Feature | Basketball

Nigerian star Ike Diogu: Why African basketball is the next big thing waiting to explode

Ahead of the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers, the former NBA forward opens up on raising the profile of Nigerian basketball, his ambitions for Tokyo 2020, and why he wanted to be like Hakeem Olajuwon.

By Evelyn Watta ·

As he steps up to lead his nation at the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers, Nigeria’s captain Ike Diogu explains why the upcoming tournament represents a chance for the basketball world to see what Africa has to offer.

"I think it's rising. Africa is the next biggest thing to explode. That's why even the NBA is now present in Africa," the 37-year-old said in an exclusive interview.

The double Olympian was selected in the 2005 Draft by the Golden State Warriors and played over 200 NBA regular season games.

Diogu also featured for Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. But representing Nigeria at the Olympics, AfroBasket, and the World Championships, are his best highlights.

“I've raised the awareness of Nigerian basketball. And to me, that's the biggest thing out of everything.” - Ike Diogu

The 2017 AfroBasket MVP spoke of his desire to lead Nigeria to its second continental gold, and how the NBA stars of African origin are helping shed the spotlight on the continent’s huge basketball potential.

The first round of the AfroBasketball qualifiers will be co-hosted by Egypt and Rwanda from November 25-29.

“Each year you’re seeing more and more players of African descent being drafted in the (NBA) first round. People now know that Africa is a gold mine,” said Diogu, who last season played for Japan’s B. League first-division side Shimane Susanoo Magic.

The long-serving Nigerian captain, who helped his team qualify for the Tokyo Games with their performance at the 2019 World Championships in China, also shared why he considers Olympic champion Hakeem Olajuwon his greatest idol.

Check out the full interview below. Its content has been slightly edited and shortened for clarity.

Ike Diogu of Nigeria shoots the ball against Leo Mainoldi of Argentina during a Men's preliminary round basketball game at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

"We want to be champions"

Olympic Channel (OC): As you prepare to travel for the AfroBasket, what will be your goals as the captain in Kigali?

Ike Diogu (ID): We want to be champions. That’s what our goal is. That's why I've been training so hard, not taking any days off as we want to be champions, be champions of Africa again. I've been able to train the whole time, so even though most gyms and everything were closed, I was able to still work out of the gym and stay in shape and do all the things that I needed to do. I'm in great shape right now. I'm looking forward to this next window of AfroBasket.

OC: Nigeria goes to the 2021 AfroBasket as one of the favourites expected to easily top your group…

ID: Well, judging by what happened to us in 2013 when we were knocked out early in the tournament in the AfroBasket, we don't take anything lightly. We know that any team can beat us. Any team is capable of beating us, just like we're capable of beating any team there. As long as we respect our opponents, go on and play hard, I think everything will take care of itself.

OC: Nigeria will not have at its disposal all the top stars for the AfroBasket qualifiers, the squad that helped the team qualify for the Tokyo Games. Could this be a disadvantage for your team?

ID: We are not worried over this. I mean, we have a lot of talent in Nigeria and it'll be a chance to see some new faces, so I'm looking forward to the challenge. It will be a good mix of young players and veterans. I've had a chance to play with all of them because I played with the new players in 2017, as well as the veteran guys that I've been playing with since 2011. It's going to be an exciting group and I think the fans will be pleasantly surprised.

The African explosion

OC: Talking of the seasoned players, you have been a core member and captain of the D’Tigers for about a decade now. What role do you feel you play for the team?

ID: As I am one of the oldest guys in the team, I'm somebody who goes out and leads by example. I'm always here for players when they need any extra words of wisdom or on how to play African basketball because it is different. It's not the same as some of the basketball that these guys grew up playing (abroad) It's extremely physical. And basketball in itself is different.

And then you got to add another layer on top of that for African basketball. I think it's rising. Africa is the next biggest thing to explode. That's why even the NBA is now present in Africa.

Each year you’re seeing more and more players of African descent being drafted in the (NBA) first round. There’s going to be a lot of Africans in this upcoming draft.(Eight players of Nigerian descent were picked for the NBA draft for the 2020-21 season on November 18.)

