I got a call from London back in May. It was Nigeria’s Olumide Oyedeji, to whom I haven’t spoken to for quite some time.
What has been planned to be just a quick chat how life has been since the last time we talked went on to be almost a two-hour back-and-forth about how D’Tigers are going to succeed in the Olympic Qualifiers in Venezuela.
We agreed that it was necessary to have a coach that knows the Nigerian mentality as well as FIBA hoops and therefore, Ayo Bakare is a perfect fit for Nigeria because no one knows the country’s hoops programs better than him.
Also, the lack of proper preparations in the past and the de-commit of many players hampered the outcome of the West African nation in the last decade even though they still had a decent team on paper. This time though, the Nigerians went a different route. No unproven players were called up, except for talented Melvin Ejim from Iowa State.
Although Bakare stated to take four players from the local league, he changed his mind for the better. Thanks to “Big O’s” contacts in China, the team departed for Asia to play games against fairly weak CBA teams that lacked import and rotation players. But from an inside view, it helped building chemistry between the new and old players on the roster and also established a winning mentality which later on proved to be worthy in crucial moments last week in Caracas. The quick stop-over in Houston brought Champs Oguchi and Alade Aminu on board. Both players were instrumental in Nigeria’s outcome.
As Oyedeji promised, the Nigerians ran through all the preparation stages and all the games as planned. This never happened before as I long as I can remember. Their stint in Brazil culminated in two losses to Brazil (65-104) and Greece (76-88) and one win (77-64) over lowly-ranked New Zealand. After their trip over Peru to Caracas, lone point guard Tony Skinn got sick but this did not prevent him from playing against the hosts who took an 81-79 win over the Nigerians. At that point, other teams may have dropped their expectations as D’Tigers faced no other but basketball-giants Lithuania in a do-or-die match for the Africans, but the brave underdogs simply out hustled the Europeans as they showed passion and heart when it counted most.
Venezuela was eliminated due to the surprising win and now Nigeria faced another basketball-powerhouse from the old continent: Greece.
It all looked like an easy training match for the Greeks when they were up early by double- digits but several missed shots in the dying minutes of the game gave the Diogu-led a chance to move to the last four of the tournament and Ade Dagunduro stayed cool at the charity- stripe and nailed two free-throws with only a few seconds to play.
The controversial buzzer-beater attempt by Spanoulis (Spanoulis had been blocked and probably fouled as well but the referees did not blow the whistle) didn’t change the final score of 80-79 and joyful players stormed the court once more to celebrate another surprising result. Now there were to chances for the sole African nation still in the run for the Olympics. Beating Russia would have meant London would be reality on Saturday the 7th. Loosing to Russia would mean another showdown on Sunday against the losers from the other semi- final.
The Russians proved to be too skilled for D’Tigers. Any attempt to stop their shooting failed although the team never quitted on trying to turn the ship around and even closed down the gap in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough to prevail as Russia made their way to London by ousting Nigeria 85-77. Bad news came next morning as Chamberlain Oguchi spent another night at the hospital because of pain in his shoulder and was declared unable to play in the finale against the Dominican Republic. Others needed to step up and did so.
Unused Richard Oruche came off the bench and team-captain Olumide Oyedeji bolstered the frontcourt while Ike Diogu once again put on a show to leave no doubts behind this successful campaign as Nigeria simply overrun their Caribbean counterparts 88-73 to punch the ticket for the Olympics the first time ever in their history.
Now that the Nigerians made it that far, speculations arose which players should be included for London as a couple of players refused to join the national-team for their quest in Venezuela. NBA-bound Ben Uzoh, Festus Ezeli, Solomon Alabi and Ekpe Udoh were named in numerous media outlets as possible inclusions but does Nigeria really need more additions after such an outing?
Either way, Olumide said previously, that it was a dream of him to play the Olympics and then retire from international hoops. Dreams come true and his tears in the middle of the court after last night’s win will be remembered by basketball fans around the globe.