Africa-Press – Zimbabwe. Before Silverback’s opening game of the Fiba Afrobasket against Senegal on August 25, 2021, tension was high as Team Ugandan waited for Ishmail Wainwright’s arrival to join the team in Kigali.
Delayed by connection issues, Wainwright only arrived 24 hours to the game, barely trained but started the game in which the Silverbacks were smacked by Senegal to start the competition.
Uganda, led by Wainwright, then recovered to defeat Cameroon and make it out of the group.
He then got a double-double of 11 points and as many rebounds as Uganda beat powerhouse Nigeria to a place in the last eight.
How has your experience with the Silverbacks been like so far?
It’s been amazing, it’s been amazing since day one. The guys have embraced me as a brother. They have embraced me like I have been with them for years. We clicked right away and playing with them has been fun. It is a group of guys with an underdog mindset and they like to get after it. They like to run and we are good I must say.
How exactly did you receive the message asking you to play for Uganda?
Coach George and Mike reached out to my agency and every team is allowed one naturalized player and they felt like I was good for the team. I took the opportunity and I’m forever grateful.
Why did you choose Uganda?
I didn’t hear from any other country. It had never crossed my mind that I would play for another country besides the USA. As a little kid you want to play for team USA but you know it is very tough, there are millions of American who can play and when they contacted me, I said why not? Let’s do this. It was a yes from the word go.
What has the connection with Uganda been like? Do you feel anything for the country?
Oh yes, for sure. The country has shown me so much love and I wish I could thank them for loving me and supporting us every time we play. Those watching, writing and supporting us in any way are a big motivation.
How would you describe your time in France?
It was tough. Don’t get me wrong I had a good time and an amazing season but it was tough mentally because of the shutdown. I couldn’t move with my family; I couldn’t go out to adventure or to even see friends because of Covid-19. I know I’m not the only one that felt that, most of the players felt the same but being able to go back home for Christmas to see my family helped get over that.
What do you make of the players you are playing with, especially those plying their trade in Uganda?
They are good. They have grit.
Nobody respects Uganda but we are trying to make sure everybody respects us. We are earning our respect, we are not yet done of course, there is still a lot these guys and myself can achieve.
How much do you think the locally based players can improve?
They will improve greatly because of who they are playing with, because of the coaches and the fact that we are learning something new every day. They are going to improve, I’m going to improve, the coaches are going to improve and the sky’s the limit for Ugandan basketball.
What was draft night like for you who wasn’t drafted?
Draft night is a big deal. I was undrafted but I have friends who have gone through it and it is something big. Like a dream come true, you hear your name called, my name was never called. My name was called behind closed doors. I’m pretty sure it’s amazing and everybody wants to go through that. Every kid wants to go through it.
Why do you think you weren’t drafted?
I was still all about football. I removed my name from the draft and went straight into American football. I stayed another year and played football at Baylor University.
How tough then was the decision to focus on just basketball?
It wasn’t a tough decision. To start playing basketball then go play another sport that you haven’t played since high school, that was the tough decision. But leaving football to fully focus on basketball was very easy. I had played basketball all my life.
How does it feel joining the Toronto Raptors?
Amazing. Just to let my mum and my family know that we did it was really amazing.
Take me through the switch from France to Toronto
It was towards the end of the season in France and Raptors called asking me to be part of their summer minicamp and I said yeah. My agency was working on the business side of the deal and I just wanted to go and perform to the best of my abilities. I went to summer league and while there received a phone call from my agency saying there was some good news. They said Toronto wants to do a two-year deal and I said let’s do it. I agreed to it because you know it is a dream come true.
After getting to this level, do you really think it is all about the talent you have?
It’s the opportunity. Everybody is talented.
There’s no terrible player in the NBA. To have an opportunity, it’s just about how you embrace it. That opportunity came and I’m going to take it and I’m looking forward to it.
Someone in Uganda will be wondering whether you will still have time to play for the Silverbacks after joining the NBA.
Why not? Well, I am right here.
I don’t think people understand right now but I’m missing a training camp in California right now to be here with the Silverbacks. We have an understanding that I have an obligation to play for my country and when I go back to the States I’m going straight to work.
Won’t it be hard for you to strike a balance?
It should not be.
What has been your experience like at Afrobasket?
This won’t be our last. We are still here and people will have to respect us. I have realised this is more than just basketball.
It is love, passion. To be part of something like this means more than one can imagine. This is not just a tournament; guys have worked hard to be here and it is huge. I have enjoyed every minute and every moment of it.
What lessons should Uganda take from here?
Losing happens. We get better every game we play. We have a good coaching team that puts us in a good position to win and we have to keep getting better.
Name: Ishmail Wainwright
Family: Two children – Kai Ishmail Wainwright, 3 and Isabella Grace Wainwright, 5.
Hobbies: Travelling, swimming, buying shoes
Favourite food: Chicken wings, tacos