By Jacob Ajom
His father, Ben Iroha is a former Nigeria international, whose place in Nigerian football folklore is well secured. Iroha, a versatile defender in his days, belongs to that golden generation which, in 1994 took Nigeria to global reckoning, when, from nowhere, the Super Eagles emerged as the 5th best national football team in the world and second most entertaining national team, according to FIFA. Intriguingly, the son of this famous footballer, Ben Iroha Jnr is not playing football today. Instead, he has chosen to chart his own course and be known for what he loves to do best; playing Basketball.
Naturally, it would not have been out of place to expect that the former Super Eagles star’s son, Ben Iroha Jnr, to take after his father. “He has the basic skills of a footballer, played the game as a minor, and was even awarded a scholarship by Watford Football Club in England,” Iroha said of his son. “But he turned down the offer. He wanted the entire family to move to England if he was to go to Watford.”
With the Watford ‘distraction’ off his path, young Ben Iroha Jnr. concentrated on his Basketball and vowed to take it to the highest level. “I started playing basketball when I was 10 and hope to continue playing the game to as long as it can take me,” he said.
Iroha who is a student of Texas State University explained why he chose basketball instead of going after his father’s first passion, which is football. “I love soccer too, but I have a different love for basketball and I am stuck with it.”
Although BJ, as his father calls him, is still playing College Basketball, he is enthusiastic about the prospects of representing Nigeria in future, like his father did in football in the past. After watching D’Tigers (as the Nigeria national men’s basketball team is called) at the Olympics, his passion for the game increased as it enhanced his dream to wear the green-white colours of his fatherland, someday. “I think I can be of big help if I join the Nigerian team. I can add value to the national team if I am called up. I play as a point guard, I can shoot and score points for the team. I can also play in the defence”.
Ben Iroha Jnr, 22 said he is ready to go professional as he is training hard to get ready for trials in Sweden. The invitation from a Swedish club was originally meant for trials last year, but the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic disrupted the plan.
“The invitation is still valid,” he cuts in, adding, “I am planning to go any time soon.”
“In the beginning,” the young Iroha Jnr confessed, “it wasn’t basketball. I played soccer and was good at it. I was pretty good in soccer and multiple academies were interested in having me. Watford, for one, wanted me to go to England and when it was time for me to go, I requested that my parents, indeed the entire family should move with me to England but my parents said they were not moving to England with me, I turned down the offer because I was scared going there all alone. I was only 12 then. That was how I lost the chance of going far in soccer.”
Ben Iroha Snr, his father who played for Watford between 1998–2000 interjected. “I was coach of Dallas Texas then and Watford saw clips of how well he was playing. They called me, ‘Ben, why don’t you give us your son?’ They offered him free accommodation, free school, everything. In the team he was a utility player. When we had problems in the defence he would fall back and when we needed goals he would go to attack. He was everywhere, just like what Mbappe does for PSG. And Watford were thrilled and made the offer. The boy said, ‘Dad, I love soccer but I won’t go there alone.’
But how does it feel that your son jettisoned football for basketball? Iroha Snr said there was nothing amiss. “I’m fine with that because what I did was to introduce sports to him. I was only guiding him. He chose to play basketball, which is a great sport too. But I would have loved it if he played football.”
He said he knew the son loved basketball more when “the boy was always eager to go out for basketball training that when he wanted him to go for football. Training. “When it comes to basketball, you see him leaving home by 5 a.m for training. It’s different from when I want us to go out for football training. I would practically persuade him before he would go with me.But I’m happy and my prayer now is for him to achieve his dream.”
Back to Iroha Jnr, any regrets not going to Watford? He hesitated, then responded. “Regrets? Yeah, maybe a little bit, but I won’t dwell on that. I can only move forward and I am focused on my basketball for now.”
Would Ben Iroha love to see his son play basketball for Nigeria? “Why not,” he said, adding, “he loves this country so much and playing in Nigeria colours will be the ultimate.”
BJ’s passion for basketball was influenced by the exploits of LA Lakers superstar LeBron James. “He is the best because the way he plays keeps pushing me to work harder. He is my role model. I want to play like him, however, I want to make my own name rather than his.” Surprisingly, despite his admiration for LeBron James, Iroha Jnr said he is a fan of Dallas Mavericks and not Los Angeles Lakers, the club Le Bron James plays for.
What has been the driving force behind his choice of playing basketball instead of football? “Basketball is special to me. It is different from soccer. The motivation is, when I am on the court I feel different; the way I play, the way I dribble runs and score, I always look forward to another opportunity to do more and do it better. So, the urge to do it better next time motivates me a lot.”
Yet he remains passionate about his academics. According to young Iroha, because he is really dedicated to his basketball, he goes for training as early as 5 a.m, and trains for about an hour or two before going to school. “My major is Industrial Engineering and I am left with one year of my studies.”
He still has fond memories of his native land, Nigeria and he confessed. “I love Nigerian food but my best is fufu and ogbono soup.”