Jean Sauveur Ruhamiriza’s passion for basketball was ignited and showcased during his upper high school studies at G.S Kabgayi where he played as a small forward in the second division league.
With time, however, his playing time declined as the management recruited better players to make the team more competitive. Owing to the changes, he quickly decided to consider a different role within the sport.
The 31-year-old picked interest in refereeing because he didn’t want to stray away from the sport, a move that would later be encouraged by his then school coach.
“The fact that I was getting paid on commission to officiate amateur games was a huge motivating factor,” Ruhamiriza recalled during an interview with Times Sport.
“I was lucky enough to meet with professional referees due to my school team’s participation in the 2nd division of the national basketball championships,” he added.
During this time, he crossed paths with Stratton Ahimana – the current President of Rwanda’s Association of Basketball Umpires – and asked him if he could consider him to be a member of the basketball referees fraternity.
To his advantage, the insufficiency of skilled game officials in 2008 coupled with the challenge of deployment made easier his entry as a referee at national level.
In the 2000’s, Rwanda’s Association of Basketball Umpires was still in its infancy, making difficult to prepare and stage training camps for up-and-coming referees.
The making of the umpire
Despite all odds, including missing out on international camps, Ruhamiriza could officiate his first game at the 2017 Fiba Zone V Club Championship in Kampala, Uganda.
“The first game I handled in that tournament was a men’s game between Kenya Port Authority and Hawasa City of Ethiopia.”
Looking back, he can’t help but chuckle in self-deprecation as to how nervous he was during the entire game.
“I was very nervous during my first game and one of the lead officials noticed this and tried to calm me down,” he said, adding “But in the following games, I was better able to control myself and thus improved in my officiating as the tournament went on.”
During the competition, Ruhamiriza was able to rub shoulders with eminent referees that had been at continental events, including the African Basketball Championships (Afrobasket) finals.
This, he said, helped him gain more knowledge and confidence.
His first experience in African championships came in 2018 at the under-18 Afrobasket in Bamako, Mali.
Up until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ruhamiriza recalls participating in various local and international competitions, in what seemed to cement him as a top umpire.
Just two years ago, he was, among other referees, selected for the first window of the Afrobasket Qualifiers that took place in Cameroon.
The nomination, he pointed out, was an opportune moment to gain global exposure and be recognized by FIBA – the world basketball governing body.
However, his expectations didn’t materialize as a result of the brevity of the event, which only lasted 3 days.
The Black License
Before 2017, there was no official or recognized way of determining what category a basketball referee was designated to officiate in.
The narrative was changed in 2019 when he, along with two other colleagues, were granted a black license that gave them eligibility to officiate international games of all senior and junior levels.
The fact that Ruhamiriza officiated a big game between two continental giants Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire in the Afrobasket Qualifiers is testament to the trust and eminence he has achieved in the sport.
“I officiated a game that was much anticipated between Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire who were both fighting for first place in their pool. It was because of this opportunity and the way I handled the game that I felt I would finally be recognized by FIBA.”
Coming to the BAL floor
The inaugural season of the Basketball Africa League Championships (BAL), which was staged in Kigali and lasted 2 weeks, was a ‘massive experience’ because it took basketball on the continent to a whole other level.
“Officiating in the BAL was a massive experience in that the skills I acquired during that brief period were more significant than those I had acquired hitherto the beginning of that season.”
Despite only officiating up to the quarter-finals of BAL’s first season, Ruhamiriza is satisfied with the experience and exposure he obtained from the event.
He was also among referees who lead the second season of the BAL this year, which ran from March 5 to May 28.
A future Olympic referee?
In a professional career as a licensed international basketball referee that has spanned close to 5 years, Ruhamiriza can say with confidence that he is among the best in the region, if not on the continent.
“I believe I still have a long journey ahead of me considering the target I want to reach. I’ve set my sights on officiating in the Olympics, even though I know the opportunity is hard to come by because it requires one to at least have officiated at two World Cups.”
The retirement age for a referee locked at 50; at 31 years of age, Ruhamiriza is optimistic that his dream of being an Olympic referee is valid.