After winning seven National Basketball League titles in the past seven seasons, the City Oilers are now a dynasty that has shown no signs of slowing.
City Oilers’ success didn’t just occur overnight though, as a plethora of factors as good management, strong promote-from-within philosophy, a strong team concept and culture, discipline and making their best players the hardest workers helped to form them into the dynasty that they are from their time of formation a decade ago.
City Oilers was born under the queerest circumstances. Actually before its formation, the proprietors had no intentions of starting a basketball club.
“The intention was never to start a competitive basketball club at the time. We used to go to the gym as friends with Silver (Rugambwa), Mohamed (Santur), and Hassan (Ahmed). We got bored at some point and Mohamed proposed we start playing basketball,” Grace Kwizera, one of the founding members, recalls.
At Kabira Country Club in Bukoto is a basketball court surrounded by palm trees and tennis courts. On evenings of weekdays and over the weekend, the facility is preoccupied with mainly people who subscribe to using the facility with a certain amount of money and it’s where the group chose to play from.
“I told Mohamed I had never played basketball and he said we would figure it out. I remember the first time we played, I threw the ball so high and it went over the board into the second tennis court,” Kwizera confesses.
The group would be joined by the likes of Andrew Tendo, Mark Eperu, Henry Baguma and later Eddie Oumo as well as Justus Mugisha for pick-up basketball after work three times a week.
Pick-up turned into a habit for the mostly former national league players and that went on for nearly eight months. It is from the weekly pick-up that City Oilers were born.
“First we started playing pick-up at Kabira as friends around 2008 and as time went on, guys became fitter. We got quorum and said let us start to compete,” Silver Rugambwa, another founding member, recalls.
At the time, Kwizera did not think the group was ready for what comes along with starting a club and playing competitively – the pressure and time invested.
“Coach Mugi (Justus Mugisha) suggested that since we are having a good time while playing basketball, we should start a club and join the league. I thought it was a ridiculous idea because I didn’t think we had the time for it or we needed the pressure of doing it but he managed to convince us,” he says.
“Hajji (Mohamed Santur) then sold the idea to City Oil management then we became City Oilers in 2010 and registered in Division III in 2011,” Rugambwa adds.
Santur says it was easy to buy into the idea of forming a club as he and Hassan Ahmed, the Director of City Oil, had a basketball background.
“The guys approached us to form a club and because we have a background of basketball we agreed and registered in Division III. We agreed to start from the bottom because we wanted to build a product and shape it the way we want.”
Life in Division III
For starters, it was a bunch of veterans that included the likes of Eddie Oumo, Mark Eperu, Chris Kamugisha, Henry Baguma, Ronnie Kalule, Allan Green, Justus Mugisha, Nziza Rurangirwa, Michael Mukula and others.
“We had veterans and at the start, it was let’s go and have fun but when we registered the idea became serious. We actually set a target of winning a championship (NBL) in five years,” Rugambwa says.
With a target of winning the championship in five years set, Oilers had to be in the top division in three years. At the time, Division III was fairly competitive with some high school teams like Saaku, and Crane High, clubs as Bush Court and Makindye Shooters. While the division was athletic, it was lacking in terms of quality.
“It was very difficult in Division III. First was the timing of games that would be played as early as 9:00am and sometimes under the hot sun at midday. The courts were rundown with either bent hoops or pot holes but we were shocked to learn that we were not doing so badly because we were unfit. Almost all teams beat us in speed but we had the composure and experience,” Kwizera says.
Oilers finished third in the regular season, went past Makindye Shooters to reach the playoffs finals and gained promotion. However, Oilers lost to Bush Court in the finals and it’s only the second final they have lost since inception.
Life in Division II
In sport, more often than not, the higher you go the harder it becomes. The competition went a notch higher and it goes without saying Oilers needed to upgrade their roster and also train regularly.
“When we came to Division II we knew the team we had was not good enough to come out of the division,” Santur says. “Most of the players were old timers (veterans), good players but old timers so we had to get in guys we knew would help us get to Division I,” Hassan adds.
