D’Tigers in Tokyo Olympics: From participants to contenders

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D’Tigers beat the well respected Team USA 90-87 Saturday night (Sunday, Nigerian time) and within hours the Nigerians had their names virtually in every publication across the world. They became an instant hit on Twitter at a time Nigerians were usually asleep and resting for Sunday church service.

It had to be so because no African team had ever beaten the USA or had even ever truly tried to. The mindset was always to try to keep the margin of defeat low. Across the world one can count easily how many teams have ever beaten the men’s or women’s team of the USA. It had to be a big deal then for D’Tigers.

The result of the game between Nigeria and the USA at London 2012 Olympics explains a lot. USA defeated Nigeria 156-73. The change and progress did not come just in 2021; it has been a long dream and serious work to get to this level.

Back in the early 1990s Nigeria mounted a vigorous fight to change the AfroBasket competition schedule from December to the summer period when the high number of Nigerian players could be free from collegiate games and clubs to play for D’Tigers. In December 1995 they managed to assemble a few of the USA-based players and finished at the third position in Algeria.

They fought harder and got the change. When the change came with Senegal ’97, Nigeria assembled quite an impressive line up. The team was celebrated and the Nigerian contingent arrived in Dakar in a chartered Nigeria Airways Boeing 737 flight with a retinue of supporters. Nigeria lost only one game and which was the final match to hosts Senegal.

The Senegalese had been beaten by the Nigerians at the group stage and came into the final with all manner of tricks and physical threats. They had their way but Nigeria as runners up qualified for its first World Cup in Greece.

The preparation to Athens in 1998 was even more elaborate with the team arriving there in a chartered Nigeria Airways DC 10 flight. Coach Ayo Bakare had the mandate to get the best of Nigerian players anywhere in the world. He was able to add to the team Yinka Dare (late) a former NBA player with New Jersey Nets and Obinna Ekezie (WakaNow CEO) from Maryland University. Julius Nwosu, a former NBA player had featured already in Dakar. Nigeria won only one game in Greece against South Korea but the foundation for what is happening with D’Tigers and D’Tigress had been laid firmly.

The Nigeria Basketball Federation and friends of the team agreed that within a decade the country could enter the top 20 bracket if the NBBF could gather just a quarter of Nigerian stars scattered across the globe. This is how the NBBF got to getting this squad available to the country on the road to the Tokyo Olympics.

D’Tigers squad of 1995-2001 is like what the 1994-1998 squad means in football to Nigeria. The collection of D’Tigers in that period has produced big achievers in the game across the globe today. Masai Ujiri is the President of the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors won their first NBA title under Masai in 2019. He played in Senegal ‘97. Ugo Udezue is the CEO of AFA Sports and his company is the kit partner of the Nigerian contingent to the Tokyo Olympics.

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It is the first time an African apparel manufacturer would kit a nation at the Olympics. Ekezie is the chairman of an insurance company in Nigeria, runs the OBN Academy and the founder of Wakanow.com travel agency. Ime Udoka was a former captain of the team and now the coach of Celtics in the NBA.

The current NBBF president Musa Kida was a member of the board at the upsurge period of 1997/98. He has followed the dreams and plans to the letter. What the country needed was good management of the teams to attract the best players especially those who were not born and have not lived here as adults.

Under Tijani Umar the gathering was beginning with the likes of Ike Diogu and Aminu el-Farouq. They won the African trophy for the first time in Abidjan in 2015 but sad board politics in the transition period nearly put the achievement to shreds as only Diogu was available from that team to defend the title in 2007.

The Kida administration took up the challenge and built the team up again gradually. The players needed transparency in administration to love the green and white jersey. They did see that and began to arrive in their numbers.

The next thing to do was to get a top notch coach that could attract the best in the NBA and that was how Mike Brown became the coach and his presence gave Nigeria more than the number wanted. The camp in Las Vegas started with 43 quality players. Injuries kept some away. Coach Alex Nwora had qualified the team to the Olympics from the World Cup in China but it was obvious that the bench needed a boost.

Today friends of the Nigerian teams are hopeful because the quality on ground.

Ugo Udezue, is confident that both D’Tigers and D’Tigress are good enough for a medal in Tokyo.

“This is the very first time we are having world class coaches for the teams – Brown and Otis Hughley (D’Tigress) – and if you look at the teams, the oldest person in the team is 30years in the case of the D’Tigress and they are fresh, young and athletic.

“Of course, I’ll be absolutely surprised if we don’t get to win medals in basketball at the Olympics. Both teams are capable of getting medals and I’m sure about this.”

Other Nigerians are hopeful too and the world in watching.

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