Hakeem Olajuwon’s ascendancy in the basketball world during the early 80’s with the Houston Cougars and during the 90’s with the Houston Rockets were regarded as a national phenomenon that changed the way in which African players were viewed in the basketball world. His metaphoric rise not only opened the door for other African athletes to develop their talent abroad, but it also gave African immigrants in America a well-respected figure they could call their own and a rare opportunity to see an African athlete endure the limelight on national television.
Back in Nigeria, the progress of Olajuwon’s exploits abroad was vaguely felt largely because basketball was not seen as a major sport, very few media outlets covered basketball in general, and the fact that Nigerian families were more inclined to see their children focus more on their education gave the sport little or no chance to establish itself within mainstream society. Despite various initiatives that were put in place to enhance the popularity of the game in Nigeria, basketball was and still a long distance away from rivaling the game of soccer as a nation favorite.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the exploits of the Nigerian team during the Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela. The impressive performance of the team not only caught the attention of basketball enthusiasts abroad, but it also woke up the Nigerian nation to a sport that had been on a daily snooze for the past 25 years. There is always a sense of ambivalence when it comes to the growth of basketball in Nigeria, and the fact that Olajuwon is the most decorated athlete in Nigeria’s sporting history holds as a testament to this point. Olajuwon might not have made the impact you would have expected in the Nigerian community during his time as a basketball player, however, the hall of famer left an imprint among the hearts of the new wave of Nigerian immigrants living in America during his playing days, and as a result, not only have we seen a rise among first and now second generation athletes of Nigerian heritage taking up the sport in America, but we have also seen two of these athletes rise to the top of their class in their respective categories.
In a feature by Bloomington Herald-Times back in January, the quote below summed up the kind of impact Olajuwon had among the rest of his Nigerian peers living in America.
In Nigeria, Joan played a derivation of the game called “Netball,” the major difference being that it didn’t include dribbling. She followed closely the Hall-of-Fame career of Nigerian-born Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon. When she was pregnant with Victor and Victoria, she had a dream in which Olajuwon signed a basketball and presented it to her. In the morning, she told her husband that she believed Victor would be a basketball player.
“He said, ‘There you go again with your dreams,'” she said. “I said, ‘I’m just letting you know, he’s going to play basketball.'”
Living in Nigeria, families are more inclined to lead their children towards a strict education route which is quite a contrast to growing up in America, the American education system has offered the chance for athletes like the Ogumike sisters to embrace both education and sports as a way towards creating a better career opportunity for themselves and their families in future.
“Ever since I can remember, they’ve told me, ‘Your education will take you a long way. That always comes first,'” Ogwumike said. “I saw in Stanford my best opportunity for having a career in basketball and a wonderful life after basketball. I’ve been pretty sure since high school that I wanted to go into medicine. I’m the type of person who’s always loved integrating science into my life.” – Nneka Ogwumike in a feature for ESPN in 2009.
Younger sister Chiney will go into her final Season at Stanford University already as one of their most decorated athlete in history, not only has she followed in her older sister’s footsteps, she has also created her own path, some of her awards from the just concluded season includes the Pac-12 Player of the Year award, Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honor, being named to the USBWA, John R. Wooden Award All-America Teams and much more, Despite all the accolades and publicity, Chiney has not forgotten her roots thanks to principles that has been instilled in her by her parents, she will be spending this summer in Nigeria doing various charity work while also working on her career goals.
“Right after our season ends I would have a few days to pack up and head over to Nigeria and that would be for a 6- to 8-week span of time,” Ogwumike said. “I realized, ‘Hey, Chiney, it’s way more than a game, you have to start making plans for your future,’ and I had the opportunity.”
As for Oladipo, his phenomenal year has not been documented enough in the sporting media, the all-round improvement he added to his game this season brought him various accolades such as the Big-Ten defensive player of the year award, finalist for the Wooden Award as well as the Oscar Robertson Trophy and much more. As Oladipo prepares to shape up for NBA Draft night, not since Michael Olowokandi, Ike Diogu and Hakeem Olajuwon, has a player of Nigerian heritage garnered this much recognition in the basketball world, something that his parents and coaches should be really proud of.
Like most first generation Nigerian-Americans, their background stories share a similar trace of struggles through adversity, perseverance, hard-work and dedication. The trails of parents leaving the shores of their homeland, juggling various jobs just to make ends meet, and studying during the odd hours of the night to create a better opportunity for their families holds the foundation of why both players are where they are today. Both families understood and took with them the value of hard-work, and they have instilled that solid foundation unto their children hence they are reaping the benefits of their dedication.
With the growing Nigerian basketball community abroad, it is hoped that this effort will spread to the Nigerian community back home as families embrace the sport just in the same manner that the Oladipo’s, Ogumike’s and others have risen up to the challenge abroad. Lest we forget, it was an 18-year old kid that first embarked on this journey back in the early 80’s and his legacy continues to live on.