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NEXT COUNTRY: NIGERIA

A Nation still suffering growing pains gives birth to a generation of athletes

BY JOHN GUSTAFSON


In the womb of mother Africa is a faded piece of asphalt, a playground court between dilapi dated apartment buildings, a hoop beneath a pair of palms. A gym lit by florescent tubes, a floor of fitted two-by-fours where broken knots in the wood serve as gateways to subterranean ant farms. A national stadium where a broken scoreboard yields to a chalkboard and easel. In the womb of mother Africa is a sand soccer pitch, a boxing ring without canvas. In the emptiness of these moldering locales, elite athletes are born. Barefoot soccer stars who hone their tricks with a ball made of rags. Lofty basketball players with agile feet and childlike passion. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa (122 million), pro duces world-class athletes in soccer, hoops, track and field, boxing and weightlifting, athletes who beat back a legacy of senseless violence and crushing poverty with limitless optimism.

"Set a screen! Set a screen!" yells 6'11" Olumide Oyedeji. Folded into the driver's seat of a friend's Opel, he's urging the bus in front of him to turn left and shield his car from oncoming traffic. In Nigeria, driving is anything but simple. Moments later, the Opel and two other cars converge at odd angles. Olumide starts yelling again. Then he flashes that soon-to-be million-dollar smile. "This is Lagos," he says. On leave from DJK W’rzburg, a pro team in Ger many, Olumide (O-LOO-me-day) is a member of what just might be the best generation of big men the world has ever known. Like most Nigerians, he came late to basketball, as a 6'5" 15-year-old who practiced in bare feet before moving up to a pair of bedroom slippers. A year later, he became the senior national team's youngest player. Now 18, with a 7'3" wingspan and calves the size of softballs, Nigeria's Big O may not be long for the European hardcourts. After attending the NBA pre-draft camp last year and working out with three teams, he was told he might be a late first- or early second-round pick. Now he's aiming higher. In his second season with W’rzburg, the club that produced current Maverick Dirk Nowitzki, Olumide plans to return to the U.S. for the Nike Hoops Summit next March. In June, he and 6'9" fellow Nigerian Benjamin Eze-known as Helicopter-could be first-round NBA draft picks. At the moment, the Big O is back home in Lagos, visiting with Colonel Sam Ahmedu, his basketball mentor. Ahmedu's life revolves around Nigerian roundball. At age 7, he was a daily fix ture on the outdoor court where the national team trained, "a veteran in a small body," he says, sweeping the courts, practicing his jumper. The intervening years have carried him into the Nigerian army, where he practices law. But his free time is devoted to basketball: writing books, coaching, searching for the next great player. In Nigeria, that's kind of like hunting for Easter eggs. You can unearth new talent almost anywhere. Just four years ago, Ahmedu came across a 6'9" 16-year-old named Uche Okafor, who was selling shoes in his father's roadside shop. Ahmedu approached Uche's father and told him his son could make money playing basket ball one day, but the boy's father had hoped Uche would take over his shop when he retired. To reassure him, Ahmedu returned to the shop a few days later in full military uniform. "The family saw me as a responsible person," he says. Uche began his career, just like Olumide, play ing for Ahmedu's team, the Dodan Warriors, in the 7UP Premier League (Nigeria's NBA, minus the green). Only five of the 16 teams are pri vately owned. The police and customs run two of the others. Most games are played at Lagos' National Stadium, a 5,000-seat arena that makes the worst gym in the Bronx look like The Garden. Lit by caged fluorescent tubes and the two flood lights that work, the wood floor is dusty and full of dead spots. There is no AC. Even the score board is broken, so young kids stand guard beside chalkboards on easels. A crier's bell is rung for timeouts and substitutions. Sponsorship is nothing to write home about," says Ahmedu. "Players get nothing but a chance to be seen." The players, some as young as 14, make the most of it. The caliber of play is no better than our Division II college ball, but the big men pro duced by the Warriors, the Ebun Comets and the Lagos Islanders are a modern marvel. The current crop, including several players now in the U.S., combine the soccer footwork of native son Hakeem Olajuwon and ballhandling and face-the-basket skills that faintly resemble those of Kevin Garnett. Take Missouri forward Tajudeen Soyoye, whom the school touts as the best all-around athlete in U.S. college sports. The 6'9", 245-pound junior runs a Deion-like 4.32 and benches 370. Olajuwon's homeland isn't producing just great basketball players. Nigerian men won silver in the 4x100 relays in Barcelona '92. The women won bronze. Chioma Ajunwa captured the country's first individual gold medal in the women's long jump in Atlanta. Nigerians are picking up in U.S. football where the great Christian Okoye left off. This year's Cal team features six players with Nigerian roots. You don't have to venture very far in Lagos to find talent in other sports. Just a corner kick from the basketball arena is the National Stadium, home to major soccer events and a team many think is destined to win a World Cup. In January, such stars as Nwankwo Kanu and Jay Jay Okocha will return from Europe to play in the Africa Nations Cup. Tucked beneath the stadium grandstand is a makeshift boxing ring made of long wooden planks. There is no canvas. Fighters put down straw mats to do sit-ups. The austerity of the place is mocked by the honor roll of boxers who have passed through. Cruiserweight Bash Ali, a veteran fighter who's a national hero, is a daily fixture. Top-10 caliber heavyweights Ike Ibeabuchi, Henry Akinwande and David "Dangerous" Izonritei also trained here, as did super heavy weight Duncan Dokiwari, who won Olympic bronze in '96. Izonritei, now known as David Izon, won a silver in Barcelona, fought Michael Grant for the IBC heavyweight belt in '98 and may take on Tyson in Lagos in 2000.

