Nigeria's men's basketball team left scrambling after financial, player issues
- Nigeria was less than prepared financially heading into the 2016 Rio Olympics. Nursing several injuries on top of that, the Nigerian men's basketball team is looking to become the underdog story of the Games.
RIO DE JANEIRO—The trouble, as trouble tends to do, included an email of Nigerian origin. The message was sent in mid-July by a factotum in the country’s sports ministry and urged 17 Nigerian Olympians based abroad to purchase their own plane tickets to Rio. Pay your own way, it said, and we’ll reimburse you—a promise Nigerian athletes had heard before only to see broken.
The request touched off an uproar that led the ministry to quickly disavow it in the same stilted style of a typical fishing scam: “I am directed, therefore, to inform you to discountenance the previous letter.” But by then at least four Olympians had already rushed to crowdfunding sites to appeal for money.
That was far from the first instance of financial chaos in Nigeria’s Olympic preparations. A year ago the government appropriated $14.6 million to its sports commission to cover training and travel in advance of Rio, but the commission has since been disbanded, and the country’s sports minister said in April that he didn’t know how that money had been spent. Fed up with waiting for funding, Olympic men’s soccer coach Samson Siasia simply took his players to train in the U.S., counting on the Nigerian diaspora to feed and house them. With funding still uncertain even a few weeks before the cauldron was to be lit, one Nigerian sportswriter called the run-up to Rio “a tale of bungling, sheer lack of initiative and dereliction of duties.”
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, but in London its Olympians failed to win a medal. In Friday’s opening ceremony the delegation marched in austere track suits, not the stunning indigenous outfits unveiled months ago in Lagos, which mysteriously never made it to Brazil. Even though Siasia’s footballers somehow beat Japan 5-4 in their Olympic debut, literally hours after getting off their flight from Atlanta, these Games threaten to be what Nigerians call a bose lo lose bo, or BLLB—the Yoruba equivalent of “fool’s errand.”
Where, I wondered, did all this leave the Nigerian men’s Olympic basketball coach, Will Voigt?
A decade ago I’d hired Will to coach the Vermont Frost Heaves, the American Basketball Association team my wife Vanessa and I founded back in 2005. Or more accurately our fans hired him, in an Internet vote; I claim only the good sense to have made him one of two finalists. He wasn’t yet 30, but I loved his pedigree: a childhood growing up in an old farmhouse in tiny Cabot, Vt.; two years in the San Antonio Spurs’ video room under Gregg Popovich; a season at Division II Metro State alongside fundamentals guru Mike Dunlap; and three years as a head coach in Norway’s first division. (You can read how Will figured in the Frost Heaves’ brief but glorious life—and why, with the Indiana Pacers, we remain the answer to the trivia question, “What are the only teams to win back-to-back ABA titles?”—here.)
Will left in 2009 to take a position with the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA’s D-League. When the Jam ownership decided to drop the franchise’s independent status and affiliate with the Phoenix Suns after Will’s fifth season, the Suns did what all NBA teams do and put their own basketball people in charge.
That put him on the street. But Will has an adventurer’s spirit—watching him kite off on missions of hoop around the globe every summer, Frost Heaves G.M. Mike Healey dubbed him “Gulliver”—and he rather likes the look of roads ahead. And if he has a bias for ones less traveled, perhaps that’s because his mother, Ellen Bryant Voigt, is a former Vermont poet laureate and MacArthur Genius Grant winner.
Africa has been a particular destination of interest, whether Senegal to freelance scout for the Spurs, or Nigeria to work camps run by Masai Ujiri, the former national team player and coach who’s now the Toronto Raptors G.M. To Will, basketball is a romance, a field where traveling isn’t a violation but an invocation. One day I found myself sitting next to him in the office of a Burlington immigration lawyer, trying to win her pro bono efforts to paper up a new-to-the-game teenage seven-footer from Lagos that Will had discovered on his most recent trip. The Frost Heaves didn’t land him, but a few years later that player, Charles Okwandu, showed up in the NCAA title game for victorious UConn, vindicating Will’s judgment.
The Nigerian Basketball Federation came calling two springs ago, soon after Will finished a year-long gig with the Shanxi Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association. Among the dozens of players to come and go through Bakersfield were two Nigerian-Americans—6' 9" former NBA lottery pick Ike Diogu, and 6' 11" Alade Aminu, whose 6' 9" younger brother and former Georgia Tech teammate Al-Farouq Aminu is now an emerging star with the Portland Trail Blazers. They both went to the federation to vouch for Will. So did Ujiri, who from watching him work camps knew, as Will puts it, “I wasn’t a totally random white dude.”
