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‘Now, guys want to play for Nigeria’

By Christian Okpara and Alex Monye
10 September 2019   |   4:24 am
Success in organised sport is a process. It doesn’t just happen. Most of the successful basketball-playing nations of the world have well-articulated programmes, which ensure that at every given period, they churn out talents for their various national teams.

D’Tigers became the first African men’s team to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games when they defeated China at the on-going FIBA World Cup…on Sunday. PHOTO: FIBA

Success in organised sport is a process. It doesn’t just happen. Most of the successful basketball-playing nations of the world have well-articulated programmes, which ensure that at every given period, they churn out talents for their various national teams. Thus, countries like the U.S., Australia, Argentina, Lithuania, Greece, Spain Serbia, Canada and Puerto Rico, among others, are constantly among the most successful teams in every competition, no mater the delineation in terms of age or gender.

Recently, Nigeria has toed such progressive path to the extent that the country is now among the emerging nations of the game. In Africa, the men and women national teams, the D’Tigers and the D’Tigress respectively, are second to none.A couple of months ago, the D’Tigress successfully defended their FIBA Africa Women Nations Cup title in Senegal, beating the hosts for the second time in successive championships.

This feat came a year after the team stunned some of the biggest teams in the world to get to the quarterfinals of the FIBA Women World Cup in Spain. That feat was the first by any African country in world basketball.On Monday, the D’Tigers capped a scintillating performance at the ongoing FIBA Men’s World Cup with qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. They are the first African team to qualify for the Games.

Although the men did not meet their target of at least a quarterfinal berth in China, the D’Tigers showed that if they had more time to work together, they would not have lost the matches against Argentina and Russia. Those defeats were the only blemish in a campaign that showed how far Nigeria has grown in the beautiful game.

In the recent past, such stars as former Houston Rockets player, Hakeem Olajuwon, Toronto Raptors of Canada President, Masai Ujiri and Gianni Antetokunpo have shown that the Nigerian physiological make up makes it easy for it to produce excellent sportsmen.Nigeria has always been known as a supplier of sports talents to other countries. The challenge has always been in harnessing such talents to represent the nation.

Former D’Tigress’ coach, Scott Nnaji, who is now the manager of Customs Basketball Club, said Nigeria has the potential to compete successfully against the best nations if conditions were right.Nnaji said featuring in the World Cup this year has opened doors for many of the players to market their game.

“One thing that is lacking is adequate facilities in the country. The government should provide basketball facilities across the country and watch the talents blossom.

“As you can see, stars like Olajuwon and Ujiri emerged from Nigeria. This shows that there are abundant talents in the country. “The performance of D’Tigers at the World Cup will now open doors for more sponsors and private bodies to invest in the game.“From my discussion with some stakeholders in basketball, some big stars outside Nigeria are ready to help in bringing the best basketball facilities to Nigeria, but because there is no unity among the leaders, it is difficult to attract assistance. Nigeria needs facilities to maintain its position in Africa and also grow to a world power in the game.”

Veteran basketball journalist, Segun Ikuesan believes Nigeria is at the right road to success, adding, however, the basic amenities must be put in place to achieve the expected success. “One thing that must be understood is that the home front has produced some notable players that have left the country to excel abroad.“In the past, we had players like Olajuwon and in the present squad, we have players like Okogie Joshua, who plays for the Timberwolves in the NBA and Michael Eric, son of former Super Eagles assistant coach, Joe Erico and some other players in the team, who left the country at their tender ages to play basketball abroad.

“This shows that Nigeria has talents spread across the nation; the only things the players need are sponsors and the best facilities to train. You will understand that Nigerian players are out there making waves in other nations because they are well motivated and groomed to stardom.

“This is a call for the federation not to abandon the home front,” he said.Pius Ayinor, who has been following D’Tigers since 1998 when the team first played in the World Cup, said the Nigerians showed that with more time, they could rub shoulders with the big teams.Ayinor said, “The preparation of the team was good when looking at the past two editions that Nigeria played in. The quality of the players in the team has gone up. They play for the best clubs in Europe, Asia, America and other big countries in basketball. There is improved welfare package for the players.

“Although most of the players in the present D’Tigers squad are not yet up to the standard of the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and other top stars of the grade A level, they have the talents to become great stars. “But going forward, they have to work together as a team to succeed. I am happy that Masai Ujiri have been motivating the team as a worthy ambassador of basketball in Nigeria. We need more of such inputs from our great ambassadors to grow the game in Nigeria.”