It's impossible to discuss the rise of Nigerian athletes without contemplating race. As one scout bluntly puts it, the country is home to "over 100 million black people," implying that it's bound to be loaded with talent. But it's dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions. As a supplier of professional athletes, Nigeria is relatively untapped. But then so is China. Why aren't soccer, track and basketball teams loading up with talent from China, a country of 1.26 billion people? The debate treads on sensitive ground. Medi cal researchers in recent years have made new discoveries about the physiological differences among population groups. Scientists have more than once docu mented a higher level of testosterone and human growth hormone secretion in men of African descent. Both assist in the building of lean muscle mass. Medical evidence also sug gests that African-American men-most of whom are of West African descent-have greater bone density than other U.S. population groups. These differences may be slight, but some scientists say they could affect elite athletic competition, mostly in anaerobic sports, which require explosive bursts of energy. It's a controversial argument, and certainly one that is as yet unresolved. It's not about superiority, says Kenneth Kidd, a leading-edge genetics expert at Yale. It's about variability. Kidd has studied DNA samples from a variety of African tribes and, after comparing them with samples from around the globe, has concluded that there is greater genetic variation in any single African population than in the rest of the world put together. If Africans possess the broadest spectrum of genetic variability, he reasons, then Africans should produce more tall people as well as more short people relative to other populations. And if running fast has a gene tic component, then, according to Kidd, "in any African population, you'd expect to find more fast runners, more slow and fewer ordinary runners in between than in the rest of the world." Even if you dismiss the science, the numbers are hard to ignore. All 32 men's 100-meter finalists in the last four Olympics were of West Afri can ancestry. The 194 fastest times in 100-meter history are held by 30 men, all with West African heritage. Given the preponderance of African-Americans in U.S. pro sports (more than 70% in the NFL and NBA), it seems logical that American scouts would view West Africa as a talent mine. Nigeria has four times as many people as there are African-Americans. And by 2025, some project Nigeria's population will almost double.

