“The Kenya Morans are the undisputed kings of East Africa” says Ariel Okal our feature athlete of the month. Okal believes Kenyan basketball has the potential to achieve greatness if only all the stakeholders play their cards right. The US Setif Power Forward sat down with us to discuss issues ranging from life in quarantine to ambitions of going back to the Middle East…
A.S.N: The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life and unfortunately killed many, how are you able to stay fit as you self-isolate?
Okal: The pandemic definitely has disrupted everything as the world is shut down at the moment including all sporting activities which is a big blow for us athletes. We can’t do what we love because we also have to stay safe. I am currently in Algeria, safe and sound. Algeria is currently on lockdown, everything has been stopped in Blida which was the epicenter of the virus. I am based in Setif and the situation is similar to Blida, shops, schools and even mosques have been closed. I spend most of my time in the house, my supplies get delivered by club management so I don’t have to leave the house at all. I do my workouts at home which are mostly rope aerobics, pushups and any form of exercise that will maintain my core.
A.S.N: You currently play in Algerian side US Setif. What led you to venture outside of Kenya?
Okal: Well, it’s not my first time playing out of the country, I was in the Middle East for three seasons then I went to Seychelles for a year. Playing outside Kenya definitely means more income, better facilities and stiffer competition. It is also more of an opportunity for me to interact with players from different parts of the world; America, Europe and the Middle East which has helped me become a better player. The Algerian move was ‘cooking’ since last year but I had to choose between Algeria, Oman or Tunisia. I was able to join US Setif through my agent who strategically put everything in place right after the Basketball Africa League was done and just before the Algerian registration was closed.
A.S.N: Life outside Kenya can be so hard especially for athletes. How have you been able to cope? Any specific challenges so far?
Okal: Life here isn’t that bad I mean you just train, eat and sleep. The main challenges are food, language barrier and pressure from fans. Algerians are passionate about sports so walking in the streets can be a big problem especially when you are very tall and very dark everyone stares and asks for selfies. The food is different; rice and bread are what I eat most, I haven’t eaten ugali in a while. Some Algerians speak French which is a challenge for me because I don’t speak the language. Often than not I rely on translators but sometimes I switch to Arabic which is a national language here.
A.S.N.: You and the entire Kenya Morans team enjoyed success in the FIBA Afro-basketball pre qualifiers last year. How was it like doing it in front of a packed Nyayo Gymnasium with the legendary Luol Deng present too?
Okoth: 2019 was a great year for basketball in Kenya, the Morans restored some pride in Kenyan basketball, we won some very big games but we still have a long way to go. Second round of qualifiers are coming in November, we are in a tough group with Angola, Senegal and Mozambique but we are Morans…we kill lions. Playing at home was magical, home fans are the best. The greatest moment was playing in the final against South Sudan in front of Luol Deng, his crew and most importantly my father. His presence there motivated me a lot as I was determined to show everyone that Kenyans are the undisputed kings of basketball in East Africa.
A.S.N.: Your sister has had a stellar season so far in America. Do you have any ambitions of playing in any leagues outside of Africa?
Okal: My sister is a hard worker, she has had a great season in her sophomore year at Tyler junior college where was named WBCA player of the year having scored more than 1000 points so far in her bubbling career. She is headed to NCAA division 1 now and I am certain she will be in the WNBA soon Insha’Allah. I would not mind joining any team in the Middle East especially either Bahrain, Kuwait or Qatar for I adapted perfectly into their style of play however I do have plans of retiring in Europe either in Germany or France.