I received an email from Abel Udoekene, a loyal Sonny Side of Sports listener in Lagos, Nigeria, celebrating the achievement of The Tigers, Nigeria’s national men’s basketball team. “It gives me great joy,” wrote Abel, “to congratulate the Nigerian basketball team for qualifying for the first time for the Olympics, they are the pride of Africa.” Nigerian pride swelled after the Tigers topped the Dominican Republic, 88-73, at the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela, to book their first Olympic ticket. Check out the joyous reactions of the Nigerian players in this video:
Forward-center Ike Diogu, who had game-high totals of 25 points and 10 rebounds in the victory over the Dominican Republic, is described as the heart and soul of the Nigerian team. The 28-year-old Diogu was born in Buffalo, New York, and he’s part of a core group of Tigers who have both American and Nigerian citizenship. The 2.06 meter tall (6’9″) and 113-kilogram (250 lbs.) Diogu starred at
Arizona State University and since turning professional, he’s played for seven National Basketball Association clubs as well as teams in China and Puerto Rico.
“The group we have this year is not like any group we’ve ever had,” says Diogu. “When we assembled, the first thing coach said was, ‘let’s make history.’ But it’s not just a one year thing. We want to
have sustainable success and that’s what we’re working towards.”
Head coach Ayo Bakare says the team is also working towards changing the perceptions of the many sports fans in Nigeria. He says the country’s focus is on football, but the team’s success in making its maiden Olympic trip has Nigerian fans turning their attention to basketball and cheering for the Tigers.
Nigeria will tip off its Olympic campaign July 29th against African rival Tunisia, another team making its Olympic debut. Both African squads will face daunting challenges in London. Their first round group also includes the gold medal favorite USA, featuring LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. The Americans, led by Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, are the defending world and Olympic champions. Also in the group is 2004 Olympic champion Argentina, two-time Olympic silver medalist France and three-time Olympic bronze medalist Lithuania.