Senior national men’s basketball team D’Tigers captain, , tells BAMIDELE BOLUWAJI in this exclusive interview that qualifying and winning gold at the 2015 FIBA-African Championship in Tunisia remain his targets. The London Lions of England basketball club player also speaks on issues including the development of the game in Nigeria and the home front…
You are back in the national men’s basketball team, D’Tigers, how does it feel?
Anytime I have the opportunity to wear the green-white-green jersey, it’s a great privilege and great honor for me to represent my country, promote the image of my country and to also promote basketball.
For a while, Nigeria has not really made it big in the international scene, but now you are back chasing an African Championship ticket, how do you plan to actualize this dream?
Point of correction, we are the highest ranked team sport in the country. We only slipped recently because we couldn’t make it to the World Championship. But so far, I think we are going high, we had the opportunity last two years in Cote d’Ivoire but it could not come to reality. Basketball is growing; we have more talents coming up every day. We are growing and we just need better infrastructure, better facilities and more awareness to make the sport big. More support from corporate sponsors, the government and from everybody particularly the press will go a long in helping the sport grow.
After the 2006 World Championship in Japan, Nigeria has not featured in another FIBA tournament. Why do you think this has been very difficult for Nigeria?
We only missed two World Cups, the one in 2010 and 2014. But so far during this period, we made it to the Olympics. I believe we will get there, I believe in this country, in the talents that we have but in the place where we have the talents but we don’t have the team, what can you do? So that is the difference between us and the Angolan team. Angola has a team but they don’t have the kind of talents we have in this country. We have the talents but we don’t have a team. In a situation where you only have to practice for two weeks for a tournament, it will be difficult to achieve the kind of result other organized teams like USA, England and many more will achieve. But in a team where you have cohesion and understanding, there will definitely be positive results. For the Angolan team, they spend enough time to prepare for tournaments and that is why they look different from us and it’s tough to beat a team like that but overall, Nigeria remains the most talented, followed by Senegal.
I think the main reason for this is probably because there is no fund to achieve that. While we struggle to get money to go for a tournament, not to even talk about a training tour, they are always prepared and make funds available for the team to achieve results.
At the 2006 FIBA World Cup in Japan, we saw lots of players there but today, you are the only remaining member of that team, why is it so?
It’s not by might nor by power; it’s by God’s grace. I had the opportunity and the privilege. I am not better than anybody but I just believe what I had was the opportunity. So I give glory to God for that.
Beating Burkina Faso in the first leg of the African Championship qualifiers, how does it feel and how did you achieve this result in Ouagadougou?
It was a tough game, it was close but we finally stepped it up towards the end of the game. No matter how the game looked, they gave us a tough time but we did what we wanted to do. Though we were not satisfied with our performance because we believe we could have done better. We have 23 points advantage in our pocket, they are coming to Lagos, we have to take care of our business. We know this is going to be the first time since 1999 that a national team is going to play in front of their home fans and we are looking forward to that.
The Burkina Faso we know is not an easy team. You have the second leg match in Nigeria on March 25th. How are you going to approach this game and what are you doing to ensure that you win the return leg?
I believe we have the squad, we have the team, they have been together for long, they know what to do and I am sure they will do it. We will pray for good luck, pray to be injury-free and practice well before the Burkina-Faso game. I believe in this team, I believe in this talent, I know they can do it and pick a ticket to the Nations Cup in Tunisia.
Eleven countries have already qualified for the African Championship. You have five more to go. What assurance are you giving to Nigerians that Nigeria will be in Tunisia for the African Championship?
Currently, we have 23 points in our pocket, so that means we are half way there. Right now we have to take care of our business and I believe in this team and the talent and I have confidence we are going to pick up the ticket.
You started your international competition with the All Africa Games many years back, now another edition is coming, what does this competition mean to your career?
Actually I didn’t start with the All Africa Games; I started with the Africa Nations Cup in 1997. I played at the All Africa Games in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and now 2015. I won bronze in 1999, silver in 2003, I won bronze in 2007 and I won gold in 2011. I want to win gold again then from there, we will see what is going to happen.
