America Doubles Down on Nigeria for Sports Success
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
American sports camps are taking root in Nigeria, tapping new markets and talent — and helping the country’s youth.
This story has been updated. It was originally published in June 2018.
Sitting on the gymnasium floor, 150 young Nigerian boys and girls in brightly colored yellow and blue T-shirts stare raptly at 6-foot-10 former NBA player Olumide Oyedeji as he dribbles a basketball and shares pointers on how best to shoot a basket. When Oyedeji instructs them to, the kids — some as young as 5 — scramble to their feet and divide into teams for practice. It’s a chance for them — and for basketball — to score.
The Lagos camp run by Oyedeji is one of several training programs in American sports for Nigerian youth that have emerged in recent years, underscoring a shifting relationship, one that’s no longer unidirectional, between the two nations. Yes, there are Nigerians traveling to America in search of better education and a livelihood. But now American sports organizations, nonprofits and players are also heading to Nigeria, eyeing a future in Africa’s largest economy.
As with Nigerians who have enriched America by making it their home, the benefits are mutual. Many of the academies taking root in Nigeria are teaching their pupils more than just sports — they’re helping them learn life skills and how to avoid violence. But there are definite gains for the sports in this deal too, from widening their market to tapping talent from a community that has already proved itself in multiple fields in the U.S.
My dream is to see football rival all existing sports here in Africa.
Amadi Chukwuemeka, Nigerian football coach
The NBA launched Power Forward, its Jr. NBA program, in Abuja, Nigeria, in late 2013 and has since had more than 10,000 participants. While the NBA is unwilling to compare its investments across African countries, the American basketball community’s growing emphasis on Nigeria is unique — if only because the country has already shown success no other country on the continent can match. By the start of the 2017–18 season, 17 Nigerian-origin players had played in the NBA. Senegal, the African country with the second-largest number of basketball exports to the U.S., had 11.
Now those players are returning to Nigeria to supplement the NBA’s efforts in ways other African countries with fewer U.S.-trained stars can’t hope for. Portland Trail Blazers star Al-Farouq Aminu, former Denver Nuggets executive and current Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and former Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward Ejike Ugboaja hold regular camps in Nigeria. Some, like Aminu, play for Nigeria internationally. Evelyn Akhator, the Lagos-born WNBA star of the Dallas Wings, returned last year to hold a camp. And this is just the start, says Tunde Adekola, coach of the country’s Power Forward program.
“I am sure the sport will continue to grow,” says Adekola.
That faith is leading football and baseball to make moves too. Launched in 2015, Baseball Tomorrow Academy works with the U.S. Embassy in Abuja to promote baseball and softball in schools. Former MLB player Jeremy Guthrie hosts annual youth camps through the academy, which has already coached more than 400 kids. The sport is new in Africa, and within the continent is most popular in South Africa, Uganda and Kenya. Nonetheless, the MLB is investing in Nigeria’s baseball future. It regularly selects Nigerian players and coaches for camps in South Africa for promising talent.
The Nigerian Institute of American Football, set up in 2011 by former football players Daryl Hayes and Ricardo Dickerson with basketball coach Gregory Hendricks, hosts training clinics for coaches and school camps for kids. And the American Football for Africa Mission, launched in 2010 by coach Amadi Chukwuemeka and supported in part by the U.S. Embassy, has since trained more than 2,000 Nigerians in the sport. In 2010, Chukwuemeka also put together West Africa’s first football team, Nigeria’s ABU Zaria Titans. Combining placement on U.S. university teams, European leagues and the NFL, Nigeria has exported more football players than any other African nation.
“My dream is to see football rival all existing sports here in Africa,” says Chukwuemeka.
The football most Nigerians know is what Americans call soccer. Still, the rush of American sports academies to Nigeria isn’t entirely surprising. In basketball, America and Nigeria have had a little-known relationship for decades, fostered in large part by U.S.-born coach Oliver B. Johnson, popularly known in Nigeria as Coach OBJ. Johnson first visited Nigeria in the 1960s as a member of the Peace Corps. According to FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, Johnson met a slender, energetic young boy called Hakeem and they talked about basketball. Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon would go on to play for the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors, emerging as one of the NBA’s greatest icons.
Johnson has coached in Nigeria since the 1970s and was the nation’s first full-time paid basketball coach. Some of his students — including Ujiri — have made it big in the NBA. So when the NBA looked to Africa as the next destination for its junior basketball program, Nigeria was an obvious location.
That’s also increasingly evident in American football — at least 24 players of Nigerian origin currently play in the NFL, up from 15 a decade ago, and 10 in the 1990s. Fewer than 10 players of Ghanaian origin, the second most successful African ethnicity when it comes to American football, have ever played in the NFL. In the NFL’s 2016 draft, there were as many players born in Lagos — three — as in Chicago.
The community has had less success in the MLB, where the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Japan have dominated the list of foreign-origin hires. But in the past decade, two Nigerian-origin players have broken through: Wande Olabisi, who played for the San Diego Padres, and Demi Orimoloye, who plays for the Milwaukee Brewers.
The academies in Nigeria offer more than just sports training. The Jr. NBA program teaches kids teamwork, leadership and respect. Coaches throw in lessons on sex education and other matters. For Johnson, helping young players resolve conflicts nonviolently is a priority. Baseball Tomorrow teaches kids nonviolence and drug abstention, says founder Peter Imonikhe John. The AFFAM offers formal education and mentorship programs.
But they face challenges — first and foremost with funding. Even with help from the U.S. Embassy, Baseball Tomorrow needs donations for equipment and uniforms, says John, including for an upcoming tournament in Palm Beach, Florida, where he wants to send his team. Chukwuemeka wants to expand AFFAM but needs money (he’d like an NFL charity as a partner). “Africa needs football, and football needs Africa,” he says. Johnson was resource-strapped for years, rarely having enough basketballs for his students.
Still, these sports are taking off in Nigeria. Johnson says he has seen basketball grow from 500 players in the 1970s to more than 20,000 today. Nigerians playing these sports also have a stronger pathway to success than ever before.
If the pros come calling, Johnson knows well how to get his players to that level. “I make sure they’re ready if the opportunity comes along,” he says. Many of Chukwuemeka’s AFAMM players have received football scholarships to universities in the U.S. and Europe. Some have been offered professional contracts to play in the European leagues — steppingstones to the NFL. And the Palm Beach tournament isn’t the only one John is eyeing as an opportunity to put his students on coaches’ radar in the U.S.
America’s sporting bet on Nigeria is starting to pay off.