Football has always been Nigeria’s favourite sport with a historic Olympic gold the pinnacle of its success, but the country now eyes basketball for glory at the Tokyo Games.
The West African nation of 210 million people made history 25 years ago when their football team struck gold in Atlanta at the expense of top-rated Argentina, the first Olympic title won by an African team.
But for the Tokyo Games, both the men and women’s football teams failed to qualify, with medal hopes shifting to other sports including the men’s basketball team, as ‘D’Tigers’ carry the nation’s aspirations following some shock results in the lead-up to the Olympics.
Ranked 22nd in the world, Nigeria upset a United States team featuring NBA stars like Kevin Durant 90-87, having been blown away 156-73 by the same opponents at London 2012.
The Nigerians also stunned world No.4 Argentina 94-71 in another warm-up game for Tokyo.
“We have not won anything yet, but I have a feeling I can uplift a whole continent,” said 51-year-old coach Mike Brown, formerly in charge of the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We are not going for the experience, we’re going to Tokyo to win,” he said.
“This morale-boosting performance on the eve of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics is a positive signal that Team Nigeria will achieve podium finishes at the Games,” added Nigeria’s sports minister Sunday Dare.
“I am delighted with the progress our athletes are making in their respective sports and I strongly believe we will have many of our athletes in strong medal positions at this Olympics and future international global events.”
Like the Nigeria football team, the ‘D’Tigers’ squad is dominated by players from the diaspora who play in the NBA.
They have strength in depth at each position, with Miami Heat trio Gabe Vincent, Precious Achiuwa and KZ Okpala on the roster, along with Minnesota Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie and Detroit Pistons center Jahlil Okafor.
Against the USA, Vincent scored 21 points while Israel-based Caleb Agada pitched in with 17 as Nigeria became the first African nation to beat the 15-time Olympic champions.
“It gives all of us the confidence to go out there and perform at a high level just like we did against USA and Argentina,” said Okafor.
“The message is to take care of business and avoid any let-down.”
Domestic league struggles
They trained stateside for four weeks before concluding preparations in Kisarazu, Japan.
However, critics argue that the team’s fate in Japan will have minimal bearing on the domestic championship, which has been disrupted in recent times by a drawn-out power tussle in the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF).
The men’s domestic league does not have a title sponsor amid grumblings that no home-based player made the cut for Tokyo.
“What the team have done is a great development for Nigerian basketball internationally, but it’s killing us locally because we’re not investing at home,” said former ‘D’Tigers’ captain Olumide Oyedeji.
“We have got carried away by what we are achieving internationally.”
Oyedeji advocated for better opportunities for the players based in Nigeria.
“It’s not a crime to be born in Nigeria, it’s not a crime to play in Nigeria, it’s not a crime to reside in Nigeria,” he said.
“So, we should give the local boys a chance too, a hope for the future.”
“The players who are now available for Nigeria are those who were not previously because the NBA season was on,” he said.
“They don’t have a chance to play for the US who have so many great players, but they all now want to play for Nigeria because they will be seen at the Olympics and it will be great for their CVs.”
Tokyo marks the third straight appearance at the Olympics for Nigeria, who failed to make it past the group stage at the past two editions.
They have been drawn in a tough-looking group with Australia, Germany and Italy, and tip off their campaign on Sunday.
“I see no reason why they cannot continue their success in the exhibition matches at the Olympics,” said Will Voigt, who led Nigeria to their first-ever African basketball championship title in 2015.
“They are talented, confident and self-driven.”