In May 2015 he assembled D’Tigers, as the team is known back home, only weeks before the AfroBasket in Tunisia, making sure the players sang the Nigerian anthem at their first practice and every one thereafter. “Our goal was to sing it on the podium,” Will says. “In the past it’s been an issue that so many players are based in America, so it was important for the guys to know who they were playing for.”
In the days before the AfroBasket, D’Tigers had to scrimmage light shirts versus dark because their practice jerseys hadn’t come through. Then they lost Diogu, their best player, to a torn calf muscle literally hours before boarding the plane for Tunis. Still they won their preliminary group. Then, with unyielding defense, as well as timely three-pointers from former Oregon and Illinois State wingman Chamberlain (Champ) Oguchi and Al-Farouq Aminu’s slashing sallies to the hoop, they sailed through the medal round, beating Angola 74–65 in the final to earn the continent’s automatic berth in Rio.
Vanessa and I watched the Web stream on a laptop in our old Vermont farmhouse. Will’s parents did the same in theirs, grateful that high-speed Internet had finally come to the little cheesemaking village in which Will had once played three sports for the smallest high school in the state. It wasn’t entirely extraordinary to see him hoisted by his players in the aftermath, for at 5' 10" he’s a light lift. But that chorus of Arise, O Compatriots on the medal stand? Only later would I learn why he and the players could so easily hit every word and note.
Angola had won 11 previous AfroBasket titles. This was Nigeria’s first, and with the national soccer team struggling two decades after winning the men’s gold at the Atlanta Olympics, D’Tigers became instant heroes back in “Naija.” They earned an invitation from President Muhammadu Buhari to visit Aso Villa, the country’s White House. And Will collected a championship bonus, thanks to a clause I knew from experience he’d be sure to have in his contract.
But as Rio approached I wondered about the impact of all this financial uncertainty on Nigeria’s ability to mount a credible Olympic challenge, or whether Will was again mired in the kind of dysfunction we faced in the ABA back in the late 2000s, from unkept promises to teams folding in-season. So in late July I caught up with him in Las Vegas, where D’Tigers were working out between a couple of exhibitions with Argentina.
I found him scrambling. Al-Farouq Aminu, who had helped lead D’Tigers to qualification, wasn’t practicing because the federation hadn’t made an insurance payment that would protect him and the Trail Blazers if he were to get hurt. Scouting consisted of friends around the world sharing their impressions and odd clips of film. The team’s video coordinator was a UNLV student of Nigerian descent pulled from the stands a few days earlier. “That’s the kind of stuff we deal with,” said Will, who’ll turn 40 during the 2016 Games. “Our mantra last summer was, ‘Eyes on the prize.’ We’re being tested again. We had training camp in Abuja. Rio will seem like Club Med.
“No other team is doing it more for love of country than us, because no other team is going through the hardships and sacrifices that our guys are. Credit too to our federation. There’ve been some pretty bleak deadlines and they’ve managed to find a way.”
Until they couldn’t. On the eve of the team’s 110–66 exhibition loss to the U.S. in Houston on Aug. 1, Al-Farouq Aminu announced that he’d be giving the Olympics a miss due to “continued and unresolved organizational challenges with the [federation],” as he put it in a statement. That left Diogu up front with Al-Farouq’s brother Alade; 6' 8" former Ole Miss and Colorado State forward Andy Ogide; Ekene Ibekwe, a 6' 10" rim protector who made the ACC’s All-Defensive Team at Maryland; and a former star at Division II Wayne State University, 6' 10" Shane Lawal, who has a fu manchu to rival Kevin Durant’s. College fans will also remember the energetic 6' 5" swingman Ebi Ere, who played at Oklahoma during the early 2000s; 6' 7" Mike Gbinije of Syracuse, who just signed with the Detroit Pistons; 6' 5" Stan Okoye, a former Big South Player of the Year at VMI; as well as guards Michael Umeh (formerly of UNLV), Ben Uzoh (who played at Tulsa) and Josh Akognon (Washington State and Cal State-Fullerton). Uzoh and Akognon both had NBA cups of coffee.
