Saturday night, Nigeria shocked the world by defeating the United States men's national basketball team in its first exhibition game ahead of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. With the win, Nigeria becomes the first African team to beat the U.S. men’s national team in competition. Although this was just an exhibition game, it was a monumental win for Nigeria.
After the game, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich told reporters: “I thought that the Nigerian team played very physically, did a great job in that regard and knocked down a lot of threes...
"Give them credit.”
However, most of the coverage I saw was more focused on discrediting and bashing the U.S. team -- discussing their chances in Tokyo, dissecting their deficiencies and lack of a true point guard and comparing them to teams in the past that failed to bring back the gold.
But there wasn’t a great deal of coverage on Nigeria. We should simply do what Coach Popovich said: Give them credit.
I heard the level of disrespect by Stephen A. Smith to not only the three specific players he mentioned in this insulting rant on ESPN, but the entire country of Nigeria as a whole.
This is exactly what needed to said about TEAM USA!!! pic.twitter.com/duH385AlwR— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) July 12, 2021
Unfortunately, I don’t expect to hear an apology for this any time soon from Stephen A. Smith.
So I decided to reach out to Nigerian-born Obinna Ekezie (a former University of Maryland Terrapin, Washington Wizard and five-year NBA player) to discuss the significance of the win for the nation, the chances of Nigeria of doing well in Tokyo, the state of basketball in Nigeria and Africa as a whole, and the academy he runs in Nigeria training young Nigerians and giving them the fundamentals and the skills to be future stars.
Etan Thomas: Obinna Ekezie, how you doing, sir?
Obinna Ekezie: I'm doing great, buddy. Man, it's been years, man. I haven't spoken to you in like God knows how many years.
Etan: I mean, we're going back to my rookie year. Pete Newell Big Man Camp in Maui and working out in the summertime, playing pick-up games in Bowie gym and at Bowie State.
Obinna Ekezie: Those were the days, but I don't think I've seen you since then. That was like 20 years ago.
Etan: It's been a minute. Goodness gracious.
Obinna Ekezie: You know what's crazy? I saw you a few weeks ago when the whole Kwame thing was blowing up.
Etan: You saw my Kwame interview?
Obinna Ekezie: Yes, I saw your Kwame interview and I watched the other one too with Tyrone Nesby, big Jahidi [White] and all the guys. I thought it was great to see how you all had Kwame’s back. I was really happy to see that interview and see the guy doing well.
Etan: Definitely, definitely. Well, I wanted to reach out to you because I saw the big news -- Nigeria beating the USA team on Saturday night.
Obinna Ekezie: Yessir!!
Etan: Huge news. It's crazy because the last time they played, it was a 53-point loss for Nigeria.
Obinna Ekezie: Believe me, I was there. In London.
Etan: Then even going back to 2012, that time where they played it was like a 83-point loss.
Obinna Ekezie: Yeah, I was there too. Carmelo [Anthony] went crazy on us.
Etan: Talk about how big of a win this is for Nigeria.
Obinna Ekezie: Man, I can't even lie to you. Nobody expected it. I didn't... I just started my academy. I don't know if you're aware, OBN Academy. Really first of its kind here. I've been really busy with that. I was talking with the coaches yesterday. One of my coaches was talking crazy noise. He was like, 'We’re going to beat the U.S.' I was looking at him like, 'Are you drunk? What are you talking about? What is giving this kind of confidence?'
I brushed it off with like, 'Whatever, let's see what the score's going to be like.' I usually play golf every Sunday morning. On the golf course this morning, I'm getting these messages. Like, 'Yo, we beat the U.S.' I was like, 'What?' I sent a message to my coaches group, all like, 'Wow, we really got them.' And I watched the replay and was just so proud. Think about it Etan, the game has grown over the years internationally. Everybody knows the NBA. Everybody wants to play in the NBA. Nigeria has had a lot more talent going to the NBA ever since I stopped playing or I left the league.
Last year, we had nine kids drafted from Nigeria or of Nigerian descent into the NBA. The highest of any other country than the U.S. Nigeria is really doing well in terms of Nigerian-born talent. Most of them have developed in the U.S. That's why for me, I thought it was important for me to establish some kind of developmental program in Nigeria so that we can get these kids younger in age playing in some type of high school league.
I'm stepping up. I set up the camp, the afterschool camps. I'm doing this summer tournament. I've set up 15 youth teams in an AAU-type format. I really want to develop those kinds of programs here so that we can get these kids playing at a much younger age from the age of six. I started them on track a lot younger.
Etan: That’s great.