People now know that Africa is a gold mine. The time is now for Africa. - Nigeria's basketball player Ike Diogu

Advice for aspiring young Africans wanting to join the NBA

OC: There is a lot of interest in African players from the NBA. What would you advise the young players hoping to join and succeed in the NBA?

ID: Everything comes down to a situation and an opportunity. The one thing you never know is when your opportunity is going to come, but they just need to make sure they keep working hard. So when the opportunity does present itself, they're ready.

OC: You played for seven years at the top with several NBA clubs after being drafted in the first round in 2005 by Golden State Warriors. You have also played basketball around the world, are you content with how your career has developed?

ID: Yes, but there's always things that could have gone better or in a different situation, but that's life. But overall my career has been good.

I've played in a lot of places. I've played against a lot of top players. I've had some really good games. I've raised the awareness of Nigerian basketball. And to me, that's the biggest thing out of everything. From the time I joined the national team, the group that I came in with myself, Alade [Aminu] and Al-Farouq Aminu (Orlando Magic), we helped push the envelope to new heights. There's a standard that's associated with Nigerian basketball. I'm proud to be one of those pioneers helping to push Nigeria in the direction that we all think that it belongs.

I'm just one piece that fits in well in a really good team. We have got a lot of good players. The two names that I mentioned, and a lot of guys in the team that are really talented, really good.

Golden State Warriors' Ike Diogu in a past NBA game against Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant (R).

Third Olympics

OC: And you are now months away from your third Olympics...

ID: It's big time, it's what we envisioned when we all joined the national team, the right to play in the Olympics and World Championships, things that the continent, the country had never got to experience before.

The first time we qualified for the Olympics was always going to be a special moment just because nobody thought we could do what we did in 2012. And Venezuela literally coming out, shocking the world, beating Lithuania, beating Greece, losing a close game to Russia, and then beating the Dominican Republic for the right to go to the Olympics. That will always stay with me, a special moment for me with Team Nigeria.

We want to medal (at the Olympics), we want to keep making history. That's one of the things that we do when we get together with Team Nigeria. We always make history.

We want to be the first team from the African continent to make it out of the group stage at the Olympics and hopefully make it to the podium. That's always been our goal. We’re learning on the fly and we're learning as we go. Each year we keep getting better and better and more experienced, so it's only a matter of time before we put it all together.

OC: What’s been the secret to playing at the top level for decades now?

ID: I guess I got to thank my parents for the great genes being African definitely helps. I also watch what I eat and exercise a lot.

OC: Who did you admire the most between Michael Jordan and LeBron James?

ID: If I'm being honest, neither one of them really inspired me because LeBron is around my same age, so I've been playing against him since I was like in high school. And then obviously, Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time, but growing up, all the Nigerians that I knew we all wanted to be like Hakeem(Olajuwon). That was our greatest player of all time because he was a big man. He's from Nigeria. He had the footwork, and he played for the Houston Rockets. I grew up in Dallas. So that's who I wanted to be like, play hard, play for the country, play for my village, and play for my last name.

Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets -  Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport (Getty Images)

OC: Do you feel like you have lived up to your name and your nickname "The Beast”?

ID: That’s really what it is, we play for Nigeria and there's a lot of pride being able to represent your country. And I think people see that when I go out there and play.

I wanted to be tough, hard-nosed, to be somebody who is relentless on the floor, and that's what that nickname embodies, all of those traits.

OC: You have achieved a lot in your club career and for your country, what is still missing?

ID: There's still a lot to accomplish. We fell short at the (FIBA 2019) World championships even though we were able to qualify for the Olympics. We still felt that we should have got to the knockout or the next round. So it's still a lot to be done though a lot has been accomplished. I feel like we're scratching the surface of our full potential as a national team and we might not reach the goal while I'm playing but the blocks and the foundation has been set to reach that.

All these Nigerians being drafted now and in future all the people that are going to join the national team, they'll be able to look back and know that it started with our group. And that's a good feeling. We're the first people to qualify for the Olympics or the World Championships.