The NBA 2020 Draft happened on November 19th and the Nigerian community was quite well represented in this year’s class with a total of eight draftees with Nigerian heritage. You had the likes of Precious Achiuwa and Udoka Azubuike who were born in Nigeria to the likes of Isaac Okoro, Onyeka Okongwu, and Daniel Oturu who were born in the US but have two Nigerian parents each, and then you have the likes of Zeke Nnaji, Desmond Bane and (the hopefully appropriately-named) Jordan Nwora who have one Nigerian parent.
These year’s draftees were largely Igbo from what we can tell but the NBA has always had Nigerian talent with roots in the Southwest and South-South parts of Nigeria with the legendary Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets being the greatest Nigerian product in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo definitely counting as an all-time great in the category.
A look at the youth teams of football clubs in Europe throws up a similar pattern with talent of Southern Nigerian origin being rather common. Arsenal alone has the likes of;
These are 7 players in just one EPL club and we’re not even counting the breakout star Bukayo Saka who’s established himself in the first team and has been capped by England or the recently sold Alex Iwobi who went to Everton FC for £40m.
Like we alluded to earlier, there’s a pattern to the Nigerians you find in basketball and football teams abroad. They tend to come from the Southern parts of Nigeria and have parents who initially had to commit to what we call “Project Mgbapu” and have now switched focus to “Project Mbappe”.
The word “Mgbapu” is Igbo for “Escape” or “Run Away”. Project Mgbapu” was the escape plan required to get away from a stifling environment in Nigeria to create a better life for them and their families but the playfully named but seriously taken “Project Mbappe” is built around the goal of giving your child very focused coaching from an early age to turn them into the next Kylian Mbappe.
For the NBA draftees though, their iteration was “Project LeBron” because the NBA is a much more prestigious and financially rewarding destination than the MLS and we don’t have too many Igbo or Yoruba immigrants with dreams of their kids ending up at Inter Miami or Real Salt Lake FC. The Hondurans and Mexicans can have that.
Jokes aside though, Immigrant parents who grew up in Nigeria without organised sports programs and decent facilities tend to value these things when they have access to them in other countries and usually push their kids into organised sports programs partly to keep them out of trouble and also out of a hope that they become professional athletes earning much more than they would in normal jobs. The odds of becoming a professional sportsperson are very low but the process is useful to immigrant parents even when that goal isn’t achieved because their kids get to build up discipline, learn teamwork and have a decent chance to get scholarships that lighten the cost burden of university education.
So all things considered, it’s a path that Nigerian immigrants value. The funny thing is that the ethnic patterns you get when you look at the Nigerians who succeed in professional sports abroad are the same patterns you get when you look at what range of Nigerians tends to succeed more in the corporate sector all around the world.
They also usually come from the Nigerian states with the highest Common Entrance and Jamb cutoffs and the lowest rates of employment in the Nigerian Civil Service and we could deduce that there’s probably a link between this and Nigeria’s mediocrity as a country but that’s a topic for another day.
One clear thing is that these people are capable of spectacular individual achievement even when they are of a minority race and tribe. What they need to work on is being better at working well as a unit.
It is nice to be a spectacular talent succeeding in developed systems where you are a minority but it is much better to be a member of the group responsible for creating and owning the developed systems themselves.
We have to get better at institutional success because Life favors the best group, not the best individual. You will always under threat as a people if spectacular success is what is needed to get socioeconomic safety.
Southern Nigerian states that have a population higher than that of the Netherlands don’t even have state leagues that develop their playing, coaching, and administrative talent. It is just absurd.
Croatia has fewer people than Ogun state but has made it to a World Cup final. Ogun State doesn’t even have a team in the top Nigerian division and doesn’t have a state league. We can and should do a lot better.
Project Mbappe is relatively tongue-in-cheek, but there’s no denying that raising your son or daughter to become the next GOAT in football is an appealing thought.