Obinna Ekezie: What we are trying to remember, [is that] a lot of us that come to the U.S -- talking about Nigerian, African kids -- were less-developed into those skill sets by the time we get to the U.S. So we’re kind of playing catch-up. That's why you see mostly late bloomers when it comes to all the guards. It's actually the first time I've seen those really high-quality guards. These guards, they grew up in the U.S. Most of the time we have mostly big men, they come out raw and then they develop over the years if you play. It's a huge, huge achievement. I'm sure the U.S is pissed. Obviously, people all over the U.S. saw. The Americans living here in the embassy that send me a message, like, 'We're going to get you all in the Olympics.' They all want to play us again. But yes, I am so proud of the guys.
Etan: It’s interesting with most of the coverage that I saw -- now, of course, this is American news outlets -- but everybody was talking about the U.S. team and talking about the letdown of the U.S. team and everything like that. I wanted to focus on Nigeria a little bit. Let’s big-up what they did and what they accomplished. I don't want to talk about the U.S. team and what they can do and how they're going to go in the Olympics and everything like that. So that’s why I wanted to reach out to you.
Obinna Ekezie: Well I definitely appreciate the love.
Etan: So, I'm looking at the roster and Nigeria started some active NBA players. In all, there was like seven NBA players. Then you look on the U.S. side, have they had like nine or 10 All-NBA players. So on paper, the U.S. was supposed to win. But that’s a testament to Nigeria, and watching the game, it was like Nigeria, they were moving and swinging the ball beautifully. The ball wasn't sticking. Where as the U.S. was kind of was playing a little bit more one-on-one. Nigeria [made] like 20 three-pointers, but they were mostly wide-open looks because of the ball movement. Talk about that, because it was really evident that it was two different styles of basketball.
Obinna Ekezie: You know how it is, Etan. When you have a bunch of All-Stars come together for the first time, it's always going to be this thing like, 'Okay, you do it.' Or it's going to be just one-on-one because they know individually they are the best of the best. There's no more team ball that happens right away. If you looked at it, you could go back to the history of the Dream Team, the first Dream Team with Mike [Jordan] and them. There was always that issue. If you watch all the documentaries, they talk about how they had to lose to that college select team that -- I think it was Coach [Chuck] Daly put together against a young Grant Hill and [Chris Webber] -- but like he said, they had learn and understand that you need to play together. Now, I know they didn’t play MJ much that game and it was kind of a set up, but the point is, basketball is a team sport. And you have the most success through team basketball, not one-on-one for the whole game.
And don’t get me wrong, they have the talent to do it. But Jayson Tatum going one-on-one all day. He gives to KD, KD does his own [thing]. Damian Lillard, same thing. But the Nigerian team was moving the ball around like you said -- looking for the best shot, knocking threes down -- and they got their confidence. You know how it is, You're playing in a no-win situation. They're suppose to beat us, and by a lot. What were we, almost 30-point underdogs? But we didn’t worry about that. We went out there and just played our game. Just keep shooting. Caught fire. You know how it is, man. When you play a team that you're supposed to beat and they get confidence in the first couple of minutes; I mean, you're in trouble. Your supposed to pound them and knock them out early. If you let them hang around, then it becomes a problem.
Etan: Brian Windhorst from ESPN said that it wasn't a matter of, in his opinion, the U.S. team not respecting their opponent, but rather their opponent just being a lot closer to them in skill level. They just pretty much beat them. That's what it was -- out-executed them, out-hustled them. They just beat them.
Obinna Ekezie: You remember, you got to look at it. The coach of the Nigerian team is Mike Brown. We have an American coaching staff. They know these guys. We're playing... Precious Achiuwa, those guys, most of those guys, a few of them are from the Miami Heat. The Miami Heat has about six Nigerian born players.
Etan: I didn't know that before this. I didn't know there were six Nigerians.
Obinna Ekezie: Nigerian-born players [are] on the Miami Heat. And we gave them Bam Adebayo. He is Nigerian. He was supposed to be with us.
Etan: Right, I know.
Obinna Ekezie: Imagine that. I mean, they know each other. I mean, if you play in the league, Josh Okogie, all those guys. They know these guys. They play against them all year round. Nobody going to be like, 'Oh Kevin Durant, oh Bradley Beal' in awe of them. Once that aura is out of the picture, I mean, you're just playing ball, you know what I mean? It's not like they've never seen these guys before. They played against them, some of their teammates. There's no fear factor there.
Etan: I was really impressed by Gabe Vincent. He was on fire. I think he had 21 points, he was knocking down threes from everywhere. Talk to me about, like you said, it's different because usually the players [from there] were big men and now you're seeing Nigeria-born guards really blowing up. I mean, you have Caleb Agada who looked great off the dribble. Talk about the development of the guards.
