A Sad Week – My Condolences.
This week has been a very sad one for me with two tragedies that left me numb and mourning.
After the sad news of the death a few weeks ago, of my friend and former colleague in Shooting Stars FC, Ogbein Fawole, whom I personally recruited into the Ibadan Club in the early 1980s, I am once again confronted with the futility of man’s struggle against death and of our eternal quest to find a meaning for life in the face of the useless vanities we all celebrate!
About 76 persons, including journalists, players and officials of a Brazilian football club, ACF Chapecoense, perished in a plane crash on the outskirts of Medellin in Colombia.
The team was going for the first leg of the CopaSudamericano championship finals against Atletico Nacional of Colombia when the accident happened. Only 6 persons, 3 players, 2 flight crew members and 1 journalist are reported to have survived but with serious injuries!
The second tragedy, a more personal one, is the death of my friend, social activist, public commentator and constitutional lawyer, Fred Agbaje, this past week. This left me in a complete state of shock! He was one I always associated with life, helpfulness, unsolicited kindness, laughter, fun-filled social engagements and, generally, happy tidings, not death!
I commiserate with the families of all the dead and pray that they find some consolation and comfort even within these tragedies to accept the situation, give thanks to God for the opportunity of the ‘short journeys’ of their beloved and lost ones, whilst fully acknowledging that even the rest of us alive today are living on borrowed time, stalked by a lurking death that, inevitably, ‘will come when it will come’.
May all the departed souls rest and find peace in the bosom of our Creator who knows and understands it all, and who gives and takes as he pleases.
It is in this sombre and mournful mood that I still have to write this week, with life seeming so meaningless and man’s attempt to make some sense of it all, so futile.
My mind is on basketball. It does not matter whether you like the game or not, it is the story around it that should provoke some interest.
I am in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, a city of some two and half million people known for their passion for basketball. Maputo is nestled along the South-East African coastline washed by the waters of the Indian Ocean.
Mozambique used to be one of the poorest countries in the world, surviving mostly on foreign aid by generous Western donors. But, all of that may change with the recent discovery of vast reserves of natural gas and oil in the country.
Unlike several countries where these mineral resources have turned from a blessing to a curse as a result of corrupt leadership, internal crisis and conflicts, wasteful spending and bad investment by political leaders, it is hoped that Mozambique’s leaders will use them wisely and prudently to empower and prosper their people and not themselves.
In The Camp Of 7he Elephant Girls of Nigeria.
I am with the Elephant Girls, the women’s basketball team of First Bank of Nigeria.
The team is vying for the 2016 African Women’s Basketball Club Championship. 10 teams are in the race for the title: from Algeria (1), Kenya (2), Cameroon (1), Togo (1), Angola (2), Mozambique (2) and Nigeria (1).
First Bank has a very rich history in the annual international competition that was established in 1985 by FIBA Africa.
Although it started 31 years ago, only 21 editions have been held. It was initially a bi-annual event but became annual in 2005.
Of the 21 editions held so far, the Elephant Girls have recorded the highest attendance (15) of all the clubs in the continent, followed by Interclube of Angola with 11 appearances.
First Bank is also the only Club from Nigeria to have won the championship twice – in 2003 in Maputo, Mozambique, and in 2009 in Cotonou, Benin Republic.
Although Nigeria has hosted it once in 2011, by First Deep Water Basketball Club, First Bankonly managed to get to the finals on that occasion and lost to Interclube of Angola in a surprisingly one-sided 81-55 game in Lagos.
The Angolan clubs have been the most successful in the championships. They have won the title 6 times and got to the finals 15 times.
Mozambican clubs have also won it 5 times and reached the finals 8 times.
The only other big performers in the championship are Senegalese clubs, 4-time winners and 6-time finalists.
On an individual club basis, Interclube of Angola has been the most successful club in the history of the championship with 4 titles.
The most consistent team in terms of performance is last year’s defending champions, Primiero de Agosto. It has won the championship twice and has been to the finals 9 times!
For the record, the other two-time winners are Depotivo de Maputo of Mozambique and Tourbillon of DR Congo.
First Bank In The 2016 Edition
So far, the 2016 edition has been a feast of some great basketball.
