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Nigeria guard, Atosu Upe, has been playing professional basketball since 2009. The 24-year-old First Bank player tells Idris Adesina about her dreams and the state of the sport in the country
You recently won your first continental title with D’Tigress. How does that make you feel?
One of my goals as a basketballer is to be a continental champion and being able to do that delights me. I am very happy that we conquered the continent, although it didn’t come easily. It is special to me because it is the first African title I have won with the national team. We were close in 2015, when we finished third. So winning the title is special and winning it without losing a match made it better and more special. I am just glad I am a member of that team.
Senegal and Nigeria will represent Africa at the World Cup in Spain next year. Why do you think African countries find it difficult to make an impact at the World Cup?
African teams have not been doing well at the World Cup because we were lagging behind in the sport in a lot of ways. The sport is not growing at the rate it is growing in other parts of the world. The United States has basketball entrenched in their lifestyle and that makes it very easy for them, likewise some countries in Europe and Asia. But with the current development in the game recently, I believe that will soon be a thing of the past. Africa is fast catching up with the other continents. The World Cup consists of the best teams from every continent – with each country seeking to win the title. These teams have also prepared very well as African teams do. But African players are now playing in leagues outside the continent and are playing well for those clubs. If these players come back to help their national teams, I think Africa will do better that we have done.
With the 2017 AfroBasket Women win in Mali, Nigeria climbed up in the FIBA rankings. Do you think D’Tigress have what it takes to succeed at the World Cup?
Yes, we can. There is nothing impossible if we put our hearts to it. Going into the Afrobasket, we were not favourites but we went there and did what we had to do even when we played the most difficult match of the tournament against the hosts. The players are there and ready to play. We need adequate preparations to build on what we already have. Nigeria has good players all over the world. The team can do the unthinkable and go very far at the World Cup.
What should be done to ensure that the team have a good outing in Spain?
We need adequate preparations. There is one thing going for us – we have talented players all over the world. The World Cup is a tournament that is bigger than the Afrobasket so we have to prepare very well for it . The team need reinforcements in some areas as well as friendly matches. We had a great starting five and a quality bench in Mali, so we were able to withstand the pressures of the competition. The World Cup will bring bigger pressure so we need to be better prepared for it and I believe we can do better than.
Why are African countries not having competitive leagues?
The soul and life of any sport anywhere in the world lies in the grassroots. Some African countries have good leagues which have really helped them. Angola, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt are good examples. The US, for instance, has many players in the WNBA that selecting players for their national team will always be a challenge, because everyone is good enough for the team. The same goes for countries like Israel and Spain. African countries haven’t developed their leagues because the structures are not there and sponsorships are lacking. That is why talented African players move abroad.
How can we have a good league in Nigeria?
It is easy and not too difficult. Apart from the Zenith Bank Basketball league, women’s basketball has no other league. That is not helping the players. Even the only league we have is not competitive because only three teams battle for the title – First Bank, Dolphins and First Deepwater. We need to restructure the league system where teams can come from the lower divisions into the premier league. This will allow more women’s teams to spring up. More private clubs will come on board and we have good players the national teams.
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