Basketball tournament takes shape with U.S. in command
LONDON -- After the anthems had been played late Thursday night, the Nigerian players met in a tight circle to encourage one another. They broke away to find themselves surrounded by a dozen American NBA stars who had crossed midcourt to hand them each a baseball cap, per the Olympic ritual.
So the game went on to resemble its introduction. For 40 tortuous minutes, the Nigerians were made to suffer as no other Olympic men's basketball team has been punished in 60 years. Their 156-73 loss was the third-worst beating in history; the two worse losses were inflicted upon the Iraqis -- also in London, at the 1948 Games -- when they were humbled by Korea (120-20) and China (125-25).
The U.S. responded by taking Friday off from practice -- who needs it after shooting 71 percent from the field (59-of-83 overall, including a preposterous 29-of-46 from three-point range)? But the Nigerians were focused on trying to upset Argentina or France in hopes of claiming a spot in the quarterfinals next week.
Groups A and B have taken shape with two games remaining in round-robin play. The U.S. (3-0) is likely to win Group A, followed by France (2-1 with games remaining against Tunisia and Nigeria), Argentina (2-1 and still to meet the U.S.) and Lithuania (1-2).
On Saturday, Russia (3-0) and Spain (3-0) will meet to decide first place in Group B. Third place in the group is likely to go to Brazil (2-1), while Australia (1-2) will meet Great Britain (0-3) on Saturday to determine the No. 4 spot in the group. The Australia-Britain winner is likely to open the single-game playoffs with a quarterfinal against the U.S. on Wednesday.
The Americans set several offensive records Thursday while more than doubling the Nigerians on the scoreboard.
"We have the dubious distinction of being part of those records,'' Nigerian coach Ayodele Bakare said. "It was hard to talk to the players after this game. ... But we'll probably be a better team. Hard to imagine, but yes, we'll probably be a better team as a result.''
The Nigerian roster was filled with American-born players. Their recruitment was begun years ago by countryman Masai Ujiri, a longtime NBA team executive who was born and raised in Nigeria. Ujiri became became less involved with the national team after being named the Denver Nuggets' general manager in 2010, but this roster was his original vision. The game against the U.S. offered a chance for them to measure themselves against the best, and the Nigerians were stunned by the result.
"Nobody really expected us to do anything, but I said from Day One -- you can ask the guys -- if we come together and we put the right team together, we're going to qualify for the Olympics,'' said Ike Diogu, an NBA veteran who emerged as a team leader of Nigeria. "I did a good job of recruiting a lot of these guys during the season. I was emailing a lot of these guys because we're all Nigerian and we've had interaction one way or another, whether it's through our families or through basketball.''
Ikechukwu Somtochukwu Diogu was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in Texas of Nigerian-born parents. Though Diogu had not been to Nigeria since 2001, he relates to the country and its diverse cultures.
"Even though I grew up in the United States, I was always around Nigerians," he said. "I grew up in a Nigerian community. When I'm at home, my parents don't speak to me in English. We eat Nigerian food.''
He listed a menu that included jollof rice, fufu and chin chin. "But you probably don't know what I'm talking about,'' he said.
"We all come from the same place,'' he said, tracing his team's roots beyond America. "A lot of these guys here, we're all from the same background, our parents are from the same place. A lot of these guys on the team speak more than one language.''
Diogu, 28, the ninth pick in the 2005 draft by the Golden State Warriors, spent six years with six NBA teams. When the Spurs released him after two games, he spent the remainder of last season playing in China and Puerto Rico.
"The bottom line is I just never really got an opportunity in the NBA, whether it was me being injured at the wrong time or a coach not being very fond of my game," he said. "The reason why I'm not in the NBA is not because I'm not able to play the game of basketball. You'd be absolutely silly to think that. I always have to come out and say that because the tendency is people say he's out of the NBA because I wasn't good enough. But that's not the case.''
Diogu opened Thursday's game with an attitude. He was looking to prove himself against the NBA's biggest stars, something he had been unable to do throughout his career. When he made his first jump shot, he turned and had something to say to the U.S. bench sitting behind them. He scored 15 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) in the opening half on his way to a 27-point performance, and with each shot he turned and glanced at the American bench.
Watching from the sideline in the second quarter, U.S. center Tyson Chandler stood up and encouraged Kevin Love to defend Diogu out to the perimeter. There was no doubt that he was earning their respect. He was putting up a good fight. When Diogu was forced to his own bench in the 17th minute, his team was trailing hopelessly by 68-36. But his teammates and coaches applauded him all the same.