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Getting Nigerian basketball on its feet again

By Miebi Senge

Alhaji Sani Ndanusa, the amiable Minister of Sports and Chairman, National Sports Commission (NSC) may already have his eyes set for great achievements during his tenure. Coming from the position of Chairman of Nigeria Tennis Federation (NTF), where he has an impeccable record of success, he believes the country should look beyond football and elevate the status of other sports so as to win international laurels.

Perhaps there is no other sport to begin this new initiative with than Basketball where the country has great potentials, yet has achieved very little over the years. With a heritage of world acclaimed players as Hakeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon, (who won Olympics gold medal with the United States’ Dream Team 3 at the 1996 Games held in Atlanta, USA), Emeka Okafor, Olumide Oyedeji, Michael Olowokandi, Julius Nwosu and Abdulahi Kuso, the depth of talent in Nigeria cannot be over-emphasized.

“It is a great opportunity from the standpoint that Nigeria has enjoyed tremendous talent and resources but not able to excel in basketball and it is great because the primary goal is to win the first African Cup for Nigeria and that challenge is inspiring and even more inspiring is the qualification to the London Olympics in 2012.

“So that kind of competitive challenge and the opportunity to work with good people and such eager players is what inspires me to be interested in the opportunity,” said Dennis Felton, an American basketball coach who was in the country for the ‘Big Man’s Camp 2009′. He was one of several coaches who applied to manage the senior male team, D’Tigers. The team’s first challenge comes up August 5th to 15th, for the African Men Championships which will take place in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya. Felton extolled the qualities of Nigerian basketball players, saying they are “strong, rugged, aggressive and play with a lot of intensity and effort which is close to my heart.”

At the moment, there are about 44 registered basketball clubs, 215 licensed female players, 540 licensed male players and 400 unlicensed players in Nigeria. Dearth of equipment and low government patronage contribute to basketball’s stunted growth in Nigeria. Maladministration adds to the misery. But Mallam Tijani Umar, president of the Nigerian Basketball Federation, (NBBF) has called for support from all major stakeholders to enable the federation move the sport to the next level. His call is already getting the ears of corporate organizations.

Recently, Nigeria’s leading pay-TV operator, MultiChoice entered into a N163 million agreement with the Nigerian Basketball Federation to sponsor the male basketball league. To be called the DStv Basketball League, it will run for a total of four years with the first season getting N25 million and the balance given in equal installments to the NBBF. The sponsorship starts from the 2009 Season through 2012. This period will enable the country build its reservoir of talents and raise a formidable team to meet the challenges of the London Games.  This comes on the heels of the sponsorship of the women league by Zenith Bank Plc.

The N163m that MultiChoice is investing in basketball may not solve all the problems. But this is a good start and a commendable effort from a corporate citizen. Nigerians should also cast their minds back to the days English football was derogatorily labeled kick-and-follow until the Australian media mogul, Rupert Murdoch took the game to his BSkyB. Today, the Barclays Premier League has overtaken the Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga to become the world’s most watched football league on television. The English game has also benefited from the influx of foreign players and coaches who have introduced flair to the sport. Clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Manchester United compete favourably with Spanish clubs in terms of football artistry.

The MoU between the NBBF and DStv is one that portends great future considering that N163m is exclusively for the game. It excludes airtime for all games on the SuperSport channels. Basketball in Nigeria has never been on TV despite its large followership. With the league going on DStv now, the profile of the game is bound to rise in Nigeria.

“We believe a lot of talented players abound in Nigeria. The sponsorship will give clubs in the league the leverage to further hone the skills of the players, give hidden talents exposure, and generally help raise the standard of play. With this, games of the league will attract more spectators to the courts and viewership on television, further helping to raise the profile of the Nigeria Basketball League,” said Joseph Hundah, Managing Director of MultiChoice Nigeria.

The most innovative clubs will seize the opportunity of TV exposure to attract sponsorship deals to increase their revenue. Unlike football, basketball clubs in Nigeria are largely run by private concerns with knowledgeable leadership. People like Col. Sam Ahmedu (Dodan Warriors), Ayo ‘Waka’ Bakare (Ebun Comets) and Toyin ‘Noik’ Sonoiki (Lagos Islanders) will be complemented by their counterparts from the Savannah Conference – Kano Pillars, Niger Potters, etc in moving the game forward. These clubs can attract additional funds through various sponsorships like shirt endorsements, arena branding and transfer of players (inter and intra league).

Perhaps this is also the opportunity for the Minister to demand import concession for sports equipment in the country. Basketball thrives on quality equipment and these do not come cheap. Some of the reasons for the decline in the game are dearth of equipment and maladministration. With the right atmosphere, individuals and corporate bodies would invest in the sport to get it back on its feet again.

There should also be a programme to encourage Nigerian retired players in diaspora to return home and promote the game. There is so much blame on people like ‘The Dream’ for his perceived nonchalant attitude concerning Nigeria, but we have forgotten how at the height of his career at Houston Rockets, Olajuwon donated equipment to the NBBF, but the Nigeria Customs frustrated his efforts. He could not bear the heat and went back to the States abandoning his dream for the fatherland.

Daniel Igali, Canada’s former Commonwealth, World and Olympics wrestling champion, also suffered a similar fate, although he surmounted the challenge and with the support of the Bayelsa state government, he was able to clear the equipment he donated to the country. Igali has successfully built a model school in Bayelsa state with funds donated from private Canadian citizens. With the right encouragement, there are very many people willing to support basketball rise to the top ladder.

It is also important that the NBBF should put in place, a developmental programme, targeted especially at the Senior Secondary Schools, Polytechnics and Universities in order to have a reservoir of players to feed the league. The idea is to look beyond just playing in the league but at the prospects of getting some of these players’ scholarships to study and play abroad. The athletics federation has found this a veritable avenue to get athletes trained. The basketball federation can partner with the Nigerian Schools Sports Federation (NSSF), Nigeria Polytechnics Games Association (NIPOGA) and the Nigerian Universities Games Association (NUGA) in attracting players from the school system to the league.

In addition, the Federation can also encourage MultiChoice and other corporate sponsors to support projects like Masai Ujiri’s, Top-50 and Big-Man Camp and Olumide Oyedeji, who also organizes an annual children’s clinic. This Federation under Mallam Umar should instill probity and encourage good corporate governance to strengthen the administration and further attract potential sponsors.

The big difference between Angola, (who has always had the edge over Nigeria in basketball) and Nigeria is in the administration of the game. It is important that the NBBF keeps its friends in the corporate world to enable the sport move forward. If there is proper administration and financial discipline, sponsors would be persuaded to put their funds into the game. It is therefore important that the first thing this NBBF should do is to get organized so that basketball can be taken to the highest level. I believe we can achieve it if we all desire it. That’s what we need to do to get basketball back on its feet again.


Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.