Every summer, Alex Nwora and his wife return to Nigeria to run a basketball camp. It usually last two weeks, is for both boys and girls, and is at the heart of what Nwora is about – helping young players get better at the game and get better at life.
He has retained a profile in Nigerian basketball, even as he made his coaching career in Buffalo. Nwora not only ran camps in Nigeria, but recruited Nigerian players for his team at Erie Community College.
But now, Nwora has an opportunity at a higher level to make an impact on the country’s grassroots basketball movement. He was named the head coach for the Nigerian national team for the upcoming FIBA AfroBasket 2017.
He becomes the first Nigerian-born coach for the national team.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Nwora said as he held a national team camp at the Burt Flickinger Athletic Center this week.
“It hasn’t been easy. There are many people who weren’t happy. It’s politics and it is life. It’s business as usual. But at the end of the day I think they hired the right guy because of my passion for the game. These guys know too it’s not about being a junior college coach. I’ve been here 20 years. I could have gone anywhere. It’s how much you know basketball. The bottom line is they know Nigeria has a good chance of being a powerhouse in Africa. This is a big platform now.”
Nwora has international experience. He spent 6 1/2 years as the head coach of the Cape Verde national team, a stint that included upsetting Nigeria in a game at AfroBasket 2013. That certainly caught the attention of those in Nigerian basketball circles.
Nigeria won the last AfroBasket tournament, held in 2015, and the country qualified for the last two Olympic Games under American head coach Will Voigt.
With Nigeria’s national basketball federation under new leadership, the organization changed its focus to cultivating Nigerian talent with Nigerian coaches. Voigt was out. Nwora, from Erie Community College, was in.
“You’re successful, you’ve coached other countries, you upset Nigeria, lets give you a chance,” Nwora said of his discussions with the new federation. “The coach before I was there did a good job, too, but they campaigned on going with indigenous coaches, indigenous players, making sure they grow basketball from grassroots, not just having foreigners to come and play. That’s where we are. It’s been tough.”
It’s a move that is meaningful not just on paper, but to the players as well.
“It’s been great because Alex is same tribe as I am,” said Ike Diogu who has been with the national team since 2011 and played six years in the NBA. “He speaks to me both in English and in Igbo which is pretty cool. This is the first time that we have had an Igbo coach and I think it’s a monumental thing. It’s just been a real blessing to be here.”
Nwora was named head coach in August, not giving him a lot of time to prepare for the tournament which begins on Sept. 8 in Tunisia. His camp in Buffalo was funded largely out of his own pocket, with the help ECC, which is letting him use the gym, and local businesses including Embassy Suites and Chef’s Restaurant.
“It’s so warm to see even Buffalo is happy for the opportunity I have to be coaching the Nigerian national team,” Nwora said.
From his camp at ECC, he will bring six to eight players to Nigeria. He will then complete the roster of 12 with players currently in Nigeria.
Nigerian players have been making an impression on basketball in North America and the NBA. At this summer’s draft, five players of Nigerian descent were selected – Edrice “Bam” Adebayo (14th overall, Miami Heat), Ogugua “OG” Anunoby (23rd overall, Toronto Raptors), Wesley Iwundu (33rd overall, Orlando Magic,), Semi Ojeleye (37th overall, Boston Celtics), and Ike Anigbogu (47th overall pick, Indiana Pacers).
“In the past soccer has been the biggest sport in Africa but basketball is becoming so big now in Nigeria,” Nwora said.
Nigeria begins defense of its African title with pool play which runs from Sept. 8-10. The quarterfinals are Sept. 14, semifinals Sept. 15, and the medal games on Sept. 16.
Story topics: Alex Nwora