HARARE – As a fresh-faced teenage basketball starlet, Vitalis Chikoko looked up to NBA stars for inspiration.
But over a decade later and with a growing professional career in Europe, the humble Zimbabwe basketball star is now the inspiration he once sought in others.
“….the kids back home look at me playing and ‘want to be like Vitalis. So I can’t relax,” Chikoko says.
“If I make it to the NBA one day, the whole country is going to be behind me. It is a motivation for me as well. That is my dream.”
One of the best basketball players in Zimbabwe, Chikoko concedes that in Europe, he feels as ordinary as “a young kid playing among others”.
It’s a rather modest description of the actual events for Chikoko whose professional career has been on the up aided by a strong FIBA Europe Cup campaign for the iconic Élan Béarnais Pau-Lacq-Orthez in France.
Last month he was averaging a solid 11.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
The 25-year-old centre is often a difference-maker for the French club on both ends of the floor.
He now looks back with nostalgia how he cut his teeth in the sport, playing on asphalt surfaces to his current home at Pau-Lacq-Orthez, one of the most iconic French teams, which plays in front of one of the most crowded arenas in the country.
“Not that long ago, we played in front of 8 000 fans. That was just something amazing,” he says.
Chikoko’s side has had a great season in both Pro A and in the FIBA Europe Cup so far.
He credits the club’s form to “a great group of players” who “are united and we don’t want to lose at home. We want to win every game”.
The former Bayern Munich centre is aiming to win the championship with Pau-Lacq-Orthez.
The former Zimbabwe Under-18 star also has national duty to contend with as he is likely to be called for the FIBA AfroBasket 2017.
However, first Zimbabwe would have to come good in the AfroBasket qualifiers from March 19 to 25 in Harare.
The qualifiers include eight countries that are battling for three spots to progress to the AfroBasket championships to be held in August in Congo.
If they are to qualify for the finals, Zimbabwe will be looking to improve from their last showing two years ago which saw the side lose every one of the games they played.
Chikoko, however, had a good tournament individually averaging 13.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.
“It was an interesting experience for me,” Chikoko recalls. “It was a bit tough because I was the only guy playing in Europe and the other players were playing back home, where we don’t have a professional league.
“They were playing for fun. When you play against teams like Senegal or Nigeria, you’ve got to play with passion, be aggressive and try to be confident in yourself.”
While the former Mbare Heat power forward is now self-motivated to better his craft, he still wears the 23 jersey “because of Michael Jordan”.
For him now Chikoko’s hopes to continue being an inspiration for young basketball players back in Zimbabwe.
“I’ve got to keep motivating the youth,” he says.