Okogie and Co. target Olympic history for Africa on Tokyo’s courts

Josh Okogie #20 of Nigeria is defended by Damian Lillard #6 of the United States. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Josh Okogie #20 of Nigeria is defended by Damian Lillard #6 of the United States. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

One of six NBA players in the Nigerian men's national basketball team headed to Tokyo 2020 (in 2021), Minnesota Timberwolves man Josh Okogie opens up about the recent win against global powers USA and his hopes of making history for his birth country -- and the whole of Africa.

“I was in Nigeria in 2011 and I remember my uncle telling me: ‘If you get the chance to play with Nigeria, you have to do it’,” said Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Josh Okogie, who emigrated to the United States with his family from Africa’s most-populous nation when he was three-years old.

“That resonated with me,” added the versatile player, now 22, who passed on his second two years of college ball at Georgia Tech to join the NBA. “The country of Nigeria carries so much pride when one of their teams goes onto the world stage.”

Okogie knows this better than most.

His family settled in Snelville, Georgia when he was a boy, just under an hour’s drive from Athens, Georgia, where, in 1996, Nigeria’s national football team, loaded with future superstars like Sunday Oliseh, Nwankwo Kanu and ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, made history by becoming the first African nation to win Olympic football gold at the Atlanta Games.

READ | When Nigeria's Super Eagles Stunned the World

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Olympics or the World Cup, or really even what the sport is,” added Okogie who lines up in the point guard position for Nigeria’s D'Tigers. “This is the main thing that pushed me to play with Nigeria.”

New chapter of Olympic history?

Okogie now finds himself at a similar crossroads with history. People in the know have begun to whisper about Nigeria’s potential as medal contenders at Tokyo 2020’s Olympic Basketball Tournament.

It would be a first Olympic medal for any African national basketball team.

“A medal? It would mean the world to me,” said Okogie, who was influential in recent warm-up wins over 2004 Olympic gold-medallists Argentina and a shock 90-87 victory in Las Vegas over the United States – a first in Nigeria’s history. “Our whole focus is just on trying to win this medal. We know the potential we have. It’s not our job to prove anyone wrong or right, but we want to get the best result we can at the end of the day.”

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Okogie, playing against his adoptive country, scored four points and pulled down three assists and rebounds in the win against the United States. It was a result that had pundits jumping on the long-lordly Americans’ seeming fragility and, also, Nigeria’s impressive three-point shooting and legitimate potential to claim hardware in Tokyo.

Message-sending win over U.S.

“The USA game doesn’t really do anything. It doesn’t put is in a better position to win a medal,” said Okogie, who is one of a core of six NBA players in the Nigeria squad heading for Tokyo. “But on another scope, it was very big for the country – my uncles and aunts over there [in Nigeria] were texting me and saying how proud they were. It was big for the country. For us [the team] it was a learning experience and I don't think we even play our best basketball in that game.”

Nigeria’s coach, Mike Brown, knows the result was a big one. But he also knows that it has to be a stepping stone to become more than just a footnote for history. “At the end of the day, it doesn't mean much in the standings as far as where we're trying to get to. But it's a good win for us,” said Brown, the former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach. “No African team has been able to beat USA Basketball in an exhibition game or a real game. We're trying to get a little bit of momentum for Nigeria and for the continent of Africa."

READ | Nigeria on a Roll

Josh Okogie #20 of the Minnesota Timberwolves attempts to get the ball away from Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Josh Okogie #20 of the Minnesota Timberwolves attempts to get the ball away from Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
2021 Getty Images

Since the Nigerian basketball authorities turned to overseas-based players to bolster their national teams, the results have been noticeable. The men’s team won the 2015 African Basketball Championship and the women scooped the continental title in consecutive years (2017 and 2019).

D'Tigers among the contenders

It’s a long way from the London 2012 Games when the United States men hammered Nigeria by 83 points in a 165-73 result, or the same match-up (in an exhibition game) four years later that the U.S. won by a wide 44-point margin. 

“This is huge. Being an Olympian is one of the most gracious things you can do as an athlete,” said Okogie, on the eve of flying to Tokyo for his first taste of the Games. “The history of the Olympics, it’s a big deal for anybody and I accepted the opportunity with great pride. It’s such an honour to have the chance to represent this country as best I can.”

While a medal, any medal, would mean history for the Nigerians, Okogie and Co. are setting their sights on rare gold. And why not? After all, who would have thought they could best a Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard-led USA – three-time defending Olympic champions – in an exhibition game on U.S. soil?

“I want everybody to see how hard we play on defense and – something we can always control, pressuring and switching,” Okogie said about one of his team’s main strengths just days after a big loss to Australia (108-69) may have taken some wind out of Nigerian sails. “Offensively, we like to get into the paint, kick it out, and knock down threes. We can make the extra pass and we’re not afraid to shoot the ball when we’re open.

“In the Olympics, every game counts and you have to almost win all of your games to get the gold,” concluded a motivated Okogie who, along with his Nigerian teammates, stands ready on the cusp of history. “And our goal…is that gold.”

Men's Basketball Final | Beijing 2008 | Great Olympic Moments
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USA wins the Gold medal and Spain the Silver in the men's basketball final at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Game