The club renovated the now inexistent Bush Court (opposite Kololo SS) and recruited a number of players as Ambrose Tashobya, James Okello, Mandy Juruni, Rodney Mukula.
“We had a Division III exit review from which we decided we needed speed and long bodies that would help with the rebounding,” Kwizera told Kawowo Sports.
City Oilers finished fourth in the regular season behind Bush Court, Charging Rhinos, and UCU Juveniles. Oilers had to go past Bush Court but had to come from a game down to make the finals and advance to Division I. Oilers, under coach Mohammed Ghedi, went on to defeat Rhinos in the finals.
The First Season in NBL
When City Oilers qualified for the National Basketball League, the target changed almost instantly.
“Our target was to qualify for Zone V which meant we had to play in the finals of the league and that would be good enough,” Rugambwa says.
With established sides as Falcons, then defending champions Warriors, Power, UCU Canons and KIU Titans, it all looked like there was no place for newcomers in the final four let alone the finals.
It is in the debut season that City Oilers biggest advantage over other teams became apparent – management and recruitment policy.
“One of the biggest advantages we have over most teams is management,” Rugambwa admits. “As management, we sit and say ‘our option is A, if we don’t get A, we go for B and if we don’t get B then we go for C in that order’.”
It is from those smart administrative decisions that the dominant force in Ugandan basketball has been built.
“Once we got the promotion, Hassan and I had a meeting in which we decided that for us to be successful we needed a good coach because everything starts with the coach, and our selection was coach Mandy (Juruni),” Santur says.
For Mandy Juruni, the decision to leave Warriors for City Oilers was not straight forward.
“It was a big and tough decision for me because this was a new team in the NBL,” Juruni says. “I had just won a championship with Warriors and I had to make a decision of leaving a top team for a team that had just come up but because I was close to most of the guys at City Oil, I decided to take on the challenge of coaching the team.”
Like it was the case when they gained promotion to Division II, Oilers needed to upgrade their playing staff and Hassan says they wanted to create a competitive team without depleting the other top sides.
“We had made a decision as management not to weaken other teams. We wanted the league to remain competitive and the signings we made were conscious of that aspect. We wanted to put together a competitive team without depleting the other teams.”
At the time, Ivan Enabu, Ronnie Kasewu, Stephen Omony, Norman Blick, Joseph Ikong, Eric and Henry Malingha, Ben Komakech, Isaac Afidra, Desmond Owili, Sudi Ulanga, Edwin Katerega, Abdullah Ramathan were some of the top players in the league but Oilers went for Jimmy Enabu (Power), Mohammed Yusuf (Miracle), Arou Ramathan, Kami Kabange (Espoir, Rwanda), and Andrew Opio (Miracle), Daniel Jjuko (Rez Life) and Samuel Kalwanyi (Charging Rhinos).
“After getting the coach, we looked at the point guard. We had been following Jimmy (Enabu) at Power. He was not playing much but he had the speed and all other elements that we thought would make him successful so we signed him.
“I saw Kami during my first outing as the national team manager in Kigali and we were looking for a big man so we got him,” Santur recalls.
City Oilers pretty much stumbled on Arou Ramadan, one of their pivotal big men during their debut season though he was nagged by injury during the final three games of the playoff finals.
“Arou was here pursuing a course at Makerere and asked to train with us, we saw what he can do and he joined. We actually stumbled on him,” Hassan says.
City Oilers would finish the regular season in fifth place behind Power, UCU Canons, Warriors and KIU Titans. Oilers were never at any point of the normal season considered title contenders, not even after the first round series sweep of shorthanded KIU Titans during one of the most competitive National Basketball League seasons in which a final was played between a fifth and seventh seed.
The Zone V Calling
The playoff semifinals match-up with Power almost guaranteed City Oilers a place in the finals and ultimately the Zone V Club Championship even before tip-off.
While the sides split the regular season series, Power’s weakness was City Oilers’ biggest strength. Isaac Afidra and Michael Kojjo (who was more or less a part-timer because of his work commitments in Jinja) were the biggest players at Power while Oilers were opulent in the frontcourt with Kami Kabange, Arou Ramadan, and Andrew Opio as well as James Okello and Samuel Kalwanyi off the bench.
