02 November 2014

KENYA : Rivalry watered down as Co-op Bank, and Lions meet

A meeting in the Kenya Basketball Federation league between Co-operative Bank and KCB Lions (now Lions) in the 1990’s and early 2000s would have been the talk of town within the basketball fraternity but not any more.
The week preceding the big encounter would be characterized by talk of who would win, where the odds were favorite and generally about the fans’ expectations. Predictably, every fan would cast the odd in his or her team’s favour.
It is the memories of this big rivalry that still ring in the minds of those who were there to witness as it unfolded. The two teams were among those that commanded huge following in the country alongside Posta, Barclays Eagles, Ulinzi Warriors and Kenya Ports Authority (KPA).
Fans thronged Nyayo National Stadium gymnasium and any other venue they were playing. Some ardent fans would even travel from upcountry days in advance to just be part of the experience.
Literally, the encounter between the two teams would be equated to the historical English Premier League meeting between Manchester United and Arsenal.
Things have since changed with most of the players having retired and others turned to coaching. Fans have also deserted basketball courts and not even a Co-op Bank-Lions game can draw enough numbers.
A handful are only present to cheer them up and even players lack the strong urge to play like in the past.
In their first leg played in May, Lions lost 28-74 to the bankers fielding only seven players out of the possible twelve and lacked a coach. It's payback time and both teams will play each other in the return game on Sunday at the Nyayo gymnasium.
In the build-up, it's just a normal game comparable to one pitting teams fighting relegation. The traditional fanfare is missing even in social media which is very effective in modern world.
Lions lost their sponsor
Carey Odhiambo, the Co-op Bank head coach has been in the thick of things since the rivalry began and says things have truly changed. “It’s never like it was years back. Lions lost their sponsor as well as its strong fanbase which was the biggest in the country,” he told sportsnewsarena.com.
Players from both sides would dominate the national team. Odhiambo joined the bankers in 1989 as a player and founding member before being promoted to assistant coach in 1992. He took charge of the team as head coach in 2006 and regrets that the lively environment which characterised his team’s games with Lions is long dead.
One of the aspects Odhiambo points out has changed is the players’ attitude whenever they meet. “Then, it was a more personal rivalry between players than clubs as fans saw it. A player from one team would vow that he can't lose to a player in the opposing team which shaped up to be a big rivalry.”
The bankers announced their entry with a maiden title in 1995 while Lions first won the league in 2001. The fact that both teams were sponsored by two leading banks in Kenya was another spin to the rivalry.
“Sometimes, it was more than the game but business which resonated well with fans. Each of the banks would be keen to upstage the other on the court thus would put in all their support to achieve that.”
Denis Opiyo, who initially joined Lions in 2003 before leaving and returning severally, agrees that the tough rivalry is no more. However, he opines that both clubs have managed to retain their status as top teams in the country. “They are still top teams only that the standards of the game have gone down.”
Lions experienced a mass exodus of players last season after their sponsor (KCB) withdrew but Opiyo says the club is more than individual players. “We are a family and we groom new players once others leave. Our biggest setback was the death of team manager Denis Ochieng in 2013 but we are now rebuilding.”
Currently, Co-op Bank is third on the table with 50 points from 26 games while Lions are fourth on 44 points from 28 games.
Push for playoffs
The Sunday encounter is a must-win for both teams as they push for a top four finish to gain playoffs advantage. Allan Ouma, Salim Ali and Brian Busu are the oldest players at Co-op Bank and continue to be a pillar to the team’s success.
Lions has Opiyo, Moses Wanjara and Victor Ochieng who still remain loyal to the team amid tough times. Both teams have promised an entertaining and highly competitive 40 minutes of basketball action on Sunday.
Most of the teams have an average of two to three games in regular season remaining for both men and women premier leagues.
KPA will host Thunder and Ulinzi Warriors in Mombasa this weekend while Blazers play Strathmore University and Equity Bank up against Mennonite. Nakuru Club will have an acid test for the weekend playing host to Co-op Bank on Saturday and Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) on Sunday.
The Sunday meeting between Eagle Wings and United States International University- Africa (USIU-A) will be the highlight of women's premier league. Both teams are separated at the top by a point as USIU-A sit on top with 37 points from 19 games while Eagles have played a game more.
Champions KPA with 32 points from 17 matches play home to Ulinzi Blades and Safe Spaces while Co-op Bank face Mennonite.
Saturday: Nakuru Club vs Co-op Bank (Nakuru, 12pm), KPA vs Ulinzi Warriors (Mombasa, 2pm), KPA vs Ulinzi Blades (4pm), MKU Eldonets vs Umoja (Eldoret, 10am), JKUAT vs Nebulas (Strathmore, 10am), Zetech University vs Lakeside (12pm), Barclays Bank vs Upper Hill (2pm), Mennonite Ladies vs Co-op Bank (4pm); Sunday: KPA vs Safe Spaces (Mombasa, 2pm), KPA vs Thunder (4pm), Nakuru Club vs KAA (Nakuru, 12pm), JKUAT vs Strathmore (Strathmore, 10am), Baraka Xtreme vs KCA-U (12pm), Upper Hill vs Nebulas (2pm), Barclays Bank vs Nebulas (Nyayo gym, 9am), USIU Flames vs Eagle Wings (10:30am), Equity Bank vs Mennonite (12pm), Blazers vs Strathmore University (2pm), Co-op Bank vs Lions (4pm).

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