SAITAMA, Japan — Since the women's basketball tournament at the Summer Olympics expanded to 12 teams in 1996, one African nation earns a berth in the pool.
The best finish for one of those nations thus far has been 11th, by Nigeria in 2004.
Nigeria is back in the Games this year, as the reigning African champion, winner of the past four tournaments it has entered and currently is 17th in the FIBA world rankings.
This week, it opened pool play against Team USA, the juggernaut that is going for its seventh straight gold medal. Nigeria lost 81-72, but given that it was down by 20 points with six minutes left in the game, it's a testament to the type of team it is, with an aggressive defense that forced the U.S. into 25 turnovers.
"It’s come a long way fast," said Otis Hughley Jr., who became Nigeria's head coach in 2018. "Really excited about the prospects — against the best team in the world, those kids, down 20-plus and cut it to 8 with a couple of missed layups and opportunities to cut it even lower. We really needed that layup at the end for the point spread. If you come in third, you tie with people, those points can matter, you know? I don’t care about the people in Vegas, I just care about the opportunity to go to the next round."
When you factor in what Hughley and D'Tigress are up against, it's all the more impressive. Currently, Nigeria has no feeder program for its women's senior national team — no under-16, no U-19. If it did, players would have some international and major-competition experience before they get to Hughley and his staff.
Instead, he put players on the floor against the best team in the world who were seeing their first minutes in a competition of this level.
"It’s like starting your boxing career and they tell you you’re fighting Muhammad Ali in his prime. That ain’t something you’re looking for," Hughley said, drawing knowing laughs. "You’re thinking, 'I don’t want to box that bad.' But those girls went at it and they tried to hold it down as best they could."
Of course, the game with Nigeria could have been a lot more interesting: D'Tigress had Erica Ogwumike off the bench, but her WNBA-standout sisters Nneka and Chiney, both of whom are with the Los Angeles Sparks, were not allowed to play with Nigeria for the Olympics because FIBA deemed they'd previously spent too much time with the U.S. team. The women hold dual citizenship with both nations, though in the eyes of many, it's shocking that Nneka was left off the U.S. roster for Tokyo — she was one of eight core players on the national team in 2019-2020, was the team's leading scorer and MVP of the FIBA women's qualifying tournament; she's also the first WNBA MVP to not be named to the U.S. Olympic team.
FIBA has said that it is committed to growing the game in Africa, and letting the Ogwumikes and/or Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams, who is also a dual citizen, play for Nigeria in the Olympics would have gone a long way toward that supposed goal.
Hughley, who coached DeMarcus Cousins in high school and was hired as a Sacramento Kings assistant after Cousins was drafted there in 2010, has also worked with the Chinese Taipei men's and women's national teams.
He is frustrated by the lack of resources not just in Nigeria, but in all of Africa, directed toward the women's game.
"There’s not a lot of advocacy for women, and it breaks my heart because the potential is unbelievable," he said. "These girls, if someone’s really looking — and they can look by accident — to grow the game, you can stumble on these girls and see what they become and see the potential. And unless someone in Africa becomes intentional, unless the NBA continues or the WNBA reaches abroad and start to really commandeer this opportunity and really cultivate it, I don’t know if it’s going to happen by accident."
Every woman on Nigeria's Olympic roster played at a Division I NCAA program, which is a plus for the squad, but FIBA rules and officiating are slightly different, and that's not the same as a national youth program. And Nigeria isn't the only country on the continent.
Not surprisingly, the only obvious investment being made in Africa is in the men's game. FIBA and the NBA partnered up to debut the Basketball Africa League this year, an effort that has sponsorship from Nike, Jordan Brand and Pepsi.
"I just don't think there’s anyone out there trying to be intentional to help grow this game. It’s being done because there’s a few women out there that really push hard but nobody’s really, really listening," Hughley said. "A little girl in a township somewhere in Africa that has almost nothing, and they get one view of these girls and they’re inspired to overcome anything, and that person may be the next Michelle Obama."
Funny that Hughley mentioned Obama because just this week it was announced that her husband, former President Barack Obama, is now a strategic partner and will take a minority equity stake in the BAL. Maybe Michelle and their daughters can nudge him into pushing for something similar there for women.
If something doesn't happen soon, Hughley worries for the future of the women's game in Africa.
"We’re not putting them out front, because we’re not billboarding them, metaphorically, literally, or any sense. You could just see this come and go, like a shooting star. And that’s tragic," he said.
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