Many of the players and coaches have self-funded their Olympic quest. A coach on Will’s staff, three-year Frost Heave and current Philadelphia 76ers assistant John Bryant, shouted out one D’Tiger in particular, Diogu, who sprang for warmups and gear.
“Obviously it’s frustrating, but it speaks volumes for the guys,” Diogu said. “For us it’s a pride thing. We’re representing 280 million people. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and unfortunately for us we probably won’t see the benefits. But at the same time we’re setting things in motion.”
Everyone on the team has at least one Nigerian parent and most have two, even if none lives in Naija full-time. Diogu is typical: His parents emigrated to the U.S. and raised him in Texas, but extended family still owns property in Imo State, in the southern part of the country. “The majority of us grew up on Nigeria in America,” he said. “We know what it’s like to eat [Nigerian dishes such as] fufu and jellof rice.”
“Ike is our elder statesman,” Will said. “He gets a lot of respect from the group, but also the federation. No one has sacrificed as much as he has. People forget, he’s a former NBA lottery pick who’s paid a lot of money in China, and he’s the one rallying the troops, saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’”
In Las Vegas the team was staying at The Palms, and as Will walked the casino floor in his white Nigeria staff polo, he was an ambulatory curiosity. “I’ve met probably 30 Nigerians since we’ve been here. So the support is there. It’s just that the mechanism for people to be a part of it all is not.”
And the comparison to Will’s first minor-league coaching gig isn’t unflattering to the Frost Heaves, he assured me. “We don’t have to worry about opponents showing up, but outside of that, everything is harder,” he said. “I don’t mean that as sour grapes, because the federation went out on a limb to give me this job. But that’s what our ‘Eyes on the prize’ mantra is all about.”
I connected with Will in Rio in the wee hours of this morning, as he walked grimly through the bowels of Arena Carioca 1. “No bueno,” he muttered. It wasn’t only that Argentina had just beaten D’Tigers 94–66, forcing turnover after turnover and calmly knocking down open threes. Lawal, Nigeria’s most lively big man, had to be carried off in the first quarter with a serious knee injury and will be lost for the rest of the Olympics. Earlier Croatia, one of the other five teams that Nigeria hoped to beat out for one of Group B’s four medal-round spots, had upset Spain. Most of all, Will was disappointed with his team’s poise and toughness.
“It had less to do with Argentina than with us being at the Olympics,” he said. “It looked like we weren’t ready for the moment. We can’t be the gritty underdog unless we play with grit.”
Nigeria is 5–0 against China with Will on the bench, but in Rio the Chinese landed in the opposite group. To achieve its goal of becoming the first African team ever to reach the medal round, D’Tigers will probably have to win at least two of their four remaining games. That’s possible: This team is much better than the group that lost to the U.S. 156–73 in London, in the most lopsided result in Olympic history.
But none of Nigeria’s remaining Group B opponents is easy pickings. Spain and Lithuania are global hoop royalty, likely out of reach. Croatia seems a little less imposing, with no NBA players other than Bojan Bogdanovic and Dario Saric—but yesterday it beat the No. 2 team in the world. Nigeria’s hopes may come down to its final group-stage game on August 15 against Brazil. Without Anderson Verejao and Tiago Splitter, the selacao is weaker than it might otherwise be. But Brazil will still suit up five current NBA players and play at home, under a coach, Argentina’s Ruben Magnano, who engineered that country’s long ride atop the international game.
Will Voigt isn’t yet a Ruben Magnano, much less the other American pacing the sidelines in the Olympic Park, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. But he is the son of a MacArthur Genius. He’s a formally trained pianist. He’s a former Gregg Popovich housesitter (who once somehow managed to lose Pop’s dog). Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal, who recently wrote this profile about him, nods to Dos Equis pitchman (and another Vermonter) Jonathan Goldsmith in calling Will “the most interesting coach in the world.”
And if Will isn’t coaching the most interesting team in the world, he’s surely leading one worth pulling for.
“Shane was our competitive spirit, and that’s especially what was missing tonight,” Will said. “But we’re not unaccustomed to losing our key players for major tournaments.”
Whereupon he evoked Lithuania’s 1992 bronze medalists, with their tie-dyed gear and own unlikely Olympic journey, as if he’d just been hit with an acid flashback.
“We’ve got to decide,” he said, “if we want to be Lithuania of 1992 or the Jamaican Bobsled Team.”