanzania, we had to figure out what we could do as a team. I knew we were going to face tough competition,” said Omondi, who coached Ndejje University in Uganda before joining Cobra.
“So many things changed in Tanzania. The fixtures changed overnight, so all the planning and scouting we did fell out the window. The only team in the original group was Ulinzi. We did not know anything about New Star. So, we did not get the desired outcome in the first round.”
In the Elite 16, Omondi knew what Cobra would be up against, and his preparation bore fruit.
“For the second round, we studied Ulinzi and New Star. The results against those two teams were a major milestone for us. We did good background check on them. We knew what they were capable of, and we got the results when it mattered most,” said Omondi.
With the BAL tournament two months away, high on Omondi’s list of priorities is to retain the services of centre Tom Wamukota and shooting guard Dieudonne Ndizeye, who both played for Rwanda club Patriots in the inaugural tournament.
The teammates from Kenya and Rwanda were masterstroke additions for Cobra’s successful Elite 16 campaign.
“Tom Wamukota did a good job for us. We don’t want to lose him. We can’t afford to let him go. Didier is another vital inclusion, a solid player. So, we intend to maintain them,” said Omondi, whose club has two more import slots to fill.
“We have two slots that we want to make use of, but that is subject to approval by management. I do have ideas on who we should bring to the team. Management also might have their view on that issue. I will have to accept that.”
He added: “Looking back, one of the challenges we had was at the guard position. We need a mature point guard who can control the game for us and a forward who can help lessen Wamukota’s workload.”
One question Cobra will have to answer when the BAL tournament tips off is, how far will they go? In addressing the question, Omondi was not shy to state his ambition for the team.
“I have tried to study the BAL format. There are things I have heard and those I am yet to learn. The longer we stay (in the competition), the better it is for us. Also, the kind of things we add to help improve the team must ensure we stay in the tournament for as long as possible. So, we are looking at something like the semis if not the final,” concluded Omondi.
By taking advantage of the luck presented to them, Cobra did well to put South Sudan on the map but to have a dream run at the BAL tournament, they will have to dot their i’s and cross their t’s as the other 11 teams will only bring their A-game.