You are the most widely travelled Nigerian basketball player, what is the experience like, and in all the countries you have played, how have you been received?
I have been well received. This is my job, this is my business and I have to find a way to make them accept me because I am going into their culture and that’s a part of me being responsible. I am a professional, I have to know what they like, what they do and don’t do, I have to conduct myself, I have to make sure I perform, I have to take care of myself and do what I need to do to promote the image of myself and protect the team. Notwithstanding, I still need to do what I need to do. And with the experience I have gathered, I need to put it into practice. I need to spread it to all other young basketball players in the country and on the continent especially now that I am a member of FIBA Player Commission. I wouldn’t have peace if I don’t spread this to the young kids and share the experience and try to make basketball better in this country.
Three years back, you played under Coach Ayo Bakare, this time around you have to play under Coach Sani Ahmed. How would you compare the two coaches?
They are two different coaches with different styles. Both have been together.Coach Sani was the coach assistant to Coach Bakare and I don’t really see anything different but everybody has his own philosophy and approach to the game, but they are both great coaches having played the game at the highest level.
Having played in the NBA before, why do you think there are not many Nigerians in the prestigious league today?
Playing in the NBA is an opportunity. It has to do with hard work, desire and good luck to be at the right place at the right time. I was the first African to be drafted without going to an American College and I played in the NBA not only by being drafted, I played and was signed as well. So that opened doors to other African players. But notwithstanding, we need to educate all these young men on how it is done. When I was there, I also used the opportunity to attend schools and today, I feel great to have passed through that experience. I was doing what I needed to do but it’s beyond basketball, it takes humility, dedication, desire, hard work and professionalism to achieve that. So it’s not only about talent because there are so many talented players in the world. Over one million players want to make it to the NBA every year, only 59 selected and only 32 will have the opportunity to play. So, when you look at that, you will agree with me that it’s an opportunity but you have to keep working hard and everything will pay off.
You have been in the national team for years. What do you think you have not won and really need to achieve before leaving the scene?
I have done it all except the African Nations Cup. I won silver in 1997, silver in 2003, bronze in 2005 and won bronze in 2011. In 2013, we came seventh which was not a good one for us. If we can win gold now, then I have done it all. I have played in the NBA, World Cup, Euro League, Asian League and the All Africa Games and no African player has done that. I believe everything is an opportunity and as I always say, I give glory to God and also that I have an injury-free career, though I have had a couple of injuries but not major.
As the Team Nigeria captain to Maputo, you have various experiences with athletes, managing male athletes, female athletes and officials. Another All Africa Games is coming, are you still looking forward to that feat and what were the challenges you faced in Maputo?
Before Maputo, I was Team Nigeria captain in 2001. As an elite athlete, I knew what the athletes wanted and how they reacted. So I knew the motivation and what they have to do. Whatever the case, I am going to be there for my fellow athletes to share my experience with them. I am always going to make them feel that they belong. So right now, I have to combine the old school with the new school, I have to combine the Nigerian mentality with the western mentality because I can’t use the Nigerian mentality and think it’s going to work. I can’t use European mentality alone and believe it’s going to work; it’s not going to work. You have to balance it up and find a way. So what we need to do is exposure, motivational speech and psychology. We have to go to the grassroots, but it is going to be tough because we started so late, the skill level of a 14 year-old in Nigeria, is the skill level of a seven year-old in America or Europe. So those are the two things you have to look at.
You got married few years ago, what is the support like from the family?
I have it all. I don’t just have a wife but I have a mother, a father, a brother and a sister in her. I have a wonderful family with five kids, so it’s been a blessing.
Most Complete Sports readers know your height and they know that you will be taller than madam. How does madam cope with your height?
I don’t think if she doesn’t like me, she wouldn’t want to hang around with a handsome, good looking man like me despite the height (Laughs).