Leadership (Abuja)

22 December 2012

Nigeria: We Are the Best On the Continent - Diogu

D'Tigers player Ike Diogu is hungry for continental action and has stated that Nigeria remains the best team on the continent as it chases the elusive African Nations Cup in Cote d'Ivoire next year.

First he helped put Nigeria back on the basketball world map, especially after she secured one of the three places up for grabs for the London Olympics thanks to a convincing performance at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Caracas, Venezuela.

Then he kept his form and remained Nigeria´s leading scorer and rebounder at the London Games, even though the showing in the British capital was somewhat disappointing.

After the Olympics, Diogu was given an opportunity to resume his NBA career. But the Phoenix Suns released him a few days before the season started a frustrating decision for a player with seven years of NBA experience.

But he still feels he has many years left to play at the highest level and signed for the Guangdong Southern Tigers in China's CBA. Diogu is 29, and his high self-esteem makes him believe that sooner or later he will be back in the NBA. At the national team front, whether Nigeria is the best African team remains debatable amongst players and coaches. But Diogu - who has only faced one African team, Tunisia, the continental champions - has no doubts.

With former international Ime Udoka - currently an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs - tipped to take the helm of D´Tigers, Diogu feels next year's Afrobasket will see Nigeria win their first-ever African title. Nigeria has struggled to put its best players together after a major tournament.

Following an interesting 2006 FIBA World Championship showing, Nigeria kept only Chamberlain Oguchi, Tunji Awojobi and Aloysius Anagonye, to the following 2007 Afrobasket. For Diogu, things are different now.

Diogu seems to have become a leader that Nigeria needed as he made big shots, encouraged his team and danced when it mattered. During the memorable 80-79 win over Greece, Diogu showed it clearly. Coach Ayodele Bakare called a time-out with 3.5 seconds remaining as they trailed 79-78.

While the quartet of Tony Skinn, Ade Dagunduro, Derrick Obasohan and Alade Aminu sat around coach Bakare for the last instructions, Diogu remained standing, like a commander instructing his comrades.

Then the quartet and Diogu returned to court to see Dagunduro converting two free-throws that gave Nigeria a one-point lead, before Vassilis Spanoulis missed a three-pointer for a Nigerian celebration, which involved Diogu's dance.

On Nigeria's past, recent and future commitments, Diogu stated with respect to the Olympic legacy that "Our goal has been to get Nigeria basketball where it belongs and the Olympic Games were just a tiny step in that direction. We will become a dominant force in basketball. That is what the tournament [Olympics] meant to us - the beginning of something special. I think our mindset was different in Caracas than in London. We had the talent to win a medal we just didn't play our best basketball like we did in Venezuela. We were on a mission in Caracas and we refused to be denied."

On the other hand, in respect to the USA versus Nigeria, in his words, he stated that "It was embarrassing that we played that way. In no way, shape or form is the US's 80-points better than us.

"But we played passive. There wasn't anything positive to take away, except next time we play the USA, it will be a way different ball game, that's for sure. We take our hats off they capitalized on our mistakes."

Concerning the continent, he revealed that "I believe we are the best team in Africa. There is no arguing that no African team other than Nigeria could have faced all those teams (at OQT) and won. For all of us it was a dream comes true, to be the first Nigerians to do it. All of us wanted to play in the 2011 Afrobasket. I remember Ime Udoka was telling me, and I was all set to play then I had to work out with my team at the time because I was trying to re-sign with the LA Clippers.

"So I spent all summer under their watchful eye. Same with (Al Farouq) Aminu, he wanted to play as well but the bottom line is we knew it was time to come together and play. No offense, but I was tired of always seeing Angola in the Olympics. I am planning to play for the (Nigeria) federation until I retire from basketball."

The 2013 Afrobasket is going to be an intriguing challenge for American-born Diogu who has never competed in Africa.

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