“Basketball gives you an opportunity to get off the streets, it gives you an opportunity to not join gangs, to go to school and to be a better person,” he said.
He said that many Nigerians leave to play in other countries “because they need money, they need to support their families.”
The reality is that the average salary in the Nigerian league is only about US$100 a month, said Joe Touomou, the Mark Mentors head coach and a consultant to the Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF) — “not enough for a kid to live off.”
Touomou is part of a bigger plan to encourage youngsters to seek careers in basketball. That involves the promised land of playing for college teams in the US and the chance for two things: Better coaching and a good education — opportunities Olajuwon seized in the early 1980s at the University of Houston and which others have also more recently taken. Yet, not all Nigerian kids will make it to a US college so there is work being done at home, too.
The NBBF wants to foster local talents. Touomou, a Cameroonian who played for Georgetown and turned to coaching after an injury, is also tasked with building coaching expertise in the capital, Abuja, and its surrounding state.
“Every time I came here I was impressed by the potential. The size, the athleticism, the strength of the players,” Touomou said of Nigeria. “The one thing I knew was lacking was the skills. A lot of players were not polished yet, a lot of players lacked game experience, a lot of players lacked good coaching.”
NBBF president Tijjani Umar said basketball in Nigeria “needs the private sector to take interest.”
Nike has signed to be the official uniform provider for the national team and a subsidiary of the sports management group IMG is looking into Nigeria, Umar said.
DStv, a South African satellite television network that beams across the continent, has a four-year sponsorship program with the NBBF. Live NBA games will also be broadcast on that network to 47 territories in Africa, including Nigeria, from this year.
Young hopeful Ayetimiyi leaps high to dunk in Lagos, then dribbles the ball back to center court, skipping with pleasure in his Basketball Without Borders jersey.
Basketball’s exposure on TV is what changed his father’s opinion.
“My parents saw me on TV during a state festival game and said I was too good to stop playing,” he said. “They were proud of me and I’m lucky I have their support.”