Africans are sports fanatics and football is by far the most popular sport in the continent. Athletics has a decent following, especially in East Africa, but overall, football is the undisputed king.
Another sport that is growing in popularity in the continent is basketball and with our physical stature and athleticism, I can see Africa becoming a fertile breeding ground for the next Hakeem ‘the Dream’ Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo or Giannis Atentokounmpo.
When I covered Senegal, Ivory Coast and Nigeria during the FIBA basketball World Cup from late August to mid September 2109, I was quite appalled and saddened by the lack of support the players received from their respective federations back in the continent. I read story after story about unpaid wages, poor training facilities, corruption, embezzling of funds, mismanagement, promises made and not honored, lack of continuity in coaching, the abrupt firing and hiring of coaches and some more pernicious offenses.
These issues are only going to stunt the growth of the sport and dissuade aspiring players from taking up the sport.
Despite all these setbacks and challenges, I saw these guys represent their countries with dignity, pride and patriotism. They left everything on floor and were true ambassadors for their respective nations and the continent as a whole. It made respect them even more.
Recently, D’Tigers, the Nigerian men’s basketball team defeated the US in a warm up for the Tokyo Olympics. The significance of this victory should not be understated. The US has been the barometer and leader in basketball since its inception and an African team has never had a victory over such esteemed opposition.
Past games have ended in complete obliteration and blowouts. Only nine years ago at the London Olympics in 2012, Team USA defeated Nigeria 156-73 and the dream team of 1992 with Michael Jordan and co, defeated Angola, 116-48. D’Tigers victory is further proof of the globalization of the sport. As I watched the game unfold on TV, I was overcome with joy as Nigeria pulled off the incredible feat. The US had players like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Jason Tatum. These are big guns in the NBA.
As I celebrated the victory and giddily taunted my American friends with screenshots of the box score, I was once again reminded of the stories I had covered in 2019. A friend posted an image of the Nigerian team who had just conquered the mighty USA setting up a go fund me page.
Whatever the reason was for setting up the page, I could not help but feel a little embarrassed. I am not Nigerian, but as an African, this is probably our best bet for a medal in Tokyo. Why are they setting up a go fund me page? Is the government providing them the support they need? We have to do better.
I commend the Nigerian federation for appointing an experienced coach like Mike Brown to lead the team. But appointing a coach is not enough. There are many other facets of the game that need urgent attention.
Mike Brown coached global icon Lebron James when he first entered the NBA and now works with the likes of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson at the Golden State Warriors. He brings with him a wealth of experience and professionalism. I have also read reports that he initially asked that his salary be used to develop the game in Nigeria. This is the kind of selflessness and professionalism needed for basketball to thrive in the continent.
Another positive development is the establishment of the Basketball African League (BAL) comprising of 12 teams. Hopefully it will further enhance the growth of the sport in the continent and provide a platform for local talent to showcase their skills. Congratulations to the inaugural champions of the Basketball African League, Zamalek of Egypt.
There are many players born abroad that are willing to switch nationalities and represent African countries. We have to make sure we provide them with the right environment to thrive and be comfortable.
We have an immense pool of talent and if we continue to nourish them properly, people like Steven A. Smith of ESPN will give them the respect they are due. I was not impressed by his ignominious and derogatory coverage of the Nigerian team after they defeated team USA.
Steven A. Smith should be reminded that Hakeem Olajuwon, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have both won NBA regular season MVP and NBA finals MVP. Giannis who plays internationally for Greece, but has Nigerian parents, just led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in over 50 years and was voted finals MVP, dropping 50 points in game 6 of the finals to seal a 4-2 series win.
African teams underperformed at FIBA 2019, although I did get a kick out of Nigeria silencing a ruckus stadium packed with fanatical Chinese basketball fans by winning an Olympic seeding game at FIBA 2019. Nigeria finished with the best record of all the African teams at the World Cup.
I expect a better showing in Tokyo and possibly the first basketball medal too. The Nigerian football team shocked the world and won gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, so do not rule them out. See you in Tokyo Steven. A. African basketball is about to take off. Let’s go.