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Patriots captain Aristide Mugabe is an accountant by day, BAL baller by night

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Rwanda Patriots captain Aristide Mugabe is the near-perfect poster child for the Basketball Africa League -- and for what the tournament is expected to achieve for players on the continent.

The BAL, an NBA-affiliated tournament, was launched to provide Africa's basketballers with the chance to play at a high level and grow the sport on the continent, while also putting players who may never be scouted by leagues overseas in the spotlight.

The NBA is, ultimately, the goal for young men who hoop around the world. But not everyone lucks out, and for every Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, or Joel Embiid who breaks out into stardom, there are countless unknowns who don't.

These players ultimately come to a point where they are faced with the tough choice of either continuing to play the sport they love, or jettisoning it for a career that offers more financial security.

Mugabe, 33, is one of those who has managed to find a balance between those options, as an accountant by day, and a hooper by night.

"When I started, basketball was not something you could do as a full time profession [in Rwanda]," Mugabe, whose Patriots will play in the BAL semifinals on May 29, told ESPN.

"So when I graduated [with a Bachelors degree in Finance], I had the chance to get a regular job. It was a chance to have another career that looked secure.

"But I couldn't leave basketball. If you have been playing basketball, I think you can understand how much it means to be able to play. I couldn't stop playing basketball at such a young age. Imagine retiring at 24... It wouldn't be possible, and I couldn't.

"So, I said to myself, let me just try to combine the two. If it works out, I will continue with it. If it doesn't, I will see what to abandon, what to sacrifice for the other."

It wasn't the first, or most important, sacrifice he's had to consider.

As a kid, the young Aristide started out playing football with his older brother, but had to give that up in 1994 at the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide, when he lost members of his family, including his brother and father.

Faced with that tragedy, a six-year-old Aristide went on the run with other surviving members of his family, being evacuated to Burundi for a time.

By the time normalcy was restored and he returned to high school in Rwanda in 2001, he had become so disillusioned that he had given up on sport. It took pressure from the school to get him to return.

But that return was not to the football field, where he used to play kickabout with his brother. Instead, Mugabe decided to make the switch to basketball. It gave him a new lease on life.

He flourished on the court in high school and university, but it was not long before he came to the crossroads that players are faced with as he approached graduation -- basketball or a regular job?

It turns out he did not have to choose. His employers were very understanding of his decision to continue playing basketball. The Patriots captain holds down a regular job as an accountant, first with the Bank of Kigali and now with leading Rwandan security firm ISCO.

And when his day is done, he goes off to basketball practice and then games on the weekend.

Mugabe said: "It's hard, it comes with a lot of sacrifices. But I have never missed work the next day. I have to show up every day and get my job done. Also I have to show up on the court.

"I don't like to make excuses. It was tough at the beginning. I almost quit, because it was very tiring. You get exhausted mentally and physically. But that was part of my growth. I had to embrace it."

Mugabe has established his reputation as arguably the best basketball player in Rwanda and -- with eight league titles in nine years -- by far the most decorated.

He captained Espoir to four consecutive national titles from 2012 and 2015 and the 2012 FIBA Africa Zone 5 Club Championship in Uganda, where he was voted MVP.

He joined the Patriots at the end of that season, was named captain and led them to the domestic title in 2016. Barring a blip in 2017, when they finished runners-up behind Rwanda Energy Group, the Patriots have annexed every league title since 2018.

He also played for his national team, competing at the AfroBasket in 2011, 2013 and 2017; led his country to win the 2011 FIBA Africa Zone 5 Championship, and was part of the team that finished runners-up in the regional tournament two years later.

In 2018, Mugabe again led Rwanda to finish second behind powerhouse Nigeria in FIBA Africa World Cup qualifying.

Through all of that grind, his biggest dream remained to have a league that would pay enough to allow him focus on basketball. The advent of the BAL appears to be the first step on the path for Mugabe -- and others like him -- to have their dreams come true. At home. In Africa.

He said: "I was hoping that maybe in five or 10 years, we could have basketball as a career, like a full time profession, something that can pay you enough to not do anything else apart from basketball.

"If BAL becomes what we expect it to become like any other professional league, like the NBA, WNBA, G League, or other professional basketball leagues, if they can pay you a lot to do the job and get medical insurance and other stuff that comes with job security, why not?

"Because I love basketball more than anything and I'll do what it takes to stay in it."

But at 33 years old, it may have come a little too late for him. Although the Patriots captain and point guard is playing at the inaugural edition of the BAL, the money may not be enough to prise him away from his regular job.

Multiple sources told ESPN that local players, as opposed to the four foreign players per team [who would make up to three times more], would reportedly make less than $2000 for the tournament in this COVID-shortened format.

The implication is that Mugabe, at least for the moment, cannot quit his day job. To be in the bubble, he has had to take paid time off, but he still did some work.

He said: "I had to work from home so that I can stay in a camp before the bubble. Then for this bubble, I took days off.

"Of course someone can text for help on something. But I have to respect the schedule while I'm here and not work when I am on team activities.

"I know they would be watching the games because they follow me. They are my fans and I appreciate them. They are some of the people who get me going.

"I think my boss might be proud of me if I win. The trophy will be something you can dedicate to your colleagues and your bosses when they can let you do what you love besides work.

"It is something that I really appreciate. Every time I go to any tournament, any basketball game, I just feel like I have to win for them."