Kenya Morans

Mills believes Morans can punch above their weight

THE hard lockdown of Australia last year, due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, offered  basketball coach Liz Mills, who grew up in Sydney, time to take stock of her life.

On her reflections during the national lockdown, Mills realised that the break was necessary as she needed to learn to slow down. She also used the time to enhance her basketball knowledge.

“I did a lot of personal growth and professional growth last year. I learned a lot of lessons about slowing down. I took the time to re-evaluate certain things in my life. Basketball-wise I was able to attend online coaching courses and complete a basketball analytic course to solidify and continue to develop my skill-set in coaching,” said Mills, who holds a Master’s degree in her profession.

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Liz Mills believes the process towards winning is more interesting than the end result. Picture: FIBA

Armed with new knowledge in her craft, Mills, who regards Africa as a second home, is back and has already taken up a new challenge. Coaching the Kenya national team, the Morans, who are attempting to qualify for their first FIBA AfroBasket in 28 years.

Oh, definitely! It’s home away, from home. Every time I fly back, I am over-joyed to be here. Last year was difficult. It was the first time in nearly a decade that I had not been to Africa, sometime during the year,” said Mills, who takes over a Morans team at the halfway stage of the qualifiers of the tournament to be hosted by Rwanda (24 August-5 September).

Mills, who has coached in Zambia, Cameroon, and Rwanda, believes the Morans, snapped her up because of her technical expertise and experience in the continent.

“I consult with a lot of teams. Many national teams and clubs reach out to me, asking for advanced stats and film breakdowns. So, I have built a reputation for myself. The team manager, Mercine Milimu, reached out to me before the qualifiers started in Rwanda in November. She brought up the idea of me joining the Morans,” said Mills, who took over the reins from Cliff Owour.

The East African nation’s performance during the qualifiers of the first window, in Kigali, convinced Mills she had made the right choice in taking up the head coaching role.

“After watching them participate in Rwanda. I said to myself: ‘This team has potential’. I have been watching them since the AfroCan in 2019. They are a team on the rise. They are a team that’s an underdog, just like Australians. We are seen as underdogs all the time. But we fight well above our weight. So, it seemed like a natural fit. Once I got here I was given the head coaching role. I am excited to be working with this team,” said Mills.

 

 

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Kenya resume their group B qualifying campaign in Yaounde, Cameroon (February 19-February 21) with a 1-3 record, following a win over perennial qualifiers Mozambique and losses to powerhouses Angola and Senegal in the first window held in Kigali, Rwanda last year.

Mills is aware of the challenge that lies ahead for the Morans and has already gathered intelligence on Kenya’s opposition.

“Even though I was not able to coach in the first round of qualifiers, I do all the advanced stats for all the games. I am aware of what’s going on. I am very connected, regardless of whether I am coaching or not. It doesn’t feel like I am at a disadvantage, just because I am coming in now. I did not narrow in on a specific team, I was watching everybody, so I have a good grasp of how every team is playing especially in our group,” said Mills, who has high hopes for the Kenya basketball team in the second window.

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Liz Mills had time for some self-reflection during the lockdown in Australia. Pictures: FIBA and Frank Ogallo

“I think what’s exciting about this Morans team, is that they can play so much better than what they did in November. Their areas for improvement are so high. I think they have the capabilities to play at a better level. I don’t think there are many teams currently playing, who have that same level of improvement as the Morans.”

Kenya stands a good chance of qualifying and while arriving at that destination is important, Mills opined that the journey of getting there is just as critical.

“I think at the end of the day it’s about how much we can improve. We are not chasing wins. We are working on the process that can get us wins. We want to improve against Angola and Senegal. Reduce the margins of error. If we can get the win, that’s great. And of course, Mozambique is a team with a lot of experience, so we must respect them,” said Mills.

The Australian-born coach is also breaking new ground as a female head coach of a men’s team, a milestone she acknowledges.

“I’ve always been very warmly welcomed by the clubs and national teams I’ve worked with. Across the continent, I’ve been embraced by the basketball community, who have seen my dedication to growing the game here,” continued Mills.  “I’ve been lucky to work with clubs and national federations who are open-minded in terms of their hiring approach. I take being a role model very seriously and understand that young boys and girls need to see women in leadership positions. We need to provide intelligent, strong and independent female role models for the next generation of children growing up.”

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Can Kenya’s Morans rise from obscurity?

FOR Ariel Okall, taking to the basketball court in the colours of the Kenya Morans (national team) will carry a special meaning, when they attempt to qualify for next year’s Afrobasket tournament to be hosted by Rwanda.

Firstly, after 27 years of being a basketball afterthought, Kenya will attempt to qualify for the FIBA Afrobasket tournament in Kigali from 24 August – 5 September 2021. Secondly, Okall wants to continue the family legacy of athletes participating at the highest level.

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Kenya Morans forward Ariel Okall wants to continue a proud family legacy. Picture: FIBA

Okall’s father, Elijah Koranga, a former footballer, was part of the Harambee Stars team that participated in the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations. Okall’s journey to matching his father’s feats will begin at the Afrobasket qualifiers, also taking place in Kigali from 25 November – 29 November 2020. Kigali has prepared for the upcoming tournaments, in context of Covid-19 restrictions, by designating a bio-bubble at the Kigali arena.

