‘Raptors’ rise to the top was long in coming’
They were the Cinderella team of the just-concluded President’s Cup. Nobody gave them any chance of success at the competition, but Raptors Basketball Club of Lagos defied the odds to get to the final game of the championship.
It happened, not because they were expected to conquer more illustrious sides in the trade. The truth is that Raptors had been gradually building for success, employing the energy of youthful and talented players to great results.
It is not often that a team debuting in the Premier League of any competition goes all the way to the top of that division. In Raptors’ case, several factors accounted for their new status. Chief among these is hard work and perseverance.
According to the Chief Coach, Charles Ibeziakor, Raptors Basketball Club did not just happen. The boys have gone through meticulous mentoring and psychological build up such that nothing fazes them anymore.
At the President’s Cup, Raptors overcame more illustrious sides like Kwara Falcons, Niger Potters, Lagos Islanders, and Civil Defenders, but lost the final game 97-57 to Rivers Hoopers at the indoor hall of the National Stadium, Lagos.
They recorded some of the best games in the competition with their shock 84-81 defeat of highly rated Niger Porters in the semifinal the upset of the tournament.
Against Nigerian Army Rockets, a team backed by a large crowd of military supporters, Raptors defied the odds to win. But they really started believing they could go all the way after beating the dreaded Kwara Falcons.
For a club that was barely one year among the elite, that was a great achievement.
Reminiscing on Raptors’ early days, Coach Ibeziakor said: “When I came back to Nigeria from America in 2001, because of the passion I had for basketball, I started an academy called Spiders. But after awhile, I decided to separate myself from the club. So, I teamed up with some coaches from the NIS to build the academy.
“In 2006, I changed the name to Raptors Academy because I was in America when Toronto Raptors was founded and I liked the name. We don’t have any affiliation with the NBA club though.”
Ibeziakor said the early days were difficult because of the nature of Nigerian sports sector. “There was no support. I rented a hostel for the boys and girls and had to move around to convince their parents to allow them to join us.
“In 2008 when I finished my NIS Diploma coaching course, I got support from America where I started sending some of these boys to study while playing the game. I have over 500 boys and girls now in American schools. Some have finished their studies.”
Ibeziakor explained that all the players in his team were made to continue their education because experience taught him that being educated helped in building the complete sportsman.
“I gave them an analogy of what happened in America in 1989 when they passed a bill, which says, ‘no pass no play.’ If you go to school and you failed your exams, you cannot continue in sports. It is not only basketball but in other sports.”
Ibeziakor acknowledged that running a basketball team is a huge task that requires a lot of money and energy. He added: “Everything I had when I came back from America was channeled into these ventures.
“It is not easy, but I believe so much that one day God will see me through.”
He sees Raptors’ qualification for the Final Eight championship game as just reward for the efforts the players and coaches put in the game, adding that it would have been better.
“We started in Ilorin and qualified for the final eight and came to Lagos to play in the final game. People didn’t believe it. This is the first time in Nigerian league that a new team from the lower division will play in the final eight and get to the final.”
Looking forward, Ibeziakor said Raptors would be ready when the NBA Africa competition begins.
“Our sponsors, Flour Mills of Nigeria, are ready for us. They have promised to take us as far as we want to go.
“Officials of Flour Mills come to watch our matches with their entire crew.”
Team Secretary, Dipo Fagbemi, who is also the assistant coach of the club, describes Raptors’ feat this year as a sign of better things to happen to the club.
Fagbemi said, “What happened to Raptors is unprecedented. I have been asking sports men, pressmen and people in the basketball administration to explain how a team got promoted this year and still made it to the finals. It is something that has never happened before.
“But then, it has to do with our preparations and our preparation has to do with the fact that we have a backbone in which we depend on. Flour Mills are the ones, who give us confidence, they make us feel like there is nothing we cannot do.”
Fagbemi described playing in the Ilorin zone of the competition as the most difficult challenge they faced in the competition.
“We were the last team to qualify for the Final Eight. As a matter of act, we completed the eighth team to come to Lagos. But after that, we discovered what was wrong in the team and came back to Lagos fully prepared.”
