Soccer has always been Nigeria’s favorite sport, with historic Olympic gold atop its success, but the country now looks to basketball for glory at the Tokyo Games.
The West African nation of 210 million people made history 25 years ago when its soccer team won gold in Atlanta at the expense of the best Argentina, the first Olympic title won by an African team.
But for the Tokyo Games, the men’s and women’s soccer teams failed to qualify, and hopes for medals shifted to other sports, including the men’s basketball team, as ‘D’Tigers’ carries the nation’s aspirations afterwards. of some shocking results in the run-up to the Olympics.
In 22nd place in the world, Nigeria surprised a team from the United States with NBA stars like Kevin Durant 90-87, after being defeated 156-73 by the same opponents in London 2012.
The Nigerians also upset World No. 4 Argentina 94-71 in another preparation match for Tokyo.
“We haven’t won anything yet, but I have a feeling I can lift 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 are going to beat Tokyo,” he said.
“This morale-boosting performance on the eve of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics is a positive sign that Team Nigeria will achieve podiums at the Games,” added Nigerian Sports Minister Sunday Dare.
“I am delighted with the progress our athletes are making in their respective sports and I firmly believe that we will have many of our athletes in strong medal positions at these Olympics and future international world events.”
Like the Nigerian soccer team, the ‘D’Tigers’ team is dominated by diaspora players who play in the NBA.
They have strength in depth at every 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 with 17 as Nigeria became the first African nation to beat the 15-time Olympic champions.
“It gives us all the confidence to go out there and play at a high level, like we did against the United States and Argentina,” Okafor said.
“The message is to take care of business and avoid disappointment.”
National league fights
They trained in the United States for four weeks before concluding preparations in Kisarazu, Japan.
However, critics argue that the team’s fate in Japan will have minimal influence on the national championship, which has been interrupted in recent times by a protracted power struggle in the Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF).
The men’s domestic league does not have a title sponsor amid complaints that no local player made the cut for Tokyo.
“What the team has done is a breakthrough for Nigerian basketball internationally, but it is killing us locally because we are not investing at home,” said former ‘D’Tigers’ captain Olumide Oyedeji.
“We have been carried away by what we are achieving internationally.”
Oyedeji advocated for better opportunities for Nigerian-based players.
“It is not a crime to be born in Nigeria, it is not a crime to play in Nigeria, it is not a crime to reside in Nigeria,” he said.
“So we should also give the local kids a chance, a hope for the future.”
“The players that are now available for Nigeria are those that weren’t available before because the NBA season was underway,” he said.
“They don’t have the opportunity to play for the United States, who have so many great players, but now everyone wants to play for Nigeria because they will be seen in the Olympics and it will be great for their resumes.”
Tokyo marks the third consecutive appearance at the Olympics in Nigeria, which has failed to make it past the group stage in the last two editions.
They have been selected from a tough-looking group with Australia, Germany and Italy, and will start their campaign on Sunday.
“I don’t see any reason why they can’t continue their success in exhibition matches at the Olympics,” said Will Voigt, who led Nigeria to their first African basketball championship title in 2015.
“They are talented, confident and autonomous.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS To access The Philippine Daily Inquirer and more than 70 other titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download from 4am and share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.