A 3-1 series win earned Oilers a place at the regional championship in Mombasa, Kenya.
“Every end of the season, as management, we sit and review how the season went discussing what we need to do, where we need to fill in right from management down to players.
“We knew we were going to Zone V and we had a weakness at the point guard position as Moudy (Mohammed Yusuf) did not work out as we wanted. We picked up Koma (Ben Komakech) because he had decided to leave Power,” Rugambwa says.
In also came Geoffrey Omondi from Falcons and the transfer activity was done.
“We realized we were weak on outside shooting during the finals and we saw Jeff (Geoffrey Omondi) who played against us and he was available. Of course everybody knew about his discipline issues but we sat him down and told him what we are about and the consequences of indiscipline and he agreed to join.
“For us it is selecting what we need, and not making marquee signings. We don’t jump on names, we jump on fits,” Santur affirms the transfer policy at Oilers. “We look at our current team and if there’s a player who we see that he can improve then we are not signing because we want them to grow within our system,” Hassan adds.
Heading to Mombasa, City Oilers were without head coach Mandy Juruni due to work commitments. That obviously didn’t bode well for the regional tournament first timers.
“The tournament in Mombasa was eye opening,” Santur, who took on the coaching duties assisted by Hassan, says. “We knew we had a strong team that would compete with teams from Rwanda and Kenya but Urunani surprised us with their style of basketball.”
It was back to the famous drawing board for the hierarchy at Oilers and without doubt everything rotated around preparation but would then get another surprise in Kigali, Rwanda the following year.
“Once we finished third in Mombasa, we knew what we needed and our preparations were for the region. Egypt had not sent a team for two years and we were preparing for Urunani but the Egyptians came,” Santur says. “We had prepared very well and even the final (against Gezira) we played extremely well but there could be one winner,” Hassan adds.
The Hot Continental Dish
On the third time of asking, City Oilers crushed the regional barrier earning a seat at the table of men. Having perfected their preparations that included adding former tournament MVP Landry Ndikumana a season earlier, going into a training camp and securing the services of vet Stanley Ociiti, Oilers breezed through the Dar es Salaam Qualifiers blowing out every team by atleast 20 points.
The dominant fashion with which Oilers qualified for the FIBA Africa Champions Cup gave management a confidence difficult to explain.
“I didn’t know the clubs in Africa were that good. Actually I thought we would do very well, so I was shocked,” Santur says of the continental debut in 2016 where Oilers registered a single win, 88-69, over Nzui Manto in the ninth place playoff.
The tournament in Cairo, Egypt was another lesson for the dynamic City Oilers hierarchy, others like to call it experience which obviously cannot be bought but has to be lived.
“The thing I didn’t know is that the two Angolan teams, Egyptian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian teams each had two very good Americans who don’t play in their league.
“These players are brought in and integrated in the team for that particular tournament and then they compete.
“So I found out if we want to compete and be one of the best clubs in Africa then we also have to reinforce the team. It’s is out of need.
“I learnt that for us to compete with them we have to do what they do which is to reinforce the team,” Santur says. “We decided let us compare oranges with oranges. If we want to compete we have to make reinforcement,” Hassan adds.
Indeed City Oilers made those adjustments bringing in Jordin Mayes and Leon Tilman as well as A’darius Pegues and Robinson Opong for the tournament in Tunisia and the outcome was finishing fifth on the continent with another important lesson learned according Hassan.
“It is not enough to bring reinforcements, our local players have to play at a much higher level. It’s another lesson we learned in Tunisia that we didn’t learn in Egypt.
“Rades and US Monastir that beat us had a style that the two foreigners only fit in the system of local players. That only highlighted what we needed to do better with our local player development,” Hassan says.
Head coach Mandy Juruni sums up the foundation on which City Oilers have been built over the years.
“For us, it (playing at all levels) has always been a learning process, we want to improve ourselves as a group. We started thinking beyond just the league and region and thinking Africa so obviously we have to make the team much better and stronger.
“The drive to play at the continent has kept our feet on the ground because we have to win back home and then to go back to those tournaments.”