When FIBA released its global rankings for national teams about a fortnight ago, the reaction in Nigeria was overwhelmingly positive, and quite expectedly too. Despite managing, only, to tally its win-loss record in its second [consecutive] Olympic outing, the Nigeria Men’s National Team was, without a doubt, an improvement on its predecessor in 2012.
Quite sadly, however, the basketball community, including the media, has ignored a sizeable chunk of the rankings as it pertains to Nigeria. The Senior Men’s National Team, commonly known by its nickname – D’Tigers, constitute just twenty-five percent of Nigeria’s four main national basketball teams; the other seventy-five percent being the Senior Women’s Basketball Team (D’Tigress), the Junior Women’s Basketball Team, and the Junior Men’s Basketball Team. These are the teams that represent Nigeria at inter-national basketball competitions endorsed by the International Basketball Federation.
The Nigeria D’Tigress team that won several international accolades for the country in the early 2000s was particularly historic for being the first to win an African Championship, in 2003, defending its title at the next event, in 2005. The team also made history as Nigeria’s first basketball team at an Olympic tournament at Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Despite having a very competitive team of players, the D’Tigress have, in recent times, been unable to keep up with the strength of its opponents, particularly on the African continent where it once reigned supreme. The latest FIBA rankings places the Nigeria Women’s Team at 42 in the world and 6th in Africa. Nigeria is behind Senegal (first), Angola (second), Mali (third), Mozambique (fourth), and Cameroon (fifth) in Africa.
The Nigeria Basketball Federation was able to improve the quality of the team prior to the Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in June 2016 by hiring Mauro Procaccini, head coach of Lavezinni Parma (Italy) at the time, to join its coaching crew, which translated to an improvement on the team with new additions in key positions. However, the team fell short of its goal at the WOQT in Nantes, France and missed the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Though basketball pundits are mostly of the opinion that the present team, including its coaching crew, are capable of winning the next two FIBA Women’s Africa Championships, there is still a vacuum regarding a consistent programme of development for the team, more so for the Junior Women’s Team to enable them make a smooth and easy transition to the senior level.
Basketball Within Borders had a conversation with Mfon Udoka, former captain of the Women’s National Team, who led Nigeria to back-to-back African titles in 2003 and 2005 and Nigeria’s debut at an Olympic Basketball Tournament. Udoka, who had a brief stint as an assistant on the coaching staff of the women’s team in 2011, before a falling out that resulted in her exit from the team, looks at the 2016 FIBA Rankings rather differently. Though Udoka regards the leap in the men’s ranking as an impressive feat, she thinks the celebration surrounding it is rather inconsequential in the short term until the team is able to show consistency in its dominance for a lengthy period as Angola did in Africa for so many years in order to justify the recent achievement.
Udoka also thinks the Federation has not being thoroughly supportive of the women’s team over the years, which probably explains the reason the team has not been able to replicate the performance of her era even though she says that the conditions [regarding the support] are essentially the same. Below are some of the thoughts Udoka shared with Basketball Within Borders recently regarding the rankings.
BWB: FIBA released a set of new rankings for national teams around the world and there’s been heightened interest regarding the Nigerian Men’s National Team being ranked 1st in Africa and 16th in the world. But a lot of people are missing the big picture as the female team is ranked 6th in Africa and 41 in the world. What’s do you think about this?
Udoka: I don’t think anyone should be looking at or really care about rankings as it relates to basketball in Nigeria when we all know that basketball is in dire need of structure and development in the country, specifically on a local level. When we are able to consistently dominate in Africa and win championships like Angola has, then we can look to the rest of the world and rankings. It is easier to assemble a team and find a coach for one tournament than to fix basketball as a whole. I am not convinced that anything has really changed, nor am I impressed by rankings.
BWB: Since you led Nigeria to back-to-back African titles in 2003 and 2005, and also to its first ever appearance at an Olympic basketball tournament and the only one for the women’s team till date, it’s been difficult attaining that height for the Nigeria Women’s Basketball Team. What do you think can be done differently to improve the standing of the women’s team in Nigeria?
Udoka: They haven’t put the same amount of time, energy, and resources in the women’s team. We were given one week to practice before winning 2003 Afrobasket, and later I was told they didn’t even want to send us to Maputo because they didn’t think we could win. We just found a way to win, against all odds. In 2007 we were not given any acceptable practice time to defend our back-to-back championships; we didn’t even have training camp. The women’s team needs a coach to start, and not a new one every tournament. A good coach attracts players and then you work to retain those players; not assemble a new team every year, and, of course, [the team needs] proper funding and preparation.
BWB: The Nigerian Basketball Federation has not been able to consolidate on the achievements of your era [the early 2000s]. Regardless of some of issues that led to the falling out with the Federation in 2011, is there a chance that you would welcome an invitation to contribute to developing Nigeria Women’s Basketball in future if some proper reconciliation is made?
Udoka: It is unfortunate that the Federation is such a mess and doesn’t properly honor anyone, men or women, who have played for the country. I am always open to helping, which doesn’t mean I will, but never say never. Most people seem to be happier doing their own part without government involvement, so maybe that is the way to go.
Mfon Udoka led Nigeria to its first ever African title and first ever Olympic appearance in a basketball tournament. She was a member of the historic teams that won back-to-back titles at the 2003 and 2005 FIBA Women Africa Championship, winning Most Valuable Player award at in front of a home crowd when Nigeria hosted the 2005 event in Abuja. She also finished second highest scorer and second highest rebounder with 21.7 points and 10.2 rebounds at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Udoka played professional basketball in the United States with the Detroit Shock, Houston Comets, and Los Angeles Sparks (WNBA), Portugal, Israel, China, Turkey, and France.