Many people struggle to find a niche in one sport in their entire lifetime.
It is quite the opposite for Zimbabwe’s new national basketball team coach.
For Emmanuel Mukandi, the struggle was choosing the one that suited him best.
Representing his country in two different sporting disciplines, and then going on to coach it in the other, puts Mukandi among a very special group of 21st century all-round sportsmen from this country.
Mukandi was appointed head coach of the Zimbabwe men’s basketball side this year, reuniting with a team he represented with distinction as a player and captain for six years.
Basketball was the sport he fell in love with first, at the age of five, in large part due to the proximity of community basketball courts to his family’s home in Kambuzuma, a township in Harare.
Older brother Richard had also honed his basketball skills there, but adventurous and in prime physical shape, the sports-mad teen found a new love in rugby, turning up one day at the affluent Old Georgians Sports Club, an overconfident and naive township boy with a rudimentary understanding of the game.
Richard would soon learn the intricacies of the game and introduced his little brother to the game at the age of 11.
“Richard was an inspiration,” says Mukandi, who would go on, years later, to earn test rugby caps for Zimbabwe in addition to basketball.
“He thought I could make a very good rugby player. My size and handling skills made the move to rugby much easier for me.”
Mukandi made his Zimbabwe rugby debut against a strong Emerging Springboks side at Hartsfield in Bulawayo in 2001.
He was a utility forward for most of his international career — a tenacious rugby player with an imposing frame and amazing balls skills, obviously due to his basketball background.
Mukandi was part of Godwin “Jaws” Murambiwa’s Sables team that famously beat old nemesis Namibia at Hartsfield around that time, and it is quite sentimental that Bulawayo would become his home ever since.
After enrolling at Bulawayo Polytechnic in 1997, he set a foothold in the city and played for the fantastic Old Miltonians side of the early 2000s that included such fine talent as Brendan Dawson, Brian Beatie, Naboth Mujaji, Aaron Jani, Tendai Tabvuma, Tafadzwa Manyimo, TJ Madamombe, Vusa Ndebele, Justin Buchanan, Mike Steyn, Jeff Tigere, Steve Mtandwa (late), Norman Mutiba (late), Rean van der Merwe, among other brilliant players, all distinguished Zimbabwe internationals.
Mukandi’s rise in rugby was rather meteoric. He only learnt the game as an 11-year-old, and attended Mt Pleasant High School, which was not a top-rugby playing school.
But he would also become a victim of his own versatility — because he was never able to concentrate on one sport and perfect his art.
“I think, for anyone, it’s quite impressive to represent your country in two sports, and at the highest level too,” says Mukandi.
“It’s been an honour. But it was tough because both sports used to clash. I missed important games in both sports.”
Mukandi is still a rugby member at Old Miltonians, but it is in basketball where he is heavily involved since his playing career ended. As a player at domestic level he had turned out for Golden Spurs, Cavaliers, Waterfalls Trailblazers and Giants, mostly as a power forward and point guard.
Having captained the national team for six years, he accepted the post of head coach early this year, replacing his former Zimbabwe teammate Ellery Pinkerton.
The rising status of basketball in the country, and a growing talent base, give him hope for the future.
“Basketball isn’t as big as rugby in Zim, but we’re a growing sport,” he adds.
“We’ve been exposed to international competition and now with great support from the Minister (of Sports) we’ll keep growing. Step by step we will get there. We are getting a lot of game time now and at present we are looking forward to the Afrobasket (competition) in Mali.”
Sport certainly runs through Mukandi’s veins. This passion stems from a family background of sport-mad males. His father Andrew was a competent footballer in his young days.
Brother Richard, who introduced him to rugby, played both basketball and rugby at club level in the 90s.
Two other brothers, Joseph and George, tried a hand at football. But they were not as successful at it as the youngest of the boys, Dominic, who now plays for Ngezi Platinum, one of Zimbabwe’s newest and ambitious football clubs.
No small feat if you add that Dominic Mukandi has also played for some of the country’s biggest clubs, Dynamos and CAPS United.
A last question for Emmanuel Mukandi.
One of the challenges of coaching Zimbabwe’s basketball team should be the presence in the ensemble of a high-profile player in Robert Mugabe Jnr.
Does the son of the country’s President really merit his place in the team and is the coach bold enough to exclude him if he felt he wasn’t good enough?
“Well, he’s a humble, well-driven young man,” replies the coach.
“I wish he could be available often from his busy schedule. He is a good motivator and is always learning. He’s an excellent shooter. I’ve enjoyed working with him.”