Stressing the need to keep working on the team, as well as encouraging the players to continue working on their games, Masai Ujiri said hard work and perseverance could see the country’s teams among the best sides in world basketball. “Nigeria basketball officials have been coming to me in America to seek for advice, which I gladly give. Most of the time I visit the team’s camp to motivate the players. All we need is to give the players our total support,” he declared.

To qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Nigeria beat China 86 to 73 in their last classification game on Sunday.The result was made even more impressive with hosts China also essentially needing victory to secure an Olympics spot. Every time they were challenged, Nigeria calmly silenced the crowd with clutch buckets led by young star Josh Okogie (16 points) who boldly attacked the rim in the fourth.

It was the type of performance that could prove momentous for Nigeria, who have now qualified for their third straight Olympics. Relishing the chance to return to the Olympics, Al-Farouq Aminu described the match against China as “a character builder for our team. We didn’t accomplish everything we wanted to in China but we set a new goal to make the Olympics and we did so.

“I remember when I joined the team in 2012, we vowed not to miss an Olympics. It’s a beautiful feeling (to qualify). It’s amazing.”Aminu said he is looking forward to more games with the current squad, adding that he is proud of the state of Nigeria’s team. “We know we have a good team and we are starting to put the pieces together. Guys have started wanting to play with the national team.“When I first played for the team, it was kind of taboo for guys to join the team and now I’m seeing guys like Josh (Okogie)…I’m so happy and proud for him.

“I see the future is bright with him and the guys we got. I’m excited with what we can accomplish.”Veteran captain, Ike Diogu describes Nigerian basketball as an emerging force. “We feel right now is the golden age for Nigerian basketball and we have a lot of exciting up and coming players,” he said.

“We just want to keep on building and have a good showing in Japan. It feels really good knowing that we are going back to the Olympics.”Coach Alexander Nwora is looking beyond China to a better outing at the Olympics next year. Speaking after the match against China, Nwora said, “we have a lot of talent but we showed resiliency. “We weren’t going to settle with leaving China with a loss. We’re going to make the necessary preparations now so that we can be very, very good at the Olympics.”

Tokyo 2020 will be Nigeria’s third consecutive Olympics appearance after they made their debut at the London 2012 Olympics before returning to the big stage at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as the reigning African champions and finishing 11th. Their celebrations at the end of the game against China were not just about winning for pride but also that they will not have to go through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year, taking the direct route to Tokyo 2020.

Nigeria’s sports analyst, Colin Udoh, who writes for ESPN, followed the women’s basketball team as they sailed into a historic FIBA Women’s World Cup quarterfinal in only their second appearance, where they eventually fell 71-40 to the U.S.Udoh said the vein-popping celebrations when the D’Tigress beat Argentina and the electric on-court insanity when they toppled Greece by a point, were forged in the fires of the adversity that D’Tigress have had to overcome to get that far.

According to Udoh, “Winning the Afrobasket title in 2017 was the first step on their historic journey, and they did it by overcoming rivals and Africa’s top-rated side Senegal.“Even under the best of circumstances, not many could have foreseen or even predicted three wins on the bounce at the World Cup and a place in the quarterfinals, which is where they now are. But from their very first game, a hard-fought loss to Liz Cambage’s Australia, they showed that they had the heart to deal with any and all forms of challenges.”

In their second appearance at the World Cup, D’Tigress became the first African team to reach the World Cup quarterfinals.“And, as if showing an exhibition of the diamond they have transformed in to after overcoming tribulations, they did so on the back of gritty defensive performances, especially in the opposition paint.

“It is this sort of pluck, this clawing their way out tight corners, that they showed in the first two quarters against a U.S. team whose pedigree is enough to scare the living daylights out of even the hardiest opposition.”The Vanguard’s Group Sports Editor, Tony Ubani believes Nigeria’s challenge is in building on the successes recorded by the national teams and also creating the conditions that would encourage the country’s players in the Diaspora to choose to play for the country instead of picking their adopted countries.

“What the D’Tigers have shown is that Nigeria is blessed with great talents waiting to be tapped. “There are so many good players of Nigerian descent in Europe and the Americas, who will gladly choose to play for the country if we made the conditions right.“One thing stakeholders in the game must do is to find a way of resolving the leadership crisis in the federation so that all the stakeholders will contribute their quota to the growth of the game. “So many people are outside the system and I believe they should be courted to come on board and help grow the game. “We should also encourage the private sector to key into the recent successes moving forward,” he said.

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