The Elephant Girls have put up a good show considering that the team did not have the best of preparations this year, due in no small measure to the current national economic recession that no sector in Nigeria (including sports) appears to be immune from.
It is for that reason that First Bank Basketball Club is Nigeria’s sole representative at this year’s championship.
However, the Elephant Girls have been exemplary here, demonstrating great discipline, typical Nigerian fighting spirit, temerity, grit, guts, determination and resilience against all odds. At the time I am writing this, at the end of the group stage matches, First Bank has won three of its four matches to qualify for the quarterfinals. It has lost only one to the defending Champion from last year – Primeiro de Agosto.Between Primeiro and their bitter country rivals, Interclube, they have dominated the African Women’s championship for most of the past decade.
In the past 10 years, between them, they have won the title 6 times – 4 times by Interclubeand 2 times by Primeiro.
The only other club to have won it three times (and that was in the 1990s) was DUC of Senegal.
For the record, First Bank won the title for the first time here in Maputo in 2003 playing against Primeiro de Agosto of Angola in the finals. The winning score line was a heart-wrenching, hypertension-laden cliffhanger with a final score line of 55-54!
Is history going to repeat itself here again for the Nigerian club?
So far in the ongoing edition, the two Angolan clubs are once again the only teams not to have lost in any of their group matches.
What this clearly reflects is that there is a very wide gulf between Angola and the rest of the continent in current female basketball in Africa.
They have produced the two finalists of the last three editions of the championship and may produce the fourth unless the answers to the following posers are quickly provided: what is Angola doing that the rest of the continent are not? What makes Angolan basketball so vastly superior? What can the other countries do to break Angola’s seeming present stranglehold? Is there a working formula to their success?
Coaches here are wracking their brains trying to work out how to stop these rampaging, technically sound, well-organised and physically strong Angolan players! They definitely stand between First Bank and the championship title this time again.
Therefore, the biggest story here in Maputo has been how to save the championship from ‘same-finalists’ fatigue!
Can the Nigerian girls do it this time again? It is hard to tell. Their group match against G.S. Petroliers of Algeria clearly demonstrates there is still a little room for the unexpected to happen in this championship.
It was a tough, challenging and nail biting match until the last few seconds. It was drama at its best,let me to tell you about it.
First Bank And The Long 20 Seconds To Victory!
There is a very thin line between winning and losing in the game of basketball because of its technical complexities. It is only in the game that 20 seconds could become a very long time indeed.
That was the case last Monday night. With 20 seconds to the end of the match, the Elephant Girls were 5 points down and everyone had assumed that the match had been lost.
Their opponents were a young, new entrant to African women’s basketball, G. S. Petroliers of Algeria.
Against the awesome reputation of First Bankthe Algerians initially cowered in admiration and fear of getting ‘massacred’ in the match.
Unfortunately, First Bank, not in the best of shape coming to the championship, could not create the anticipated daylight between them and the Algerians as the game progressed. They were leading, winning, but struggling.
That emboldened the Algerians who soon realized that First Bank were ‘human’ and vulnerable after all. They soon settled into the game and started a genuine attempt to wrest the initiative from the bankers.
By the end of the first quarter, First Bank were leading comfortably with 11 points.
By the end of the second quarter that lead had been reduced to 5 points.
As the third quarter began, the Algerians become more confident and came out of their shell, passing and dashing around at lightening speed, showing their better fitness level and youthfulness, and generally getting into an exciting rhythm that turned into invaluable baskets.
By end of that quarter the tide had turned, the Algerians had taken over and led by 5 points.
First Bank were thrown into momentary confusion and disarray.
Into the fourth and final quarter, with their pride at stake against an unknown new team, First Bank had to pick up the pieces of their distorted game and start to fight instead like wounded lions. They contested for every ball and managed to remain close to the Algerians throughout the quarter down to the last 20 seconds.
With 20 seconds left the Algerians were leading with four points, and were looking good to wind down and win the match.
Time out. The coaches went to their drawing boards.
First Bank needed five points to tie the match to take the match to extra time, or 6 un-replied points to win it outright.
The Algerians needed to just hold out for 20 seconds, and not concede those points and it would be all over!
