NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 18 – Basketball wasn’t really a sport she wanted to play, nor did she ever see herself as a professional athlete; but now, Felmas Koranga, daughter of former Harambee Stars winger Elijah Koranga wants to become the first Kenyan to play in the Women’s Eurobasket or the WNBA.
As she prepares to begin her third year of collegiate Basketball in the United States later in the Fall season, the six foot one, sixth born in a family of 10 now has her dreams aligned and wants to keep working hard to achieve the target and make history.
“Since I came here, what has been on my mind is Eurobasket to be honest. I just love the level of the game there and I follow it a lot. That’s what I want to do once I finish school. Now I haven’t given it much thought because I want to get my papers first but in my senior year in 2021, I will really work towards that,” the Shimba Hills High School alumnus told Capital Sport from her base in Texas.
While she dreams of turning out in the Eurobasket once she finishes her collegiate years, the Women’s NBA is also a possible landing spot and as she says, whichever comes first will be welcome.
“I wouldn’t mind it. Whichever opportunity comes first I will take it but what I know is that I want to play pro basketball. Any opportunity that comes I will grab it with both hands,” Koranga further states.
She has already made her mark by doing wonders in her first two years of collegiate basketball, being named the Women Basketball College Association (WBCA) Player of the Year at the just concluded season while at Tyler College in the National Junior Collegiate Athletics Association (NJCAA) League.
She was also named in the 2020 WBCA Two-Year College Coaches’ All-America team.
In two years at Tyler, she amassed a college record of slightly over 1,000 points and 750 rebounds and her performances there attracted the interest of the Troy Trojans who play in the NCAA Division one where she will also be doing a Degree in Psychology.
In her first year, she helped the team win the regular season in the Region 14 Championship but we knocked out in the second round of the National Championship. In her second year, they started the season well being unbeaten in the first leg, but slowed down at the home stretch.
But still, she was a star for the team, averaging 19.0 points, 13.1 rebounds with 26 double doubles, having started in 31 games.
“it’s something really great to make a step up and eventually when we get back to playing after the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to keep doing what I do and improve myself as a player because I have bigger targets set,” she offered.
-Basketball was never her thing-
For such massive success, it’s very strange for a person who was never interested in basketball and wanted to pursue nursing instead. For her, sports was so tedious and was never interested at all. But being from a sporting family, she didn’t have quite much of a choice.
Her dad was a former footballer, playing for the defunct Scarlet FC (now Ulinzi Stars) and was part of Kenya’s squad at the 1992 African Cup of Nations in Senegal. Her elder brother Ariel Okal is currently playing in Algeria with US Sportive.
“To be honest I hated sports. I didn’t like sports at all. I didn’t like getting myself tired but at the same time, I wanted to be out on weekends when other students are out for games. So I tried so many things; I tried athletics, I tried netball, I tried football and all,” she narrates.
But it was not until she was in Form Three at Shimba Hills that she was inclined, perhaps forcefully, to basketball by her brother Okal and Shimba coach Philip Onyango.
“She was tall and athletic and I had several openings for basketball and I knew she would make it. I started training her but it was very tough because she wasn’t interested. It’s like we did it by force. She used to cry then go tell mum and dad but instead they would scorn her and tell her to get back to the court,” Okal narrates.
She huffed and puffed while in form three and was part of the school team playing a paltry number of games but it was not until she was in form four that the hidden desire came out. She became a regular in her final year.
“I started enjoying it a bit. I would block people’s shots, throw some baskets in and I would really be happy. I loved the blocking part though. So I decided let me just enjoy it. But still, it wasn’t my thing,” Koranga explains.
Even in her half-hearted enjoying, she managed to lead Shimba to the national and East African School Games title in her final year in 2013. She played all the games from the zonal level to the East African championship.
-End of a forced marriage-
After finishing High School, she thought the little ‘forced marriage’ with basketball was going to suffer a quiet divorce, but the perpetrators of the arranged union, Okal and coach Onyango had other ideas.
They still insisted that she had to continue practicing.
Coming back home, Okal, her elder brother couldn’t let the flame die down and wanted to continue fanning it. He took her under the wings of experienced coach Abel Nson who placed her in rigorous training, right from the basics and tried to improve her craft.
Towards the end of 2015, she went back home to Nakuru as she was yet to start college and decided to take a chill. But her dad, being a successful sportsman himself wasn’t interested in seeing his daughter just pull up on the couch and enjoy a whole day of television binging.
“My dad asked me why I wasn’t playing basketball anymore and was staying at home doing nothing. So he asked me to go to 2nd Brigade (Lanet) where there were some guys training and I started playing there. I met another coach there who really went hard on me and when we were not on the court, he would call me to 3KR where we would do weights but the lazy me didn’t like it,” she explains.
Adding; “But my parents really pushed me because they saw something in me. My mum would wake me up to go do morning runs. It was like everyone was on my neck!”
-Bribed with Air Jordans-
Okal corroborates the story stating; “We had to trick her into the game every day. So, dad bought her shoes and a ball and this excited her. She had Air Jordan’s and that was enough ‘bribe’ for her. At least it built up her interest and she felt on top of the world.”
Koranga kept playing and practicing until the start of 2018 when the collegiate basketball call came through. She was excited. “At least I wouldn’t stress out my mum and dad with college fees. Basketball would take care of that. Also, the excitement of playing College basketball was really enticing to me. I had seen it in movies and was excited to be doing it.”
She joined Tyler Junior College at the beginning of 2018 where she would explode into a full-grown star. Her performances were consistent.
But still, it wasn’t smooth on her.
“I was really homesick and at times I would cry because it was so hard. I missed chapati a lot and I had a lot to do to adjust to the new life. I had to change my routine and the way of life. I was used to sitting at home and playing in the evening but here, I would go to class in the morning, go for practice in the afternoon and in the evening I would be in class as well. The summer was also very tough on me and I would get so many rashes on my body. I took time to adjust but eventually I did,” Koranga notes.
But at Tyler, she had the refuge of having two other Kenyans as teammates, one from her hometown of Nakuru while the other one was from Nairobi.
-Made the right decision-
Looking back, from when she was a resistant player at Shimba Hills, she says she feels she made the right decision to listen to everyone around her and bounce some balls.
“I have travelled all over the continent in Africa, and over the last two years, I have been to so many different places in America. It was a good decision to stick to basketball and now, I have dreams of making it bigger,” she notes.
Her brother Okal adds; “I am so proud of the person she has become and at her age has achieved so much more than I had. She is an amazing athlete and I know she is going to amaze us more.”
While three of her sisters also play the game back home, it is her light that has shone the brightest. But, her younger brother and sister, both in the first five of the Menengai High School squad seem to be following in Okal and her footsteps.
But as for now, the spotlight will be on ‘Feli’ as she traverses another two years of Division One College Basketball with her target clearly pinned on the highest platforms of the game; the Eurobasket or the WNBA.