Everything comes down to one shot. One opportunity. One chance. 

A single chance to get your country over the hump that’s been there for 28 years. A mighty long time. 

When the refs did their review and signaled the end of the game, it was pure joy at having accomplished such a phenomenal feat against Angola. That’s what I’m to supposed to say, right?

Let’s go back to 2008. Alexandria, Egypt. We had qualified for the Under-18 Africa championship and that’s when the dream to conquer and be the best in the continent started. Having only played semi-professionally, the competition was overwhelming. Later, we came home and went back to our normal lives. At the back of my mind though, I got a destination and a dream. 

This is part of the fuel that has lit my path in basketball. 

In 2013, I got my first senior call up. We got whooped by Rwanda, Egypt and later, Uganda. All those years we wereshort handed and never managed to rise to the challenge. The most painful loss was to Uganda who brought out their Mulirwana song and beat us at their home ground. That was 2014. 

Joseph Khaemba. Photo via KBF

In 2017, we tried bringing in our internationally based players and that is when the seed was planted. We weren’t going to do this on our own and the AfroCan showed just that. I didn’t play much during that cycle but I stayed close to support and celebrate all milestones that we achieved. It was a matter of proving it to ourselves first, that we could actually compete at the continental level and beat our noisy neighbors.  

I didn’t play the pre-qualifiers or the 1st round of the qualifiers in Rwanda. 

2nd round. New coach, same motivation to achieve the dream to be the best in Africa. Many things changed in our training camp. We were literally in class with assignments, write ups and team discussions around basketball and our opponents. 

Making the team was surreal. Then it hit me. I have the chanceto help our country achieve a feat that has been elusive for 28 years. 28 years is a mighty long time. Some of my teammates weren’t even born the last time we participated. 

A mishap kept me from playing the first game. “Goodness me,” I wondered, “Am I really supposed to be here or do I carry the curse? (DT : Ama nikona swara?).” Those 48 hours were going to be long and the first 6 hours would change myoutlook about life, basketball and try bring meaning to life/being alive. 

The night before the game against Angola, I got the good news that I was cleared to play. Never underestimate the power of freedom, being around people and movement. But what are the odds that we had to go through an African giant to get to our dream destination?

20th February 2021. Never forget that date. The day that history changed. Always remember that if you look good, you play good. The Lebrons were red with the lion at the back. That spring in every step, the calm breathe, and the joy of just stepping onto the basketball floor. I really didn’t want to warm up, I was born ready. I had a debt to settle with Angola, 13 years, with interest. 1-1 at the end of that game. 

There was something different about that game. Our composure and concentration was just on point. We were down early in the game but no one seemed rattled or unsettled. We knew we had to win that game by all means necessary. 

Tylor’s shot was the icing on the cake.  

From left: Joseph Khaemba, Morans manager Mercine Milimu and coach Liz Mills

In the coming months, our eyes are firmly gazing towards the AfroBasket. We have the underdog tag and a chip on our shoulders. I don’t think any team will want to play us because we could just beat them at any time in the game, be it at the beginning of the game or the 4th quarter. As long as we get the job done. If camp starts around June, it’ll be good for us.

In the long run, I want to support grass root development programs and go to camps all over the country. The impact basketball has had on us, seeing that we’ve gone through the struggle, is an added bonus. We just want more and more kids to make it in the world of basketball, because the opportunities are there. It’s very important for us to go and perform well at AfroBasket 2021. Being the pioneer generation, it will make the younger generation see that it is possible to be the best in basketball and the many avenues that open up through basketball.

It has not, however, been smooth sailing all this time.

From dealing with injuries, to falling sick during tournaments, to being dropped from the team without explanation, to playing without sponsors and having to pay for access to gyms.

Growth, personal and basketball, has been defined by both good and bad things. I can’t run away from the things that have happened. The most important thing is to take the good with me, make friendships that last and brotherhood bonds that can’t be broken. 

Joseph Khaemba (4) on the attack against Angola. Photo courtesy FIBA

I have been lucky to have played on both ends of the of thespectrum of basketball generations. When I joined the senior team, we had veterans who’d by good measure, done their bit for the nation. Enter us, the 20 year olds who just wanted to play basketball and took so much pride in wearing the colors and the flag on our chests. Was it a smooth takeover? No. The old guards wanted to show their dominance and top dog status. There was that push and pull. No one really wants to be uncomfortable but you have to grind to cement your place. I always say, you can’t outrun or outwork me if you are older than me, and there’s no way you’ll beat me if you are younger than me. I’ll just beat you with experience. 

I was and still am surrounded by a close-knit blend of family and friends. The ones who tell me I’ve messed up and won’t sugarcoat anything, who are proud of every single achievement and will give me my flowers while still here. The ones whose counsel and advice I cherish.

Many say basketball reveals your character, your true self. There have been days when I wanted to give up, hang my sneakers and just say, “I ain’t doing this no more.” Those days came and went. You won’t always stay motivated, that’s why you have to learn to stay disciplined.

Whether you are playing 40 minutes a game or two minutes a whole tournament, your focus and preparedness should always be the same. There are no shortcuts in that. If you sulk at the less minutes it takes away what you were to do in the next game. Always support your team especially if you are on the bench. This keeps you locked in during the games. Everyone can’t play the same role and coaches have different strategies.There are certain games that just won’t click but you can’t stop celebrating your team’s wins.

Your mind’s health is very important. You can’t be at your best if you can’t mentally stay sharp. Do not ignore any red flags in your life that would otherwise incapacitate your mind’sfunction. Learn to take time off and deal with things. Life is always up and down. The only signal that you are alive. A flat line on the other hand…

Khaemba attacks the rim against the whole Angolan defense. Photo courtesy FIBA

The basketball waters are wide and mostly unchartered. I know that I wont accomplish everything that I’ve set to do but I can lay a solid foundation for the next generation and make sure they continue propelling the game to greater heights. Right now basketball is opening many doors and we should take advantage. My club, Ulinzi, is prepping for BAL qualifiers. This is what we dreamt of. The NBA. It’s here, albeit in a different format, but can you imagine when the curtains close, I can say I played in an NBA league. There’s so many opportunities and basketball is but a tool to help you achieve your dreams. I don’t plan on playing this game forever, no I’ve got things I need to do. A marriage and family in the next few years, work and business that will be more demanding. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll just leave the spot open. Someone has to step up and carry the dream. Elevate it.

Everything you go through molds and shapes you but it shouldn’t define you. 

You got a dream protect it and work for it no matter what obstacles you get along the way. 

You have to take the straight with the crooked.  


By Ariel Okall


One thought on “Letter To Myself; Joseph Khaemba”
  1. There was indeed something different about that game with Angola. Good game Khaemba. Thank you for making Kenya and especially the basketball community proud. No covid tu, otherwise the celebration would have been epic.

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