Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

"Watching what we built." This selfie of Al-Farouq Aminu went viral when Nigerian D'Tigers managed to beat Team USA in the preparation stage for the Olympic games. Two of the Nigerian National Team pioneers, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ike Diogu, watched the game on TV and couldn't be more proud of their brothers making history.

Ike Diogu

Ike  Diogu
Position: PF
Age: 37
Height: 208 cm
Weight: 107 kg
Birth place: Buffalo, United States of America

They both dreamed about this moment since their early beginnings.

In an interview with BasketNews, Diogu explained why should you watch out for D'Tigers in Tokyo Olympic Games.

"Come to LA. I will be in LA. We can work out together, hang out together, catch up and watch games," Al-Farouq Aminu texted his old friend Ike Diogu. Al-Farouq was one of Ike's best friends, so he didn't hesitate to accept the invitation.

In front of the TV, they were witnessing history. Nigeria NT pushed the Team USA on the ropes and became the first African team to beat Americans loaded with NBA stars 90-87.

"There was a lot of screaming, yelling, and jumping around the room," 37-year old Ike Diogu recalls watching that game with Al-Farouq. "We were just really happy. Really happy."

Ike Diogu and Al-Farouq Aminu signed on to join Nigeria National Team back in 2012. Back then, they sat down in the locker room of the Los Angeles Clippers and talked about big things in front of their nation.

They used to talk about Nigerians going to the Olympics every year. Never missing Olympics. Being African champions, being the best ranked in the World. Being one of the top great teams in the World. And being able to compete with the USA. 

"To see everything coming full circle was amazing," Diogu said in an interview with BasketNews.

Some people laughed hearing these two guys dreaming about Nigeria NT. Some embarrassing losses of Nigeria made doubters feel right. But both Diogu and Aminu knew the change was coming. And it might be coming this year.

Nigeria beat Team USA 90-87 and Argentina 94-71 on their way to the Tokyo Olympic Games. Diogu, the leading scorer and rebounder of Nigeria Olympic NT, believes this group of D'Tigers will do something special.

"If you're Nigerian, you know the enormous potential that we have just based on all the players that are of Nigerian descent. If we can ever have all of the players, we could have a really, really good team," Diogu told. "There were some embarrassing losses. But we just kept taking those necessary steps because we knew that the changes would eventually happen. It was going to take some time. It might not happen during our tenure. But we knew the change is coming."

- Nigeria vs. Team USA 73-156. What do you remember about that game in the 2012 London Olympics and what has changed in 9 years, that now you beat Team USA?
- There weren't a lot of positives in that game in London. But at the same time, I don't feel we prepared like we needed to. Especially to play against teams of that caliber.

That was part of the learning process. I think the success we had in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where we just went out there, just played, and let out talents speak for ourselves... I think we thought that it would carry us to the Olympics. But we were scouted very well. Teams took us seriously because we made some noise in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. That was another step that we as a country had to take, emphasizing scouting, knowing your personnel, really really watching a film, and just preparing better.

I don't think we prepared that well for London Olympics because nobody expected us to be there. When we qualified for the Olympics, we were like deers in headlights. It was all part of the growing process.

- In February, you mentioned that this was the year. You thought that this was the year you could take that next step to take African basketball to new heights. Many of us didn't take your words seriously. But probably a lot has changed after Nigeria's victories against Team USA and Argentina. What made you believe it's happening this year?
- I just knew that we're starting to get many NBA players that were really interested in representing Nigeria. Once that happened, when we started to get NBA personnel that was very interested in representing Nigeria. It was clear that preparation was always going to be the first class.

It was also a cultural shift. In terms of DNA, it's cool to be African. With all those things just combined, I just saw where we were going. We had eight players of Nigerian descent drafted in the last NBA draft. There are more coming. When you think about top high school players, all these guys are interested in playing for Nigeria. So it was only a matter of time.

Plus the experience that we already had. Guys who already played in two, some of us, three Olympics. It was all coming together to do something special in these Tokyo Olympics. And I still believe that.

- You also mentioned that it was only a matter of time when you would make it to the Olympic podium. Do you think the time is now? Right here in Tokyo? 
- I think so. If guys go out there and play as they played in the exhibition games, they have a good chance. But we got to make out of pool play which will be history in itself. Because no African team has ever made out of pool play. This team not only has everything it needs to get out of a pool play, but they have everything to finish on the podium. That right there will literally assure the golden age of Nigerian basketball. 