Obinna Ekezie: That has always been the weakest point of African basketball. Like I said, the development of the guard position, this is about skill. This is about experience. This is about playing the game at a young age. Most of those guys you are seeing have been developed in the United States. You know what I mean? They grew up in the U.S. They played through high school and in college. That's what you're seeing now. It's taken us this amount of years for us to have these kinds of players because they've now gone through the American system as guards -- [as opposed to] when we [were] playing and we didn't have guards that [went] to the American system. There were mostly local players or players that didn't have much skill.
At that position, you know how it is. If your guard plays weak, you can't win. It's impossible because they're the guys that control the ball. Those are the guys that have to shoot the ball, open up the defense and all that kind of stuff. That's where our biggest problem has been. Well, now it seems like we have closed that [weakness in the] position. With Josh Okogie, Gabe Vincent, those guys -- we have strong guard play now and that's the big difference.
Etan: Precious Achiuwa, he had the monster block on KD. Talk about that and what you thought when you saw that block.
Obinna Ekezie: Man I jumped out of my seat when he did that; he's got guts, man. Going up with KD. You know how long KD is. KD is all of seven feet, and he can get up. And he went up and got that one. He got it clean and kept in inbounds and got the rebound. Hell of a play. Is a highlight for sure, for the rest of his life for sure. Obviously that kind of a play galvanized the whole team. It's really a game changing kind of play. People expect you to get dunked on. When you make that kind of play, everybody gets a lot of confidence from the team. think he made a big difference.
Etan: Yeah. And they even have Jahlil Okafor playing. I mean, he experienced a death in his family. I saw that Mike Brown didn't want to put him in the game because he had been away for a little while, but him added to the equation, that's another bonus for Nigeria. How far can Nigeria go here in the Olympics? Before I was listening to some commentators saying that they didn't think of Nigeria as a medal team. I think after what they showed Saturday, they look like they could definitely be, or at least have a chance at being a medal team to me.
Obinna Ekezie: Etan, I'll be honest with you. I always believe that we have the talent. The reason why I invested my own money. I built this academy myself. I know what I see. I know the kind of talent that we have. I know that physically, [out of] all the African countries, Nigeria, when it comes to producing NBA players -- [there's] no country in Africa with more NBA players than Nigeria.
I know that we have the God-given talent. We have the physical abilities to do this. I think the biggest issue has been management. Not investing in infrastructure. Not investing in programming. That's been the biggest issues we've had. It's not that we don't have the talent. I'm telling you, I live in Nigeria and I see kids that have the talent. You talk about thoroughbreds. [We] had a kid walk into the academy who was 6-11 and 17 years old. This kid turns around, put a ball right over the rim with one hand. I mean, I was like, 'Wow, like he's never really played basketball before.'
That’s why I was like, we have to do something with all of this natural talent. We have to start at the basics, the foundation to produce talent like this in the next four, five, six years at that level. So I've never really doubted Nigeria's ability to produce talent. It's been a management issue for me. I think with these kids now -- with them going to the American system and then having an NBA coach which is a big, big difference -- I don't see any reason why we shouldn't compete at the highest level.
Etan: Let's talk a little bit about your academy. I want to hear a little bit more about that because it sounds like it's amazing what you're doing. You invested your own money into it, and really in cultivating some of the young talent that is in Nigeria. Just talk me through everything you do with your academy.
Obinna Ekezie: I’ve been planning this for 17 years. Since I've been playing [for the] Atlanta Hawks. I bought a piece of land when I was with the Atlanta Hawks in Port Harcourt. Then, that area became a little bit unstable. I don't know if you're familiar, where I grew up in Nigeria, all the oil area, and then some looting happened on the fact I kind of left the land. I settled down in Lagos, and then I bought this land and I'm starting it under my company that’s called Wakanow, the online travel company.
I left the company in 2019 and I built this place. I completed the first phase of it, which is the basketball arena. A fitness center, locker rooms, similar to places you've seen in the U.S. It's amazing that we don't have anything like that here. My focus right now was to discover ages 6-to-18. The NBA Africa tour came to visit and was really amazed at what I was able to do just on my own. What I've really been doing since then, so we launched it April 15. I mean, hoping we can get the program in the after-school program. Getting the kids to come after school so they can have actual training. Setting up the high school league, which is something that's very, very important.
These kids have been playing organized basketball on a regular basis every year. Most of them that were in the summer period, I was doing the summer camps. Then we're doing the summer tournament, tryouts next weekend, and then do the tournament on the 24th for about two weeks. My plan is just to make sure that we get the best kids, give them the best coaching that we have available here. I'm also getting other help from the U.S. Coach Flip Saunders did a coaching clinic for me. I'm reaching back out to all my connections in the U.S., from Laron Profit -- our boy and my former teammate in Maryland and with the Wizards. He’s been very helpful, putting me in touch with some coaches.
Etan: Prof is a good guy.