Compared to its unimpressive past, Nigerian basketball is experiencing an all-time high. Consecutive Olympic qualifications and a first Afrobasket title are achievements that have been rightly celebrated by Nigerian basketball fans.
Compared to its immense potential however, these achievements are just a tip of the iceberg as the country has enough eligible talent to be a constant contender for medal spots in the Olympics and World Championships. This potential is not as a result of some superior or impressive home grown development program, and the less said about Nigeria’s ‘government dominated sports administration’, the better.
Nigeria’s rise stems from a large pool of American born and/or raised Diaspora who often make personal sacrifices to play for Nigeria. There are any reasons why these players choose to play for Nigeria, but it seems the desire to connect with a homeland they barely know is very high on the list.
Nigeria produced one of basketball’s greatest ever players in Hakeem Olajuwon. A fortuitous combination of height and a youth spent playing soccer and handball, produced a blend of a center with never before seen footwork (which gave us the dreamshake), guard-like ball handling, and a decent jump shot. It is also interesting to note that unlike most of the players responsible for Nigeria’s recent success, Hakeem was born in Nigeria, and spend most of his first two decades there.
You have to go much lower down the echelons of NBA careers to find the player most directly responsible for recent rise of the Nigerian National team. Ime Udoka’s ‘journeyman’ career could well be at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hakeem’s Hall of Fame NBA career, but his impact on the national team has been massive. Udoka, who is now an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, was the Nigerian captain for a decade, and was a catalyst for a whole generation of ‘Nigerian-Americans’ to start considering Nigeria as an option for International careers. Udoka’s sister, Mfon, has had an even larger role with the women’s team (which somehow failed to qualify for the Olympics, despite enough eligible talent to be a consistent top 5 global team).
Nigeria’s victory at the 2015 Afrobasket was therefore long overdue, and it was achieved with some ease, despite the non-participation (through injury) of its best player and captain, Ike Diogu. The passion with which the players chanted the National Anthem at the Championship podium put paid to suggestions of then not being ‘real Nigerians’.
Oftentimes in the past, coaching and administrative issues have conspired to frustrate Nigeria’s potential in the buildup to major tournaments, but these are under control with the Olympic basketball team. Will Voight, an experienced American, who has coached Internationally and in the NBDL has been retained after his Afrobasket winning exploits. The Tijani Umar led NBBF has also done a great job in ensuring the smooth administration and preparation of the team given Nigeria’s sometimes chaotic government-led sports regime.
The Afrobasket winning team already has a solid core that can compete at the Olympics. Lifting the team to medal contenders may however require some strengthening, and we will look at possible options for this in the concluding part of this piece.
By Jide Olateju
Jide Olateju writes on Nigerian related Sports and Economic matters. When not writing, he is an entrepreneur with interests in technology, finance and education.