Too much love will kill you, English artiste Brian May sang over two decades ago. Yes, it does kill. John Kiwanuka Ssimbwa never heeded May’s advice.
He loved with all his soul, although in this case, it was not a woman that he had excess feelings for. It was basketball, a sport that probably currently ranks second behind football in popularity in Uganda.
Yet, until mid-2000s, national basketball league games at YMCA Wandegeya would not attract noteworthy crowds.
But for Ssimbwa, Uganda’s national league now ranks among the best in East Africa. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of his sweat. Aged 48, Ssimbwa died on Monday. It’s too much stress which eventually cut short his life.
“Because of too much stress, the brain gave way. It was damaged,” David Kato, Ssimbwa’s best friend told mourners at the deceased’s burial in Kinoni, Masaka on Wednesday. Kato was quoting a doctor’s report.
And much of that stress was a result of his undying love for basketball.
“At times he would come to borrow money from me to pay match allowances to his players,” Kato revealed. “I wouldn’t understand why he went that far just because of a game. I tried to talk him out of it but failed.”
That was Ssimbwa. He was willing to do anything for the game especially if his team Falcons was in question.
Since 1998 when Falcons came into existence as a breakaway faction from the then-dominant Blue Jackets, Ssimbwa has been the force behind the development of basketball in Uganda although most of his achievements went unnoticed.
He was a quiet man incapable of bragging or showing off. While starting Falcons, he had a dream of building the biggest club in Africa. “I know one day Falcons will be African champions,” he once confided in this writer.
To achieve that dream, he gave everything. Ten years after formation, Falcons became the most successful club in Uganda – winning a record six national league titles.
Crucially, in 2000, Falcons became the first Ugandan club to win the East, Central and Southern Africa Club Championship. No other team has come close to attaining such a feat. “Ssimbwa was a giant upon which we stood to succeed,” Ronnie Kaboha, the Falcons founding coach, said during Ssimbwa’s requiem mass at Christ the King Church in Kampala on Tuesday.
“He made sure the team travelled to Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya using his personal money,” fighting back tears, Kaboha added.
Falcons’ rise ignited competition in the league which attracted sponsors and the image of the game started to change.
In his first term of office as Federation of Uganda Basketball Associations (Fuba) president, Uganda hosted the 2005 East and Central Africa Nations Championship. While most members of his executive reportedly wanted Uganda to cede rights to host that championship due to financial constraints, Ssimbwa resisted.
He quipped in with a cash injection and Uganda successfully hosted the event. They emerged champions in the men’s category as well. That’s the best national team performance in the past two decades.
Interestingly, the huge investments had an impact on Ssimbwa as a family man. “He never built himself a residential house in Kampala,” Kato revealed.
That’s how much he loved basketball; he would spend his last coin on the game. On several occasions, he hired Kenyan coach Smatts Olumbo to fly in the country and rescue Falcons during tough times.
Ssimbwa lost his job at Uganda Revenue Authority in 2009 and many expected him to close the cash taps on Falcons, who had gone two seasons without a trophy.
Instead, he broke the country’s transfer record by paying Shs72m for the signature of Stephen Omony, who had been playing professional basketball with Seychelles side PSL Hawks since 2002.
It was at Falcons that Omony cut his teeth before turning professional but that didn’t stop him from walking out on the record champions following Ssimbwa’s failure to meet his financial part of the bargain after 10 months.
Ssimbwa was left speechless by the development although he still had the belief of competing without his treasured star. Barely two months later, Falcons lost the Malinga brothers – Eric and Henry – to Warriors. Ssimbwa could not take it. He was devastated by the loss of players that were the team’s pivot, a friend revealed.
But he remained defiant. At the start of the 2010 season, he spread his wings across borders to look for talent that would reignite the club’s fortunes. Sudi Ulanga, Richard Osano, Mike Buzangu, Bienvenu Ngandu, Cedric Sinarinzi, Karim Nkusi, Didier Gahorani and Albert Lukunja were shipped in from different East African countries to start a new chapter at Falcons. Ssimbwa was very confident of regaining the league title with that crop of players.
But apart from Osano, Ulanga, Sinarinzi and Omondi, the rest went on strike a few days to the play-offs.
That hit Ssimbwa so hard. This was despite spending close to Shs45m trying to put the club back on track. He knew his project and dream had been shattered.
His health took a turn for worse thereafter. In and out of hospital regularly, the basketball enthusiast kept his frustrations to himself.
“I visited him at Mengo Hospital towards the end of May (last month) and he looked so stressed. He never wanted to talk to anyone or eat anything,” Peninah Kabenge, who served under Ssimbwa as Fuba vice-chairperson (2005-2007), revealed.
Every time people around him talked about basketball, his health deteriorated. Just two months ago, Ssimbwa handed over his club presidency to Dennis Mbidde. And Mbidde admits his predecessor was a rare breed. “Ssimbwa did not own a car but would manage to spend Shs12m from his pocket in one day. He was a selfless man.”
The second born of 27 siblings, Ssimbwa went to Kimanya Primary School before joining St Henry’s College, Kitovu for O’level.
He attained his advanced level education at Caltec Academy and St Mary’s College-Kisubi. In 1985, he joined Makerere University to pursue a Bachelor of Statistics degree.
Good point guard
At Makerere, he was a revelation for the university team. “Ssimbwa was a very good point guard,” said Kabenge, who had a chance of playing with the deceased at Makerere pool court.
As a first year student, Ssimbwa was part of the Makerere team that competed at the East and Central Africa University Championship. He also studied postgraduate courses at the Indian Institute of Commerce and the Institute of Social Sciences in Netherlands.
He worked at the Ministry of Commerce and Cooperatives and lectured at Ndejje University.
His love sports stretched beyond basketball. Ssimbwa loved running. He never missed the Kampala marathon since it started in 2004. Surprisingly, at his age, he easily competed over 21km and completed with ease.
“He was a very honest man,” his brother Henry Ssemanda said. Sadly, the people he helped before he got bedridden never returned the favour.
Top sports administrators, including those from basketball, shamelessly skipped the burial in Masaka.
It will be no surprise if Ssimbwa’s two daughters, the youngest aged three months, don’t get any support from the people that benefited from their dad’s generosity.