But the Nigerian team had something else up its sleeve.
The Dramatic Last 20 Seconds!
Chioma Udeaja, the First Bank captain and Centre collects the ball, drives hard into the Algerian box and is fouled. She earns two free throws. She scores one and loses the other.
There are now 20 seconds to go with three points still in deficit.
Coach Peter Amedu calls for time out and re-strategises. He brings in the Mexican professional, Magarita Rodriguez, obviously planning for a three-pointer to tie the match through either her or Nkechi, the left handed three–point specialist and go into extra time.
He has no choice at this point but to do that even if both players have struggled intermittently and failed throughout the match to make one successful three-point throw.
From a sideline throw-in, Upe, Nigeria’s point guard, collects the ball, and looks around for either Nkechi or the Mexican as planned. Both are tightly marked. She finds herself ‘stranded’ with the ball in that medley of dashing and pushing players, everyone closely marked.
She looks up and there is a passage that lies in front of her leading to the basketball hoop in the distance, invitingly tempting. The seconds are ticking away. She takes the craziest and most unanticipated decision of all. Waltzing with the ball from side to side outside the three point line, she suddenly stops with a certain deliberateness and certainty, she calmly takes aim and heaves the ball high into the air up towards the basket and the entire hall holds its breath in anticipation.
The ball flies through the distance and lands. The swoosh sound of the ball rubbing against the dangling ropes around the basketball hoop is evidence that the improbable has happened – the ball has successfully descended to record a magnificent three points.
The hall erupts. Miraculously the game is tied. There are now 16 seconds to go, enough time for another drama?
The Algerian coach is in confusion. The tide has changed. He calls for time out. He plans his closing moves. The Algerians are in possession of the ball. They need one point conjured from anywhere, one successful basket to win the match.
The game resumes. They swoop on the Nigerians like bees to nectar with every one of their players racing into the Nigerian box, seeking a foul, or the least space to launch a final ‘missile’.
Fate now intervenes. In that frenzy, the Algerian girls suddenly lose possession of the ball. A pass is intercepted by one of the Nigerian girls. The team quickly seizes the gifted opportunity and takes over possession close to the half way line.
The ball lands in Nkechi’s blessed hands. She has one opposing player in front of her. She can take her on and race towards the opposing box. She chooses not to. On the other side of the court she sees the girl from Mexico taking off in a run towards the Algerian box, alone and unmarked.
Nkechi lobs the ball perfectly into Magarita Rodriguez’s path and her waiting hands. The Mexican collects it comfortably and runs into the Algerian box.
She takes her time. She is alone. All her experience in basketball comes to bear in these last few moments and metres. She leaps into the air and throws what is to be one of the most valuable balls of her basketball career.
In the end it looks so easy, yet any player without the guts and confidence to forget about how crucial that one throw is, can easily get nervy and miss the shot. But not the Mexican, a tested warrior of many previous basketball battles. With the calmness and composure of a true professional, she executes the perfect throw from under the basket.
It is the last shot of the night. It is the kind of shot that separates winners from losers.
The hall explodes once more. There are now only 3 seconds to go and First Bank are new leaders for the first time in the final quarter with 2 points.
It is a hopeless case for the Algerians. First Bank have too much experience to lose their focus at this point, having been to the brink of defeat and are now staring victory in the face.
Before the Algerians can recover from the shock and attempt to seek a new opportunity for a two-pointer to tie the match again, or a three-pointer to win it, the three seconds are eaten up rapidly. The sound of the buzzer brings the dramatic game to an end.
Whilst the Algerian bench collapses on the floor in a sea of tears their Nigerian counterparts go into a momentary period of ‘madness’ with the players and officials flying into the air and racing around the crowded court.
First Bank have just come back from the edge of death, from the brink of what would have been considered a disastrous outing and catastrophic result.
The day after that match First Bank went ahead to play more convincingly and trounced the University team from Kenya.
It is hard to tell how First Bank will fare in the rest of the championship. Their next opponents are the team from the Cameroons, the most physical team here at the championship. They have physically worn down every opponent they have met so far with their physicality and power play.
Next week, I shall tell you how the rest of the championship goes and, particularly, how it ended for the Elephant Girls.