You will never know what it feels like to hold Uganda’s Basketball in your palms unless you are Flavia ‘Flirsh’ Oketcho.
She is a star in the making – Her endurance and longevity at the top speaks volumes – and if stars are made of gold, Flirsh is made up of platinum.
Exceptional ball-handling skills, making assists or scoring lights out, say it and Flirsh has it all.
I was nicknamed ‘Flash’ from school because I was too fast on the court then I changed the spelling to ‘Flirsh’ because that’s just what I do, I make things cool,” Oketcho jokes in a recent exclusive interview with ChimpSports.
From the above, it’s easier to trace that her talent was undoubtedly impressive right from a tender age.
It’s now less than a month since Flirsh helped JKL Lady Dolphins scoop their first Women National Basketball League Championship.
The title was special for JKL as the side ended UCU-KCCA duopoly, but it was extra special for the captain who was holding it for a record eighth time (some records suggest eleven).
Let’s get the show on the road, can we?
The Genesis: Making of A Star
Flirsh was brought up in Kololo by her mother Edith Jamwa and step dad Martin Aroma.
She went to Nakasero, Nabbingo and Kitante (primary), joined Kitante Hill school for O’Level where she played her first league game with Lady Bucks in 2001.
Basketball has been my life, I don’t remember ever paying school fees,” Flirsh recounts.
She later joined Makerere College before going to Najja High School (O’Level) – she won the East Africa schools title for Uganda, scooping the MVP accolade in the process in 2004.
My mother used to wake me up at 6 am on Saturday to go for a practice at YMCA which was 7:30 AM.
I remember Suzan Kafumbe Mukasa, my mentor, who brought me to Lady Bucks and my aunt Ruth Jamwa who was at A1 Challenge who wanted to eat me alive for that move. I remember playing alongside players like Peninah Kabenge.
She won three league titles with Lady Bucks before representing Uganda in Zone V Nations tournament in 2006.
My Cousin, the late Wilbrod Oketcho (RIP) who used to come to all my games and scream for me. Marvin Keronga, Val Oketcho have all been my inspiration in this journey,” Flirsh adds.
In 2007, the three time league winner then, joined Uganda Christian University on a full Basketball bursary for a degree in Mass Communication.
“One of my best times was when I took that team proposal to Jason to start a team in exchange for a scholarship and became the first student ever on a sports scholarship, that really turned on my life,” Flirsh on her life’s turning point.
In 2008, with UCU Lady Canons, she was acknowledged with the MVP gong as she guided the team to a league crown.
A year later, she joined KCC Leopards and won a title in her first season before going to United Kingdom where she gave birth to baby Chantele.
Taking us down the memory lane, she comments: “I will always credit my husband Chizzo Lubega. I played finals in 2009 when am 3 months pregnant and he let me… (laughs).
“He is my gym partner, he was taking care of our little girl as I went out to play for MACPRO (a team in London). He always makes sure I have the latest kicks, those newest snickers – And he is my biggest critic after me.”
She also reserved time to speak about her daughter: “Chantelle is ever so interested on whether I have won or not, and wanting to be like mummy, she can not miss the Ihoops academy.”
In 2011, Flirsh rejoined KCCA Leopards where she won the league the following year and also later on in 2014.
She credits many people for her basketball development including a legendary Peninah Kabenge: “Peninah was always Topscorer in the team and I feared her terribly. I couldn’t even ask for the ball when she was on court but that fear turned into determination.”
Flirsh Reflects On JKL Maiden Triumph
Before the start of the 2017 season, JKL acquired KCCA duo – Point guard Flirsh and big man Namuwaya Muhayimuna. The team lost in the semis.
On the second attempt, JKL was a force to reckon – lost just one game in the regular season against KCCA in overtime on their way to topping the logs.
The side never looked back as, under Flirsh’s captaincy, JKL swept every team standing their way, including the seven time champions UCU Lady Canons in the finals to take their maiden championship.
Flirsh commented: “Every championship is an achievement and this felt amazing because I had to gel with completely different players, coaches, strategies but am glad everything added up and we got to this point. To captain a winning ship is a privilege to me.”
When asked on how they managed to achieve the milestone, she explained:
“We focused on the goal ahead, we set a mission from beginning of the year and we managed to fulfil it with only one loss. Every one on the team was on same page, work commenced and the job was done.”
She commended Freedom Fredricks: “Our chairperson freedom has been the rock behind it all. His passion for the sport lead him to all the right decisions including building us a 2nd court when we got to the play offs.”
Flirsh referred to Coach Mandy Juruni as ‘the final piece of the puzzle’ adding that his brain is just shaped in the form of a basketball. “We needed him and he delivered us to the promised land – a combination of him and a great mind in Henry Malinga got the job done.”
Is Flirsh retiring soon?
It’s one thing to be at the top but staying there is another. Flirsh has not only won the most titles but she is also the first to win a championship with more than three clubs her consistency and the hunger to keep winning, is something every athlete admires.
She has played Basketball in a competitive top flight league for the last 18 years. Inhuman.
We have not seen enough of Flirsh yet, if we are to go with her words.
Hanging my boots? What’s that? well , they still fit great on my feet (laughs). Flirsh adds: “You can never be tired of winning when it’s what you are good at. Am my best critic, I either give it my all or nothing at all.”
When asked to compare Uganda’s Basketball from then and now, she elaborates:
Much has changed, better preparations, players are properly taken care of, coaching is actually a profession not just someone who once played.
My only criticism is players now do not actually earn their jersey because back then you had to atleast train a whole year before you even get a jersey and don’t get me started about court time. So this made every one actually put in the work and compete but FUBA has come along way and am quite contented with where we headed.”
Advice to the little kids who wants to follow her footsteps: “Hard work pays. There are no short cuts, you have to put in the work. Don’t get discouraged when you are not played, work harder. It’s the only way you can get on that court and stay on that court, plus, love the game enough to enjoy it.”
The Big question: Is Flirsh The Best Ever?
Talk about the best Women players to have graced Uganda’s basketball like Mariam Birungi, Claire Lamunu, Miriam Hamala, Susan Kafumbe, Peninah Kabenge, Flavia Oketcho and many more.
On the above list, Flirsh stands out the tallest but I don’t mean height here.
The trophies she has collected, staying at the top over two decades makes her not just the face of Uganda’s Women Basketball but the greatest of all time.
On being the best, Flirsh notes: “I can not rate my self, I only display the best work I can put out and keep watching but ofcourse the awards do speak for themselves. That said, there is alot of good players out there, it’s a team sport so everyone is good in their own right and position. When you respect your opponent, you are bound to compete better.”