In Swahili, “I love you” gets boiled down to one word: Nakupenda.
I love you, son.
I love you, mama.
Love big enough to push people across oceans. Big enough to sacrifice years together.
Big enough to make it to Koch Arena. Big enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
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There is an insane amount of work to be done.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall and his assistant coaches have made this clear to 6-foot-11 junior center Bush Wamukota from the moment he stepped on campus. From before he stepped on campus, even. From when they were recruiting him at Kilgore (Texas) College two years ago.
But they have also told him something else. Something genius, maybe.
“It’s not how (the coaches) say it, it’s what they say,” Wamukota said. “If you’re shouting in my ear to run the floor, I’m not worried about you shouting at me. I’m worried about running the floor. They want you to listen to what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it.
“You can always get better at practice, you just better be ready to listen and work.”
That’s how Wamukota has gotten by this year, his first on the Division I level after spending his freshman season at Wiley College, an NAIA school in Marshall, Texas, where his mother, Nancy Sikobe, was the volleyball coach. Both mother and son came to the United States from Kenya, where the rest of their family still lives.
With the Shockers headed to the NCAA Tournament in Omaha as the No. 7 seed to face No. 10 seed Indiana on Friday in the Midwest Regional, Wamukota’s basketball odyssey takes its next leap forward. He’s averaged 5.9 minutes this season, plus an almost-negligible 1.2 points and 1.6 rebounds, but Marshall has shown he’s not afraid to put Wamukota in the game in key situations, such as when Wamukota played a season-high 13 minutes in the Shockers’ 74-60 win over Northern Iowa on Feb. 28 that clinched the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title.
“I told myself before the season that this is a year to develop, to learn and any way I can help the team, that’s what I want to do,” Wamukota said. “Coach Marshall calls my name, I want to be ready to give (Darius Carter) or Shaq (Morris) a break, be ready to play defense.”
It’s, quite literally, a world away from the busted-out bicycle wheel that served as the hoop in his backyard in Bungoma, Kenya, or the outdoor courts where they play league games at Maseno High, a few hours away in Kisumu.
And it’s all happened, according to Wamukota, because of one reason.
In 2004, when he was 10, his mother left Kenya to come to the United States to earn a college degree, leaving Wamukota and his little sister behind.
They wouldn’t reunite, other than semi-annual visits, for years. She calls the day he showed up in Marshall on Aug. 15, 2012, the greatest day of her life. It was also her birthday.
“That’s the day I got my son back,” Sikobe said, choking back tears. “That’s the day I got my boy. You always dream, that when you make sacrifices, that the end result will be something better.”
“She is the only reason that I made it over here,” Wamukota said. “Without her, there’s nothing.”
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Basketball had Sikobe’s heart from the beginning, but it was volleyball that would change the trajectory of her life.
She was tall – 6-foot – and grew up playing hoops in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and its largest city. When she was 17, she stumbled upon a local volleyball tournament.
“I was just a teenager and thought, ‘Let me go watch this and see what it’s about,’” said Sikobe, who is now the volleyball coach at Texas College. “It was guys playing, and I just loved the way the game moved. The coach came over to me after and asked me if I played volleyball. I told him I played basketball and he said ‘No, no, no … you do not need to be playing basketball.’”
She certainly did not — basketball got put in the rearview mirror that day as Sikobe went on to become one of Kenya’s top female volleyball players. She traveled the world representing the national team for a decade and, as an outside hitter, played for Kenya in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
“Volleyball let me see places I would’ve otherwise never been able to see, it let me see the world and have some amazing experiences,” Sikobe said. “It’s also how I met Bush’s father.”
Wamukota’s father, Dan Wamyama, was a star on the Kenyan men’s national team.
After their careers were over, though, there weren’t a lot of job opportunities for Sikobe. Wamyama helped manage a bank and is now a member of parliament in the Webuye Constituency — “Like a senator over here, a politician,” Wamukota said — but when Sikobe’s job at a telecommunications company looked like it was about to go away, she started contemplating a big move.
“It was very, very hard,” Sikobe said. “But when you have children, you do what you have to do.”
Twelve years after high school, she started college at Columbia (Mo.) College in Missouri, where she joined two other members of Kenya’s 2000 Olympic volleyball team. She finished her degree at Central Methodist (Mo.) in 2008.
Wamukota’s parents separated after the move. It caused some strain between father and son, but any rift has long since healed.
“I understood why she left,” Wamukota said. “She did it because she wanted a better life for herself and a better life for me.”
Sikobe tried to make it home twice a year — in the summer and at Christmas — to see her children. Soon, she began to run into problems when it came to sending clothes to Kenya for Wamukota.
“When he was 12, he really started growing,” Sikobe said. “I would send him clothes in the fall, and by the time I came home in December, nothing fit. I would ask him if he needed a pair of size-13 shoes and he would say, ‘No, mama, I’m a size 15 now,’ and it was like OK … he’s 6-foot, now he’s 6-5 … I just started to send money instead and told him he’s just gotta shop for himself.”
And it was around this time, like his mother years before him, that Wamukota started to fall in love with a sport that would end up changing his life.
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In Kenya, there is one basic thing to understand about high school basketball.
If you want to go watch a league game, plan for the weather. Because they play outside.
