For the Love of the Game
The surprisingly simple life of a Rwandan basketball pro
By Jeff Hartman
What do you think of when someone mentions the NBA? Perhaps like me, you think of young millionaire athletes playing a game to “make ends meet”? Well, not all national basketball players are making millions. In fact, I met one that plays for free, simply for the love of the game.
During my first week in Rwanda, I was invited to attend a national basketball game. Being from Indiana, the mecca of basketball, I of course accepted immediately. Now, I wasn’t expecting an NBA game with 17,000 screaming fans, but I was expecting a bit more than the 50 people in attendance. I was later told the football (a.k.a. “soccer”) match next door stole most of the game’s supporters.
Nevertheless, it was at this game that I first saw Christoph Wazayira, a 6’5”, 216-pound center and captain for Espoer, the oldest basketball club in the Rwandan National Basketball League. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about his career and basketball in general for a couple of hours (Being halfway around the world during the NCAA tournament this year was rough, so I was in heaven talking hoops!).
At an early age, Cristoph’s uncle, who played for the same Espoer team, introduced him to the game. The basketball his uncle gave him was his first and was his prized possession for many years. This was unusual, of course, since most of his friends were kicking around soccer balls. But even though he was the odd man out, basketball came naturally to Cristoph and he loved it.
He has been playing competitively for 15 years. It started in high school. He got his first taste of a championship win during his senior year. In front of 1000 people he scored 18 points to lead his team to victory. Although it was hardly the African Cup or national championships, it still ended up being his fondest memory of playing basketball. After this, he was hooked and he wanted to continue playing in hopes of making a living playing basketball some day.
Christoph played in Algeria for three years but his dad convinced him he wasn’t going to make millions playing, so he came home and concentrated on getting his degree in telecommunications at the University of Kigali. However, Christoph couldn’t get basketball out of his blood. He continued playing basketball competitively around town. He was eventually asked to play for some club teams and made his way up to the national basketball league. He has also been selected to play for the Rwandan national team in the Africa Cup. Today, despite working full-time, Christoph still plays 3-4 times per week for Espoer.
While we sat and talked, I was impressed with Christoph’s knowledge of NBA and NCAA history. We talked about his favorite players such as Kobe Bryant, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, and we talked about the current Pacers team and how he likes their style of play. In fact, Cristoph has been known to stay up till 3am watching championship games back in the States.
When I asked him how he felt about the NBA lifestyle in the US compared to the lifestyle in Rwanda, he said that NBA players are unique people and are very blessed. But he also said he was blessed to be able to still play the game he loves even if he doesn’t get paid to do so. When I asked him about the $5.15 million average salary of the NBA compared to what Christoph earns (nothing but travel expense reimbursements!), he laughed and said that only a few people in the world are able to do what NBA pros do.
He feels blessed and doesn’t mind playing simply for the love of the game.