For all its potential, Nigeria is also chaos. In Lagos, people are everywhere. They perch four across on the backs of trucks, pack a dozen or more into the old VW buses that serve as public transit or simply walk in the road selling everything under the African sun: newspapers, candy bars, chewing gum, Pringles, Rolaids, mops, shower curtains, Christmas lights, sunglasses, electric shavers, Nintendo systems, puppies. Need a new toilet seat? No problem. Thirty feet on you can buy toilet paper, too. In this kind of a free market, it's easy for a coach to imagine snatching up world-class athletes as he goes. But don't expect to find Jim Calhoun or Mike Jarvis sifting through the talent. The country has no direct flights to or from the U.S., and it's hard for Nigerians to obtain exit visas. Phones are spotty at best; it takes two or three tries just to reach some one across town. Roads are treacherous. The power goes out daily. Lagos has 10 million people and no traffic lights. The Campos Square soccer pitch is as good a place as any to survey the country's troubles. To the west is the downtown skyline of banks and big business. To the east is a Texaco station. In between is the game of soccer. Shirts or skins, barefoot or in flip-flops, you can always find an afternoon game at Campos. On a net less volleyball court where tires mark the goals, Lagos kids play with a small, soft ball called a felele. The sand field is pock marked with rain puddles the size of small cars. Known for their tough, physical style, Nigerian players are among the best in the world. Even defenders are encouraged to learn ball tricks. "We don't have nice fields. It's playing in the mud and on rocks in bare feet," says Francis Okaroh, a sweeper for the Chicago Fire. "If you make it to the national team, there you get the shoes. It's the reward." Pelē once was quoted as saying an African team would win the World Cup by the end of the century. Many experts thought the Nigerian team, known as the Super Eagles, might fulfill his prophecy as they headed to France in 1998. They'd won Olympic gold in '96, thanks to a four-goal semifinal comeback vs. Pelē's homeland, after making a strong World Cup debut in '94. In France, Nigeria won the vaunted "Group of Death," but the team was totally outclassed in a second-round loss to Denmark. The episode also revealed the corrupt side of Nigerian soccer: The night before the game, Eagle players spent hours on the phone arguing with the Nigerian Football Association about $10,000 bonuses they'd been promised. Coaching is another issue. The Nigerian team has had six soccer coaches in the last five years, all foreign-born. The Ministry of Sports has been accused of hiring them with U.S. dollars, then halting their pay so that when they quit in protest, as did Dutch men This Libregts and Jo Bonfrere, Ministry officials could pocket the cash. The coaches are not above the fray either. Some have been known to take money from players in exchange for playing time. In many ways, the corruption of soccer is emble matic of the problems facing all sports in Nigeria. "The story of football is the story of basketball is the story of boxing is the story of athletics," says grassroots organizer Sam John. Like all Nigerian sports, soccer is run by a federation overseen by the Ministry. But the NFA, which is closer to the players, is virtually powerless. Outside sponsorship could provide more autonomy, but foreigners are unwilling to invest money without knowing where it might end up. Mobil (now ExxonMobil), one of the biggest operating oil companies in Nigeria, doesn't sponsor local soccer clubs. Instead it contributes to a second-division soccer team in Ghana. Without funding, grassroots programs are hit-and-miss when it comes to developing talent. So private businessmen like the mysterious Babayaro are more effective. No one knows much about Baba yaro; even the head of the NFA doesn't have his phone number. But at Babayaro's compound in the city of Kaduna, where he houses and trains young players, it is said you can't bounce a ball without a game breaking out. As a sign of respect, players take his name once they achieve national status: Chelsea defender Celestine Babayaro, a senior national team member, is perhaps the most famous. Eventually, though, nearly every great player must leave home to advance his career. Unable to get U.S. visas, Olumide and a handful of Nigerians went to Russia in late 1997 for a basket ball camp. The journey was not what they'd expected. When Olumide and Muhamed Lasege left Lagos, it was 95• outside. When they landed in Moscow, it was 20•. Their passports and return tickets were con fi scated, says Olumide. They had little money, not even enough to buy toothpaste. The players and coaches claim the Russians thought they could train the Nigerians and sell them to Euro pean club teams for a million dollars or more per head. Olumide was pressured to sign a pro con tract with Dynamo Moscow, a team run by the local police. Through the efforts of Slavko Duric, a Toronto businessman, Uche, Lasege and Eze (whom some say is the best all-around Nigerian big man) were able to escape to Canada in 1998. All three are in the United States now, trying to play college ball. Louisville swept up Eze and Lasege; Miami signed Okafor. The NCAA hasn't agreed to let them play yet, though all three say they received no money in Russia beyond living expenses. Olumide wanted to play college ball as well, and committed to Rutgers. But visa problems and time in Russia pushed him to Europe. Sports problems mirror those that vex the nation as a whole. Since his inauguration last May, democratically elected President Olusegun Obasanjo has pledged bold reforms, which means, some believe, that he has a death wish. The former general understands that corruption and violence have long been a fact of life in Nigeria. Should he forget, the bullet-riddled car of President Murtala Mohammed, assassinated in 1976, sits in the National Museum as a reminder. In late November, Lagos was the scene of fighting between two of the nation's largest tribes. Over a two-day period, at least 45 people were killed-hacked with machetes, burned with gasoline, shot with arrows-in a battle over who controlled a marketplace. In a TV address, Obasanjo threatened that anyone who created further violence would be shot on sight. Still, there is a feeling of cautious optimism, a collective sense that, after 14÷ years of military rule, there is no going back. "The alternative to going forward is for the country to be destroyed," says one Nigerian.

The Opel pulls up to Rowe Park. Time for a little pick-up ball. Olumide glides over the blacktop like a guard, the orange a bulbous extension of his elastic arms. He steps back to hit a three; a moment later crossing over a defender and sailing in for a jam. Off to the side, two boys argue over who is better, the Big O or Helicopter. "It is a bone of contention," says one. The real debate doesn't figure to be settled here and now. Both Nigerians are destined for greater things. In the very near future, you can expect to see them patrolling American paint, bringing a little bit of motherland flavor to the NBA.