He dismissed the insinuation that Raptors could play in the Final Eight because some of the traditional teams did not participate in the tournament.
Fagbemi said, “The standard is as high as it used to be. We had such other teams as the Nigerian Army, Kwara Falcons, Niger Potters, and Rivers Hoopers, among others.”
Following their success at the President’s Cup, Raptors have started preparing for their first international outing. That is a challenge Fagbemi described as a test that would strengthen the club.
“We have already been hinted by the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF) that we might be representing Nigeria in the African League and that is the highest basketball competition in Africa, as it is.
“Right now, we are back on the drawing board, planning how to win the whole league proper next year.
“Nigeria has never been a pushover in basketball. I tell people basketball started in America and America has accepted Nigeria as a basketball-playing nation.
“They do seminars, coaching courses, and camps here, where both players and coaches get knowledge of how the game is played in America and the current rules and regulation… therefore the sky is the limit, the standard is okay.”
Fagbemi said aside from having a squad of talented youngsters, the sponsorship they got from Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc also played a major role in their meteoric rise in Nigerian basketball.
He said, “In FMN, we have a strong corporate backbone that is supporting us and that has helped us prove our worth. It shows in the way we play and compete. I can say that everybody is jealous of us. You hear them say things like, ‘these are the Flour Mills people. You cannot joke with them.’
“We are not found wanting as far as welfare is concerned. That has helped us because we can concentrate on preparing our boys for the competition without thinking of how they will eat, how they will travel for games or any other logistics. We just concentrate on training them and preparing for competitions.”
Fagbemi revealed that Raptors have made so much impact in Nigerian basketball that almost all the teams in the league have graduates of the Raptors academy in their fold.
“Three of our boys who never played in the Premier League before have been approached by the Army, to play for their team. Two of our best players, Ginikachukwu and Ebuka, have also been invited by two clubs. They are trying to snatch them from us.
“These boys have really shown their mark and they have proven to the world that they are the best. We were the youngest team in the Final Eight. The sky is the limit for our boys, especially with the support given to us by our sponsors.”
One of the most influential players during Raptors’ ride to the final of the Final Eight was Ndubuisi Innocent Chukwuebuka, who revealed he took to basketball four years ago.
To Chukwuebuka, playing in the Final Eight was an eye-opener and also a pleasant experience he would cherish forever.
He said, “I never expected that my team will get to the final eight. I want to say that the experience was nice.”
He reckoned the final match against Rivers Hoopers was his best game even though they lost the title.
“Against Hoopers, we faced some of the best payers in the country, these are national team players and we were not blown away. It shows that with time we will get to their level.”
Apart from playing academy matches in Abeokuta and its environs, going to Ilorin for the Presidents Cup was the first time Chukwuebuka would play outside Lagos. And he relishes that experience.
“I started playing basketball here in Raptors from their academy team and I always looked forward to the day that I will play in the big matches. That began in Ilorin, where I saw different aspects of the game,” he said.
Like most young sportsmen, getting their parents’ support is crucial in helping them develop. In Chukwuebuka’s case, his parents don’t want him near any basketball court.
“They have never encouraged me. They want me to focus on business because they are business-oriented, but they cannot decide for me.
“I don’t have a passion for business, basketball is my passion. My parents have never watched any of my games, but I know with time they will start supporting me.”
Chukwuebuka’s dream is to take his game to America’s NBA, where he will play against the biggest names in the game.
Chidiebere Ofia Ibe, who joined the team’s academy after playing for his school at the Milo Secondary Schools Championship in 2016, was another standout player in Raptors’ campaign this season.
The former student of Hanson International School, Benin, believes they would have won the title if they had more experience of big-time basketball.
He said, “It has been fantastic playing with my teammates and learning from our coaches.
“I rate the Falcons tougher than the Hoopers, but unfortunately we lost to the Hoopers. That is sport. Sometimes you don’t get things right at the crucial period.”
Ibe, who names Steph Curry as his role model, wants to take his game further by playing for any of the national teams.
He averaged 18.3 points in their three matches before the final.
In the semi-final match against Niger Potters, he led his team’s chart with 17 points, three rebounds and four assists, a superb display that helped the Raptors seal their first-ever appearance in the final of the President Cup.
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