“I want to compete. My father played in the Africa Cup of Nations with the Kenya football team. So, if we qualify for the Afrobasket, I will be at the same level as my father. If I don’t, he will still have that advantage over me. I want to qualify so badly so that he doesn’t have to brag that he’s the only one in the family that has competed at international level. It’s a matter of destiny. A matter of legacy.” said Okall, who is currently at camp with the team in Nairobi.

The forward believes that this group of Morans players can write their history in Kenyan basketball lore by ending almost three decades of basketball obscurity.

The ultimate goal is to qualify for Rwanda next year. It is the closest we have come to qualifying, after 27 years. We don’t want to take this chance for granted. We always say the Morans are about finishing their food. The coaches have given us everything we need. All that’s left is for us to finish the job,” said the 30-year-old.

Kenya put the African continent on notice after reaching the final of the AfroCan tournament in Mali last year, where they lost to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite this achievement, Okall maintained that the Morans are underdogs going into the Afrobasket qualifying tournament. He also held the view that they are a closed book to their more esteemed Group B opponents, Senegal, Angola and Mozambique.

“Definitely. We are the underdogs. And in Bamako, Mali we were the underdogs. We play better when we are in that position,” said Okall, who feels the Morans will know what to expect come tip-off time.

“Some of the players, playing in these teams, we look up to them. So, it’s going to be an achievement playing against players we have been watching for so many years,” said Okall who went on to break down what he’ll be expecting from what looks like the group of death.

“From all four teams, it’s going to be a battle size. If you look at the Senegalese, they have a great deal of height in their squad and Angola too. They also have a culture of winning.”

Okall will be familiar with Mozambique as he was part of the Morans team that played them in the four nations tournament held in South Africa in 2015.

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Ariel Okall believes the Morans will be a closed book to their Group B opponents. Picture: FIBA

“We played against them in the four nations tournament in South Africa and lost to them. They play the same type of basketball as Kenya, but the only advantage they have is they regularly participate in Africa’s biggest stage, so we have to take them seriously. We have to prepare well before we meet them. They have tournament experience, so you can’t take them for granted,” said Okall, who has played basketball in Oman and Seychelles.

The Morans also have the benefit of having the core of the team that participated in AfroCan tournament. While there will be a lot of rusty legs in the team due to inactivity because the global COVID-19 restrictions, Okall believes the continuity will bode well for the Morans.

“The mood in the camp is awesome. The core of the team is still intact. We don’t have to start from square one. We have been together for over two years we know each other well. Things are easy for us. There are three or four guys, who are new to the team,” said Okall.

 

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“Physically, the impact (of COVID-19 lockdown) is visible because the leagues had shutdown. Guys have been affected in terms of game shape and game awareness. The coaches have worked with us to improve our conditioning. The guys are mentally strong, and in the coming days, we will be at a higher level. The good thing is that all teams competing in the qualifiers have also had their leagues closed because of lockdowns in the respective countries.

“The only positive is that the professional players that will be coming have probably played leagues where basketball was allowed to resume. That will be an X-factor. But for the local players, it’s going to be tough on them,” concluded Okall.

The Morans, named after the famed Maasai tribe warriors will head to these qualifiers knowing they have nothing to lose. They have made a giant leap in African basketball and already sharpened by earlier wins for the test that awaits. Can they in the coming weeks elevate themselves and etch their names in Kenyan basketball lore?

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Basketball opened doors to new life experiences

THE life of a pro basketball player is not as glamorous as sports fans would like to think. It does take it’s toll on you: being away from family, friends, hopping from one country to another, it’s all work. Another hoop I have had to jump through is the language barrier, which I have experienced in all the countries I have played in.

I am from Kenya and have played basketball in several countries: Oman for three seasons with two different teams and a stint in the Seychelles.

While it is all work, the experience has been deeply educational: new cultures, new people, and new food. All this has formed part of a life-changing experience off the court, and I would not trade it for anything.

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Ariel Okall celebrating with a Kenya Morans teammate. Picture: FIBA

When I think about it, basketball has opened the doors for me to immerse myself in new surroundings and gain a different perspective of life and how I live it.

This year, my basketball journey has taken me to Algeria, where I joined Union Sportive Setifienne. While the move was great for me and my stay here has been good, unfortunately, it has come at a time when the world is going through a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has stifled the careers of many athletes, myself included. Without sports, our lives as athletes are impacted in certain ways. We can no longer play or practice the way we are used to, because gatherings are illegal now.

I have only played four games for my new team and I was adjusting well to the system. Honestly, I miss the action. The game is life to me and without it, I feel like a part of me has been ripped out and it causes me pain sometimes.

Mostly, I miss the intense practice where I am pushed to the limit. I feel that’s what brings out the best in me.

 

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One thing I have noticed about Algerian basketball is that the teams are competitive and well invested in. It’s hard to say which team is better than the other. So, I hope to get back to that level of competition at some point.

In the meantime, to keep fit I have come up with various ways to exercise and also keep busy. I have a training program. I do all my training indoors with the help of my trainer and also from the team. It has worked well for me, I feel stronger, and I know I have to be ready, because we can start playing anytime.

To stay mentally sharp, I read a lot, I write on my blog, and I watch some of my past games to figure out how to improve my game. It’s always great to keep on studying your game.

During tough times it’s always better if you are close to the people, you love and care about. I miss my family back home, and the food there. East or west home is best!

I hope that the virus will be controlled, and we will be back in action soon to the game we love. In the meantime, let’s stay safe and keep working. Basketball will rise again!

 

 

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