“Inside games? In Kenya?” Wamukota asked, laughing. “We play league games outside. We play mostly outside, all the time. I mean, it’s usually about 80 degrees, but we don’t really get to play indoors. That would be an incredible luxury.”
Wamukota started to learn the game thanks to YouTube videos of Kevin Garnett highlights and old North Carolina games. He busted out the spokes on a bicycle wheel and hung it from a palm tree in his backyard for a hoop. He played with a volleyball until Sikobe sent him a basketball.
“That didn’t last too long,” Wamukota said. “Lots of thorns in the backyard, I think I had the ball for like a week before it busted.”
He grew like a weed, too. He went from 6-foot-3 as a junior to 6-foot-10 as a senior year at Maseno High, which was also his first year of organized basketball.
“There’s not a lot of support for basketball or for sports like there is over here,” Wamukota said. “I used to play in flip-flops or even barefoot sometimes, because I was growing so much it was hard to keep pairs of basketball shoes that fit. Also, as much as I was growing, it felt like I struggled with my coordination. It never seemed like I could ever get any better.”
But he knew, in the U.S., there was an opportunity for someone with his height to play basketball at a different level, to get an education out of it and possibly a little bit more. So he headed to Wiley, to his mother.
There was one problem. No one had explained a very important aspect of college athletics to Wamukota.
“He shows up at school, and after a little while he’s like, ‘So when do we get to play on TV?’” said Tabrie Gibson, Wamukota’s friend and Wiley teammate. “And we were like, ‘No, we’re NAIA. You need to be Division I to play on TV.’ He thought all the colleges were all on the same level.”
“That’s true,” Wamukota said, laughing. “Big surprise for me, right?”
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Once Wamukota got over a small dose of culture shock, he started to make friends at Wiley — most importantly, Gibson and another teammate, Kaylon Smith.
They were the ones who explained to him what he needed to do if he wanted to transfer and play Division I. They were the ones who churned up what few junior-college and coaching contacts they had to get the ball moving and Wamukota to Kilgore, about 20 minutes away from Marshall.
They also helped teach him some of his first lessons about the American game.
“Overseas, there’s different goaltending rules, so when he started playing he was goaltending pretty much everything,” Smith said. “So we kept on him about that and he started to learn. The one thing about me, when it comes to basketball, is that if you’re a hard worker that will earn my respect pretty quickly.
“That was pretty evident about him from the beginning, you see him out there, almost seven feet, and he’s diving for loose balls, he’s in the gym at 5 a.m. … you appreciate it. You appreciate his work ethic right away.”
Off the court, Gibson and Smith also helped. Clothes, music, girls … the American version of everything was explained. Wiley coach Andre Payne would jokingly complain that the two were “Americanizing” Wamukota.
“He had so many questions about music, about how we dressed ... I’m from Louisiana, so I’m really into (rapper) Little Boosie,” Gibson said. “Now he’s into Little Boosie, like, a lot. He loves him.”
Wamukota also had to explain to his mother why he needed to change schools.
“He said, ‘Mom, I have potential, my friends think I have potential. Mom, it’s for the better, it’s for us,’” Sikobe said. “And I told him as long as he was in school, as long as he was still getting his education, I would support whatever he thought he needed to do. He did the same for me, so I could do the same for him.”
Wamukota averaged 6 points and 6.8 rebounds in his one season at Kilgore, and developed a relationship with WSU assistant Greg Heiar as the recruiting buzz around him started to build. A visit from Marshall to Kilgore sealed the deal.
“The way they treated me, the way they made me understand they had an investment in me as a person and as a basketball player was a big deal,” Wamukota said. “The program and the success they’ve had also meant a lot.”
At WSU, the learning curve has been steep. Wamukota came into the season understanding it would be a process.
“I knew, coming in, this wasn’t a situation where I was going to play 30 minutes a game, I was going to have to learn and develop,” Wamukota said. “I’ve only been playing basketball for four or five years, so I’m still learning every day. Here, nobody can say they don’t have a chance to get better every day at practice. There’s a lot of support with my teammates, too.”
Wamukota’s size could be big off the bench in the NCAA Tournament. He’s played solid defense down the stretch, and 10 minutes matched up with another team’s center might be invaluable in a close game, with the Shockers’ lacking a lot of size in the frontcourt.
“Everybody locked in, everybody on the same page,” Wamukota said. “That’s where we want to be when it comes to (the NCAA Tournament).”
This offseason will be key for Wamukota — he’d like to put on 20 or 30 pounds to get to around 250 pounds.
“My balance, if I feel like my body is balanced I can do a lot of things,” Wamukota said. “I need to keep improving on defense. I need to work on finishing around the rim. I think if you talked to (Marshall) he would say my touch is pretty good, but there’s certainly a lot of things I need to work on.”
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Smith, who still plays for Wiley, and Gibson, who just finished his senior season, catch Wamukota’s games on TV whenever they can.
“I’ve seen him play a few times,” Smith said. “He’s out there, doing it. I’m proud of him. That shows if you work hard, if you stay on track, you can accomplish big things.”
Sikobe was in St. Louis for the MVC Tournament two weeks ago. She gets emotional when she thinks about what might still come to pass for her son.
“He remembers everything, he remembers the sacrifices we’ve all had to make and where we came from,” she said. “We used to say that one day it was going to be us over here. We used to say one day it was going to be him playing college basketball on TV.
“It wasn’t easy, but we still did it.”