2nd appearance after a single tournament absence
The mystery of Nigeria
Eight years after Nigeria's first participation at a FIBA World Championship, in Athens in 1998, the "D'Tigers" are back. But during the last eight years, everything has changed. The talent is still there, in fact more than ever. But the Nigerians seemed to have been able to build this time the team chemistry that was often lacking…
Flashback to August 1998: Nigeria is about to participate for the very first time in a FIBA World Championship, organized in Athens, Greece. But the Organising Committee is still looking for any information about the Nigerian National Team. Its Federation has not even provided the roster of the team. Finally, the Nigerian delegation arrived a few hours before their first game, very surprised by the annoyed expectations and questions that the Organising Committee addresses to Nigerian officials.
That was Nigeria basketball, year after year. In the country with the largest population in Africa (estimations vary from 130 million to 146 in 2005, with a growth rate of 2.6% per year), talent has been there for decades. Ever since a tall and agile goalkeeper from a Lagos soccer and handball high school team, Hakeem Olajuwon – not yet known as "The Dream" -, was convinced by some fellow student to try his luck in a sport played with a bigger ball.
Passion for basketball has grown in Nigeria in the footsteps of Hakeem, who won two NBA titles (in 1994 and 95), an MVP trophy (1995) and was named 12 times to the NBA All Star Game. Olajuwon even won an Olympic Gold medal, but it was with the USA. The former Rockets star never played in a Nigerian jersey at senior level (He played for the Junior national team), probably because he was annoyed to see how much players had to fight against to participate in international competitions and the lack of preparation which always prevented Nigeria from dominating African basketball.
But things have changed since 2005. Sam Vincent, a former NBA player with the Boston Celtics who reached some significant success coaching the Nigeria women's National Team after an excellent showing in South Africa, took over the men’s team. Vincent brought groups of potential National Team players to summer leagues in the United States; organized regular training camps; and travelled the United States to convince some U.S.-born Nigerians playing in NCAA to join the National Team.
Vincent also had a simple but crucial idea: the National Team must arrive at the competition site at least two days prior to the competition. Simple, yes. But that was a major change when one remembers that Nigeria almost never played friendly games before African or FIBA World Championships. In Alexandria in 2003, the team even missed the Opening Ceremony of the African Championship. Since nobody told the players they should show up in the gym, they had to be replaced by fans wearing the Nigeria official training kit who lined up on the court!
But things, as well as officials in the Nigerian Federation, have gotten better. Now, Nigeria even has the capacity to organise international competitions, such as the All-Africa Games in 2003, for which the country built a sport complex in the capital Abuja, the second largest city in Nigeria.
On the court, the D’Tigers have a very exciting team. The New York Knicks forward Ime Udoka will be the leader of the team - a role he assumed very nicely during the 2005 FIBA Africa Championship. Along with him, Tuji Awojobi will carry the flag. The Yoruba (one of the main three ethnic of Nigeria) forward, born in Lagos, is the guardian of this Nigerian spirit, where surviving is the first priority. For him as well as experienced center, Julius Nwosu, wearing the Green and White jersey is their way of giving something back to their country - even if they don't always agree with their officials.
Now, Nigeria can also count on U.S.-born players (six plus Kelenna Azubuike, who was born in London), who only know Nigeria through their parents. But those players have never experienced living in Lagos, a metropolis of 30 million inhabitants and probably the craziest city in the world, where traffic jams are called "hold-ups" because of the risks you have of getting ripped off in your car. Of course, with players coming from so much different backgrounds, finding team chemistry will always be a tough job. But Sam Vincent seems to have found a way. In addition, Vincent has solved Nigeria's long-time problems of missing an efficient point guard to control the tempo and outside shooters to prevent opponents from packing in the key. Players helping in those areas include Abe Badmus (from Bucknell University), Chamberlain Oguchi (Oregon) and Udoka. If you add in the experience of Olumide Oyedeji and the raw inside talent of Ekene Ebekwe, the Nigerian team should be able to compete at the world level.
In Japan, Nigeria has a big chance of reaching the second round and taking its place among the best 16 teams in the world. Eight years ago, they were just happy to travel to Europe for their first international appearance. Argentina, Serbia & Montenegro and France should be very difficult opponents. But Venezuela and Lebanon can be beaten. Besides, with Jeff Varem playing in France this season, Awojobi, Nwosu and Udoka all playing in the French league in the past, Nigeria will definitely have a good game against the French.