Abiodun Francis Ayetimiyi was meant to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in medicine in Nigeria. He found a different path one morning seven years ago, when he was playing soccer and came upon another ball — a big orange one.
The 16-year-old’s natural speed and athleticism now have him pursuing basketball stardom, a dream that is becoming more achievable in a country that produced one of the NBA’s greats but, like most of Africa, has had little space for any sport other than soccer.
About 30 years after Hall of Famer Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon first emerged from the sprawling city of Lagos, Ayetimiyi is part of a new drive for basketball here and a chance for new dreams in Nigeria.
“In my country I’m known here, but I want to be known elsewhere. I want my hard work to be seen by agents, coaches. I’d like to finish high school in the US. They don’t need to put much work into me,” the teenager said with a grin, leaning forward to make his point.
Picked by the NBA as one of seven Nigerians to attend the recent talent-scouted Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa, Ayetimiyi is among a new generation ready to ride the momentum basketball is gaining in this West African country of nearly 160 million people, albeit decades after Olajuwon blazed a trail.
Nigeria’s participation in last year’s Olympics raised the international visibility of the country’s basketball talent, but several Nigerians who had already made it to international stardom also make it a priority to actively encourage the sport back home.
First came Olajuwon, the two-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star with the Houston Rockets. More recently there has been Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who directs the Basketball Without Borders Africa program and runs his own camps in Nigeria. And former Seattle Supersonics and Orlando Magic center Olumide Oyedeji.
On a steaming hot Friday in the Yaba neighborhood of Lagos, Oyedeji coaches at least 250 kids from the age of five and up who practice layups, passes and basic dribbles wearing brightly colored T-shirts.
The 2.08m Oyedeji plays with them, towering over the youngsters who line up laughing and clapping for each other around four different baskets. With the blow of a whistle, everyone stops and listens, excited to be in his gentle, inspiring presence. The subsidized camp gives the underprivileged kids a chance to learn the sport and be close to a Nigerian hero.
“Nigeria is my home. I started this camp so I can share my experiences,” Oyedeji said.
Kids gather close, hanging on Oyedeji’s words. Oyedeji will leave soon for Japan, where he now plays. However, his impact will remain, for girls as well as boys.
“Even though we [girls] are not recognized very well, we can still play. I want to be the best and play for the WNBA,” said 15-year-old Ibeh Lucy Chinelo, who started a pickup game during the camp’s lunch break.
Nigeria is offering more local opportunities: high-school teams, university leagues and state franchises like Mark Mentors, Kano Pillars, Union Bank and Dodan Warriors, who faced off at Nigeria’s own Final Four last month.
Dodan Warriors forward Ifeanyi Modo started playing at a local court in Ajegunle, a Lagos neighborhood known for churning out soccer players, though also known for its slum areas and gangs.