Outstanding Chikoko hoping to inspire new generation of Zimbabwean players
Zimbabwean basketball stand-out Vitalis Chikoko has continued to make progress in his professional career in Europe with a strong FIBA Europe Cup campaign for the iconic Elan Bearnais club in France.
Averaging a solid 11.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, the 25-year-old center has been a difference-maker for the French club inside the paint on both ends of the floor, but his 89.4% field goal conversation rate is what makes him stand out from the crowd.
Having missed five shots all season, the only thing preventing Chikoko from going into the record books might be the limited volume of attempts. It is for this reason that he doesn’t appear among the FIBA Europe Cup league leaders in field goal percentage.
We caught up with the Pau-Lacq-Orthez player to chat about basketball in Zimbabwe, the path of the big man’s career, as well as hopes and aspirations both for him and basketball in his homeland.
You are one of a few Zimbabwean basketball players in Europe. Can you tell us a bit more about your personal story and how you started to play basketball?
I used to play soccer, cricket and also some tennis, but most of my friends were playing basketball. I first started watching them play and one day the coach saw me and told me ‘you are tall; you should join the team’. I did and fell in love with the game.
Did you watch basketball when you were a kid?
I started watching basketball when I started playing the game of basketball. I wear the number 23 because of Michael Jordan (laughingly).
How is it to play basketball in a country where most of the people love soccer and cricket?
In Zimbabwe, there is a program for young kids called Hoops for Hope, so there are leagues from pre-school to High School. I was playing in one of these leagues and I fell in love with basketball quickly. I was good at school, but most of my time outside of school hours, I was playing basketball. My family was always very supportive and I thought that maybe I might be able to go to the NBA one day. I believed I can get there, so I started working hard every day. Then, I had the opportunity to come to Europe.
You said you choose to wear number 23 because of Michael Jordan. Who was the first player you enjoyed watching play when you were growing up?
Tim Duncan. I was a post player like him. When he was playing back then, he was amazing. He was doing everything: post up, shooting, everything. I was trying to play like him. And then there was also Michael Jordan. Everybody loved him. I loved watching him play too. When he finished his career, I went to Kobe (laughs). And when Kobe left, I went to Kevin Durant.
You left Zimbabwe in 2011 when you moved to Europe. How was it for you during that transition from Africa to Germany?
It was tough. For me, that was the first time being away from my family. But I got great support when I first moved to Europe. The players of the roster at Gottingen were young and just out of college. We had a good group of guys. We were going out together all the time, it was like family. It all got better progressively as Gottingen treated me like one of theirs. The staff and the people who were working for the team have always helped me, so it made my transition less tough.
What about adapting to the European style of play?
It was totally different. In Zimbabwe, I was one of the best players in the country, but in Europe, I was just a young kid playing among others. But I am a hard worker, I pay attention to small things, both on defense and on offense. I try to dunk the ball every time I am under the rim for example. I kept working hard with the coaches and it got easier for me to adapt to European basketball.
You played for Bayern Munich last season...
I wasn't expecting it. I was in Verona in the second division in Italy at that time and wasn't playing particularly well because the system was very different from what I was used to.
Bayern recruited me right before the halfway point of the season. I was so happy and thought it was my chance to move up a level. It was hard for me at the beginning but coach Svetislav Pesic helped me and liked me, so I got some regular playing time. I had a good first game, then a second one and then everything kept going well.
Now you represent Pau-Lacq-Orthez, one of the most iconic French teams. How is the transition going and how do you feel about playing in front of one of the most crowded arenas in the whole country?
I like to play in front of a lot of people, it motivates me more. I get extra energy too. Not that long ago, we played in front of 8,000 fans. That was just something amazing.