- When you're talking about the podium, there are many podium contenders like Spain, France, Australia, Slovenia, Team USA. These are outstanding teams. What makes you believe that Nigeria is better than them? What do you guys have that they don't have?
- I think experience. There is a lot of high-level players on our team.

Obviously, one thing which jumps off the charts is the athleticism that Nigeria has. Aside from the USA, I don't think there is a more athletic team than Nigeria there. And as far as just pure athleticism, we're neck to neck with the USA. Top to bottom, if you take all of their guys and all of our guys, it's a toss which team is more athletic.

Obviously, you need more than athleticism to win. But I think we have everything. Preparation will be on point. You got a good coach. And you've got really good players. Now it just comes down to execution and playing an International game. As we have seen, the team is definitely capable of doing that. That's why I feel confident in these guys.

- Athleticism was always there for Nigeria. What can you tell me about coach Mike Brown and what he brings to the team from the tactical standpoint? Could he help you to improve in other areas?
- He brings his offense that they run with the Warriors, which is a pretty fast-paced offense. It is based on spreading the ball out, getting a lot of assists, stretching the defense with a three-ball. I think that's definitely going to help.

And the other thing where he puts a huge emphasis on is defense. That's where the athleticism will come to the place because these guys can really get out and guard. If they guard like they are supposed to, they will always be in every game no matter what they will do on offense. Because they will be able to get out in the passing lanes, get stops, really push the tempo on offense and score a lot of points.

- These two wins against Team USA and Argentina were a statement. It was a statement you have to respect Nigerian basketball. But straight after D’Tiger’s victory against team USA, some disrespectful remarks towards Nigeria NT came from the US media, specifically Stephen A. Smith. What were your reactions and feelings about it?
- It was to be expected. The all thing that everybody wants to keep thinking about Nigeria is the 80-point loss in London Olympics. But it was 9 years ago, so the team has changed, philosophy has changed. And it's not the same Nigerian team. If you keep on thinking it's the same Nigerian team, that's what happens. That's how you get out and lose.

Nothing is the same from 9 years ago. Top to bottom. Not the federation. Not the coaches. I don't think there is any player from that team still on the squad. Everything is different. It's a new DNA. You got to give up these times.

It was very disappointing to hear that coming from Stephen A. But it wasn't surprising.

- Coach Mike Brown rephrased Nelson Mandella, saying the world won't respect Africa unless Nigeria wins at the Olympics. Does only winning a medal will bring that respect?
- Definitely, it would be a move in the right direction. There are so many negative things when you come up when you think of Nigeria... So to be able to bring some positivity, we can start changing the way how people view us on a global stage. That would definitely help us tremendously. But there's always a cloud of negativity surrounding Nigeria for whatever reason.

- Talking about respect, it was a long way to go to make Nigeria NT relevant on a basketball map. You were one of the pioneers of Nigerian basketball. What were the most important growing-pain experiences, which made your skin thick?
- Really just experience. Experience is the best teacher. In those early years, we just didn't have experience. Coming from the NBA and playing Internationally, the game is much different. So the only way that you can learn, just to go out there and play. You got to play against Spain, Lithuania, Greece, Russia... All these top teams. To know how to play against them. Because basketball is different.

We had to take some of our lumps early. It wasn't fun. It's not fun losing. Going to some of these tournaments where people didn't expect us to have a chance, and then actually going there and doing exactly what they said we would do, was disappointing. But I think with each tournament, we kept on building the momentum. So now, when we play against these European teams, they know that it's not going to be a cakewalk. They're not going to play Nigeria and beat us by fifty or whatever the case may be how it used to be in the past. You really have to come in because we really gonna be on our toes.

Our preparation is way different. We scout differently. We do everything differently now. We have adapted to playing this International game. On top of that, with having the physical attributes as we have... If we do what we suppose, we're always going to be in every game.

- Talking about these differences, how do you remember your first training camp in Nigeria NT? And can you compare how far Nigerian basketball moved forward?
- The organization wasn't always the greatest. Especially when I first came. There were so many moving parts. One day we had this player, the next day, we had a different player. We didn't have that solid structure that we needed. To have a successful National Team, there always has to be a core individual group of guys. The team was always constantly changing, that we could never get any good cohesiveness going. As a unit, you got to learn how the guy next to you plays. Once we started figuring those types of things, everything started to run smoothly. But early on, it was tough because we had so many moving parts.

