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Back from Angola – women’s basketball on my mind

African champions…Nigeria celebrating her FIBA Afrobasket Championship victory after beating Senegal by 65 to 48 points at the final played in Bamako, Mali. The victory also handed D’Tigresses passage to the World Championship as African champions. PHOTO: FIBA.BASKETBALL.COM.


Women’s basketball is on my mind. I spent the last 10 days in the city of Luanda undergoing my annual ritual of attending the finals of the FIBA Africa Women’s Cup Championship, a competition between the champion clubs across the African continent.
 
First Bank Basketball Club, the only club from the entire West African Zone Three of FIBA to attend the championship this year, got to the semifinals again before losing out to the team they defeated last year – Primeiro Agosto of Angola. The Angolan club went on to win the trophy this year.
 
Last year’s winners and the most successful women’s basketball club in the championship’s history, Interclube of Angola, dramatically lost to a supremely determined and hardworking First Bank Club in this year’s third place match.
 
So, for two consecutive years, Nigeria’s Elephant Girls have emerged as third place winners. They have been, for three years now, consistently ‘knocking on the door’ of becoming champions and most observers here can feel it coming.I have been involved with Nigerian basketball in the past five years, managing the affairs of First Bank Women’s Basketball Club, the Elephant Girls.
 
Very easily in that period they have been Nigeria’s national champions several times in continuation of a well-established tradition of dominating Nigerian women’s basketball like no other club in the country’s history.
 
In its 40-plus years of existence, the club has won the Nigerian national championship almost a dozen times, won the African Women’s Club championship twice, and participated in the annual African event more times than any other club in the continent.
 
The big surprise is that First Bank BC has never hosted the event even though doing so would have enormous benefits and advantages that could have done great things both for the club and for basketball in Nigeria.  
 
That shall be the next major project of the great Nigerian team – to use the innocent opportunities in hosting the continental championship to change the face of basketball in Nigeria. It will be the perfect rehearsal and test of the viability of putting up and properly hosting international events (not the COJA style of wastage and squander-mania) to catalyse and accelerate development in sport, infrastructure and socio-economic activities.
 
In the past three years, First Bank Basketball Club have narrowed the gap in playing standards between the teams from Angola and Nigeria. The central African country’s clubs currently set the benchmarks for the standard of female basketball in Africa. They are usually the teams to beat. That speaks volumes.
 
First Bank have done well through the past years consistently challenging the Angolan clubs, these days from the semi-final stage of the African championship. They have not succeeded so far to win the championship, even though they have defeated the two top Angolan clubs in the matches to determine the third place position in 2016 (against Agosto) and in 2017, (against Interclube).
 
It is evident now that with a little more push and strategic investment in players and better preparation, First Bank BC will become African champion club again in the very near future. The handwriting for that to happen is all over the wall.

So, the plan for 2018 is for the club to bid and host the 2018 edition of the FIBA Africa Women’s Cup championship in Nigeria; to invest in high quality players and build a rock solid team that will ride on the back of unprecedented home support, that must be built through the next 10 months for the club, to victory; organize the best championship in the history of women’s basketball in Africa; and change the face of the game and its impact, for good, forever, in Africa.
 
This year’s championship did not have the spark of previous ones for some undefined reasons. It was only at the very end that the terraces in the indoor hall became half full. Otherwise, for most of the championship the teams played before mostly empty seats. Having said all of that, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Everything was a repeat of the previous times I had been to the finals of the championship in 2015 in Angola, 2016 in neighbouring Mozambique, and 2017 back to Angola. The only thing I did not do this time that I used to do every time I went on this sports pilgrimage is play tennis. We stayed in a new part of the city, far from the old rusty downtown area that my team was housed in two years ago when we went for the same competition, and some seven years ago for the African Cup of Nations of football.
 
The city of Luanda, reputed to be the most expensive city to live in the world at one time, has been expanding rapidly since the Nations Cup opened up a whole new environment to urban development at the outskirts of the city around where the new stadium was built that hosted the 2010 African Cup of Nations.
 
This time I could not locate any local tennis club around the sprawling metropolis. So, for two weeks I missed my regular exercise regimen and concentrated on the basketball – the teams (their strength and style), the organization of the championship, the FIBA organization itself, and so on.  
 
A little distance from the football stadium, within the sprawling sports complex, is located the new indoor sports facility that was under construction in 2010 when we visited. It has since been completed and has been the venue of the FIBA Africa championships in two of the past three years. It is a truly magnificent architectural masterpiece that beautifully and comfortably fills up with vociferous supporters, particularly when any of the home teams is playing.
 
Basketball is Angola’s number one sport followed by most of the citizens with a consuming passion.  It is also so well supported and funded in the country that some of the bigger clubs actually hire full-time foreign professional basketball players from Europe, the United States and even a few African countries to play in their national leagues. This strengthens their chances of winning the African club championship every time.

This strategy of investing in very good foreign players is the main reason why Angola has been one of the most dominant forces in African women’s basketball. Two of the country’s biggest clubs, Primeiro Agosto, funded by the Army, and InterClube, funded by the Police, have, between them, won the African women’s club championships more times than any other clubs in Africa in the past decade.
 
Hosting the event often has definitely been an added advantage for Angola. They ride on the back of the intimidating support by their home fans to escalate the spirit of their players who then put up superlative performances that win them valuable trophies.
 
It is in this environment that I have spent the month of November in the past three years – between Angola and Mozambique watching and studying women’s basketball and its administration in Africa. With my deep rooted experiences in football in Africa, I can compare and see clearly what the major differences between the organization of basketball and football are. Basketball can definitely take a few useful tips from African football even without it being the best version of football organisation in the world.
 
Despite the huge followership of basketball in Angola, one can easily see that the championship needs the injection of some new thinking, some fresh ideas, innovative branding and marketing, and a new coverage packaging and presentation to impact more and become a viable economic and socio-cultural tool.

On closer study, I see that basketball is a beautiful and infectious spectator-friendly, family-friendly and entertaining sport that one only needs to watch a very good and competitive game once and become hooked on it forever.
 
I can now see why Americans, Asians and even several European countries are basketball crazy and why in those places the business is very lucrative and its impact goes far beyond sport into youth engagement, job creation and general social inclusion.
 
Here in Africa, there is obviously still a long way to go yet to catch up.Those were my thoughts as I returned to Lagos and to the exciting prospect for sports in 2018 in Nigeria. Women’s basketball will surely make its own solid contribution!



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