Indeed, football is clearly the number one sport in Nigeria, but basketball is catching up with it at a fast pace. Not least, the men’s national team made a major coup: At the beginning of July, the “D’Tigers” became the first African team to beat the USA. The surprising 90:87 success against the world number one in a friendly match in Las Vegas was a cure for old wounds. At the 2012 Olympics in London, the Nigerians suffered their highest Olympic defeat to date with 73:156 against the US team.
In the upcoming Olympic basketball tournament in Tokyo, Nigeria will meet Australia, Germany and Italy in Group B. If the Tigers survive the group stage, it will be the first African team – even if this team is formed in America.
Die US Connection
Under the direction of Mike Brown, assistant coach of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, Nigeria has relied heavily on the American diaspora in building its national basketball team. On the Olympic team, for example, is the center of the NBA Detroit Pistons, Jalil Okafor, a former US Under-17 and 19-player. Ten of the 15 players who participated in the last pre-Olympic training camp were born in the United States to Nigerian parents. The other five saw the light in Nigeria, but later moved to the United States, Canada or Australia.
“Many Nigerian parents who live in the United States want their children to play for their country of origin, so there is a lot of interest in the Nigerian basketball program,” Patrick Omo Osaji told DW. The former Nigerian youth player works as a basketball referee and sports advisor in the US state of Texas. “If it succeeds, more players will see Nigeria as an opportunity to play basketball internationally,” said Omo Osagi.
From Afrobasket to NBA
For decades, Angola has dominated African basketball. The country with a strong domestic league has won the continental championship “Afrobasket” eleven times. On the other hand, Nigeria, despite its large population, has long struggled to compete with its African neighbors – despite the country producing one of the NBA’s biggest stars in the 1990s with Hakim Aliwan. Since Nigeria was not making much progress at the international level at the time, Olajuwon decided to play for Team USA and won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The current Nigerian team is full of players who were born in the United States
In the 1980s and 1990s, Nigeria began sending young players to American colleges on basketball scholarships. This first paid off in 1995 with the third place in the Afrobasket. But it took another 20 years before Nigeria defeated Angola in the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations final, thus winning their first international title.
League operations suspended in Nigeria
Critics complain that Nigerian basketball focuses too much on American-born athletes of Nigerian descent. “It is not a crime to be born in Nigeria,” said former national team captain Olomed Uedje, who denied local athletes the opportunity to represent their country. The 40-year-old former center played a total of 93 NBA games at the Seattle Supersonics and Orlando Magic and led the Nigerian team to its first Olympic appearance in 2012 and its first basketball title in 2015.
In Nigeria, the men’s first division league is currently suspended due to a row over the top of the NBF. He advocates betting strategy mainly on foreign players of Nigerian origin. “The role of the NFA is to develop and promote the game to the best of its ability. Nigerians from all over the world have the right to represent the country,” said NFA Vice President Bas Ogunadi. “What works in this context is talent and competence.” The failure of Nigeria’s top club Rivers Hoppers at the premiere of the African Basketball Championship – similar to the Champions League in European football – last May showed Nigeria’s active players are not rivals, Ogunadi says.
In the 2017 African Championships, Nigeria finished second behind Tunisia
“The lack of professional basketball on the domestic scene has limited opportunities for many players to show themselves,” said Budi Oguntoi, a leading Nigerian basketball journalist. “But at least there are more and more players and ex-scouts organizing basketball camps to pick the best players and then sending them to American colleges.”
The number of Nigerian basketball players in American basketball is increasing. In the last NBA draft in 2020, eight players of Nigerian descent were selected by the clubs. 19 others are already active in the best league in the world – in all the playing positions. It remains to be seen if this development will make Nigerian basketball more successful in the long run. US-based Nigerian basketball expert Omo Osaji warns, “Currently, it is fashionable for American basketball players of Nigerian descent to play for Nigeria. In the future that enthusiasm may also fade away.” “At some point we have to have a good program at home so that we can add local players to the team. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense to have a Nigerian federation.”
The Nigerian men’s basketball team is competing in Tokyo for the third time in a row. “We promise our players that they will play hard and show well,” said NFA Vice President Ogunadi, noting that the team is the only African team in the men’s and women’s Olympic basketball competitions. “Every match will be difficult and we will not give or ask for any amnesty.”
Adaptation: Stefan Nestler