- As you mentioned in one of your previous interviews, some high-profile players were a bit concerned about joining the National Team in the past. You and Al-Farouq tried to convince them not to pay attention and look for a bigger picture. Was it really a concerning part in the beginning?
- The hardest thing was changing the perception of Nigeria and how it's perceived. We're not perceived in a good light on any level. For whatever reason, we're just not. And especially when it comes to basketball, people have concerns. Often they have also been disavowed from playing for Nigeria. So when Al-Farouq and I came on board, we had two NBA players. And it was like, 'hey, listen, it's okay to play for Nigeria, nothing is going to happen to you, the country is safe, the country welcomes you with open arms.' But then again, it's also on every individual.

I grew up around Nigerians. I've been in Nigeria since I was a kid. I'm comfortable being in Nigeria. But if you have never been to Nigeria before, if you didn't grow up around, maybe one of your parents was Nigerian, and you didn't really have much of a relationship with that, those are the type of guys who were tough to convince to play for Nigeria. But now we have to turn people down from Nigeria, so that's a good thing as well. But obviously, in the early years, changing the perception of Nigerian basketball was really tough.

- How do you remember that moment when you and Al-Farouq decided to lead the Nigeria NT by an example? 
- I just think that we just knew the talent that Nigeria had. And we knew that if we would come together and do well in the Olympic Qualifying tournament, finally qualifying to the Olympics, we will finally give our names out there Internationally and for other Nigerians around the World actually to see us. Plus, the Olympics was going to be in London, which is like little Nigeria. There are tons of Nigerians there. We knew that if we could do something in that first tournament, that would be the initial steps to put everything into motion. 

- Many were surprised not to see you and Al-Farouq on the Nigeria National Team roster. Why?
- Al-Farouq is still doing rehab. If he was 100% healthy, he was for sure on the team

As far as my situation, I was 100% healthy. I'm not really sure what happened. Especially since I played in all the FIBA qualifying windows. It's one of these things I would like to give you an answer, but I think you have to ask those individuals who were in charge of making this decision.

Credit Imago Scanpix

- Did Mike Brown talk to you about this decision?
- Yes, he did talk to me. Obviously, I do want to go on the record and say I absolutely do not agree with the decision. This is what I also told Mike and the president and vice-president of the federation. I disagree with the decision, but the decision was made. Once it came down, I shifted my focus to support my brothers because the last thing I want to do is become a distraction. That's why I didn't come out with any statements or do something that people thought I would do. Act irrationally.

I'm still happy for the guys that are on the team. All those guys deserved it. That's how I shifted my focus.

- I also saw you sent them T-shirts from your clothing line.
- Yes. I still love the guys. That's not going to change. When you've been a part of something for 10 years when you're going on a battle with these guys... We had a really special bond. They were like real brothers to me. Just because I'm not on the team, the love doesn't stop.

- What are your plans for the next season?
- I'm training hard, and let's see where I end up playing.

- I guess you're not thinking about retirement.
- Nooo. I have too many games before retiring.

- By the way, why have you never played in Europe?
- I don't know why. I had a couple of chances to go to Europe. But I've got some other offers from the Asian market that just didn't make sense to turn down from the financial standpoint.

- I believe we didn't see your last game with the D'Tigers yet?
- I don't think so. But I don't know. I hope not. But at the same time, there are a lot of young, exciting prospects coming in. They might decide to go in a different direction, which I can respect. I don't know. We'll see.

- In one of the interviews, you mentioned that you would love to start coaching or working in the Nigerian basketball federation after retirement. Do you have the same plan?
- That's still the direction that I want to go in. Obviously, I will continue to play. But as of right now, that's still the goal.

- Where are you going to watch the Olympics? With Al-Farouq, in the same room?
- Yes, for sure! As a matter of fact, he's going to come down here, and we're going to work out together and definitely watch the games. Relax and cheer the guys on.

  Nnamdi Vincent PG 191 cm 91 kg 25 yr.
  Obi Emegano SG 190 cm 98 kg 28 yr.
  Josh Okogie SG 193 cm 96 kg 22 yr.
  Caleb Agada SG 193 cm 95 kg 27 yr.
  Miye Oni SG 198 cm 94 kg 23 yr.
  Ike Nwamu SG, PG 196 cm 96 kg 28 yr.
  Jordan Nwora SF 203 cm 102 kg 22 yr.
  Precious Achiuwa SF 203 cm 102 kg 21 yr.
  Ekpe Udoh PF 208 cm 111 kg 34 yr.
  Chimezie Metu PF 208 cm 102 kg 24 yr.
  KZ Okpala PF, SF 203 cm 97 kg 22 yr.
  Jahlil Okafor C 211 cm 125 kg 25 yr.

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