Mfon Sunday Udoka is a Nigerian American former professional basketball player and the former Assistant Coach of the Nigeria women’s national basketball team the Lady Tigers who spoke with our reporter Esther Egbe about her experience as player,coach and other endeavour. Excerpts
WHAT have you been doing since you quit playing basketball?
Life has been more simple, slower and relaxing for me. I feel like am playing catch up with a lot of issues plaguing this country, things I was oblivious of until now.
So how are you coping with life now that you out of coaching?
I have started a girls basketball programme in Jersey city,New Jersey for ages ten to seventeen. I alongside my partner Makhtar N’Diaye have been working together to expand it to other areas in the city. My plan is to become an athletic director in the next few years. You know that is part of me; it is part of who I am.
The D’Tigress have been unable to replicate the feat of the that won the Africa Nation Cup for Nigeria in 2003 and 2005. What is the problem?
I think the leadership is what you have to look at. When things fall apart, it is not from bottom, but from the top. There is no good reason for the long gap in winning the championship again. It is about the leadership of the federation saddled with the task of managing the game in the country.
Don’t you think the challenge has been lack of quality players?
It is definitely not a problem of lack of good players; the currently have quality players presently playing all over the world, especially in Europe, America and even here in Nigeria. They are willing to play; it’s just that we don’t have the right programmes in place to drive their ambitions.
So what is the way forward?
I think we just need a president (NBBF president) who is capable of organising and prioritising basketball at the national team level, while not forgetting the various developmental stages of the game. During our time, everybody understood that Nigeria has the potential to be the world champion at a point in time. Basketball has to be given the priority because in Nigeria, we usually talk about what to do without commensurate action plan to back it up. That has been the challenge.
Did you ever hesitated when you were invited to play for Nigeria?
It was an honour to play for Nigeria, even though then, I knew very little about the country. The invitation came in 1999 from the NBBF and it filled me with pride. Then, I never knew I had an option to play for Nigeria. I honored the invitation and had the opportunity to play a big part for the team as it marched to victory. We won titles back then. Nigeria is my fatherland and I am proud to play for her.
What has changed in the D’Tigress since your exit?
It is unfortunate that we have not been able to build on that successful era. Sincerely, we have the talents in the youths that are coming up, some of them are so more talented than we are, but we have not been able to build on them. I think it’s a matter of putting a programme and good plan together to help them achieve success. Nigeria is not lacking in talents.
Are you open to returning to help the national team?
You never want to say no to something like that. Unfortunately, the leadership is not willing to change right now. All over, people that had played the game internationally and won titles are looked upon for support. But sadly that is not the case here in the country.
What is the inspiration behind your programme for the kids in the US and is there any possibility of replicating such here in Nigeria?
When you look around and see some cities without support and good programmes to help the kids, and the kids want to learn what you know, you just have to offer help. Imagine having so many kids around you that are not doing anything, then you have to come to them with plans and worthwhile programmes. You may never know the kind of opportunities you are presenting to them. It is a matter of one presenting something for the less-privileged kids to do. Even you that is presenting the programme, you can never tell where it will take you. When I started playing basketball, I never knew that one day, I will become an Olympian. So it’s about providing opportunities.
And as for bringing it here, yes, it could be done. I can come down here with the programme, but we don’t have the facilities and we don’t have people here who are willing to learn. Absolutely, I can replicate the programme here and present opportunities for the kids.
How do you rate D’Tigress’ chances at the forthcoming Nation Cup in Cameroon?
I haven’t really seen them, but from the individual players and their results from the qualifiers, I think they are just a bit away from being a solid side. Secondly, I don’t know what the preparations and programmes are. But as I said earlier, we definitely have the talent. The federation has to put good programmes in place to ensure good preparation for the girls.
What are the circumstances behind your sack as an assistant coach of the national teams?
The entire problem started after Ayo Bakare was appointed to handle the men’s team. He left us without any instruction as to how we should go about the job. I believe as a head coach, he ought to have left specific instructions on what should be done in his absence. He left for Madagascar and we were left behind in the USA. When he rejoined the team after the assignment in Madagascar, the coach overturned everything we had done. The first thing was to sack Patrick, the second assistant with whom we had handled the team in America. He said he heard that we were planning to take his job. He never cared to ask any questions. The NBBF President on the hand did was not any better. He listened to stories and took decisions without hearing from the other side. When I was engaged I thought I was coming to serve my fatherland. But at the end I realised what I was told was half truth.
Any regrets about that?
Not at all. I know what I have done for women basketball in Nigeria. I played for seven years (between 2000 and 2007) for the national team. Throughout that period and beyond my name became synonymous with the Nigerian basketball team. I have done my best for my country and I am proud of my modest achievements with the team. I thought that was why they brought me in; to play the role of star figure that the girls could look up to, a role model of some sorts. If I knew things would end up this way, perhaps, I would have trained harder to come back as a player. I would have played. I thought of my weight. I thought of all that before accepting to come in as an assistant coach.
Have you at any time, undergone any formal training as a coach?
No. But I have had some experiences as a coach in the college. I used to handle the college team and the experience from my active days as a player. This is the first time I have had the opportunity of handling a senior team