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Mobolaji Akiode: How D’Tigress ignited my passion for Nigeria

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Former women’s national basketball team player, Mobolaji Akiode, shares her humble beginning as well as her rise to global acclaim with her pet project,H4G in Africa, and working with the Jr.NBA in this interesting conversation with MORAKINYO ABODUNRIN.

For many in the Diaspora that turned their back from representing  Nigeria at sporting levels, the storied  career of Mobolaji Akiode with the national women’s basketball team, D’Tigress, and her other accomplishments thereafter, should be an eye opener.

Born in Nigeria but bred in the land of the Three Bs – Burger, Baseball and Basketball – Akiode pursued her American dream with a gusto by acquiring the golden fleece while excelling in sport but she didn’t forget her roots.

“I loved representing Nigeria and have made really great friends that I still speak with till today,” Akiode who represented Nigeria at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, explains via electronic mail to The Nation.

At the Athens 2004 Games, the D’Tigress took the continent’s sole ticket to the 12-team championship .Though overawed in their group that also housedAustralia, Brazil, Greece, Japan and Russia; they bounced back greatly with the typical Nigerian ‘never-say-die’ spirit in the classification match to beat South Korea 68-64 points. That feat against South Korea earned D’Tigress the distinction as the first women’s African basketball team to win a game at the Olympics.

“What was most special was that playing for Nigeria really ignited my passion for the country and the people,” says Akiode who currently works for the NBA’s youth basketball group (Jr. NBA). “It wasn’t without its challenges, but overall I would not change my experience for anything.”

Yet Akiode recalled her growing up experiences with nostalgia. She spent her childhood in Nigeria before moving to the U.S permanently with her family.

According to her, she used sports as an avenue to assimilate to her new life and also to open up doors to boundless opportunities.  It was these varied experiences that actually propelled her to basketball – the sport that has since given her so much fame and adulations around the world.

She explains further: “Growing up in America was a bit difficult. I spent my childhood living in Nigeria and so America wasn’t my first home and I was made to feel like an outsider as a child.

“I took up basketball purely to make friends and be a part of a team. I tried track and field and tennis a bit, but I wasn’t as committed. I just fell in love with basketball and it stuck with me.

“Despite having three older brothers, no one really played sports that seriously and to be honest it wasn’t as encouraged in our household as education was. Fortunately for me, no one deterred me from playing sports as long as I kept my grades in school.

“My parents eventually came around as they began to see success for me and that I could go to college for free, but try convincing Nigerian parents that their only daughter wants to be an athlete, not so easy.

“As I said, they saw how much I loved it and how much attention I was starting to garner from playing and they now understood that there are more opportunities that would happen for me,” she reiterated.

She excelled academically and reportedly led Columbia High School to the 1998 state championship.

Afterwards, she earned a scholarship to play college basketball at Fordham University where she shone like a neon light in the dark.

Apart from winning all-conference honours in her senior year as a scholar athlete from Fordham University, she racked up numerous awards along the way.

Being the eighth Fordham player to record 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in her career, amongst other things, she was deservedly inducted into the Fordham Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014. She graduated with a degree in accounting from Fordham and had trials with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock following her collegiate career. During her professional career, Akiode played in every major international woman’s tournament from the FIBA African Championship (FIBA AfroBasket) to representing Nigeria in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens Greece.

Yet she nearly got away but for providence, according to a high ranking member of the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF), Col. Sam Ahmedu (retd).

“Akiode came to play for Nigeria by providence; before 2003, she was unknown in Nigeria,”Ahmedu revealed in an interview with The Nation. “However, when the Nigerian national women team led by me to play at the 2003 African Nations Cup in Maputo, we were  informed about Mobolaji Akiode by a Malian player, Khady Khanoute.

“Khady hinted that Akiode was her roommate in Fordham University and would be of great help to Nigeria, which was actually in need of a shooting guard at the time (Khady is presently a member of the Anti-Doping Commission of the IOC).

“We won the Afro Basket in Mozambique and qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Khady gave myself and the late Chris Obojememe, who was our accompanying referee,  Akiode’s email and I sent her an email to come try out for our Olympic team.

“The then D’Tigress Coach, Sam Vincent and Mactabene Amachree (then of the New York Liberty of the WNBA), also scouted her in New York and gave a thumps up.”

But Akiode, according to Ahmedu, did not get her place in the team on a platter of gold. “Akiode showed up in Nigeria and made the cut on the Nigerian team tour to Germany and all the way to the Olympics in Athens, Greece.

“She gave a good account of herself in Greece where Nigeria won a competitive Olympic Game for the first time on behalf of Africa when the team beat Korea.

“Akiode was a member of the 2005 Afro Basket winning team in Abuja and member of the Nigerian team to the 2006 World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She also played for First Bank Elephant Girls in the African Champions Cup in 2006 and 2008.”

Even after she finally retired from the slam-and-dunk game, Akiode stuck her guns with her first love and, by the way, she refused to comment on issues bordering on the opposite sex. “I’d rather not answer (that question),” she quipped.

However, she was enthusiastic as Eulerian about the latitude she has gained with working with the Jr.NBA as overseer of the development of youth programmes across the US.

“It’s not very often you get an offer to travel the world for free after college,” Akiode, an alumnus of the New York University (NYU) Stern School of Business, says further.“It was an opportunity I could not pass up and I’m glad I didn’t. I think everyone should explore the world before settling into any profession.”

Yet if there is anything that has given Akiode a great deal of satisfaction since she retired from active playing career, it is her novel H4G (Hope FOR Girls) initiative.

This is the annual basketball camp she created to develop and mentor girls in the knowledge of the game of basketball. It was during her return to Nigeria that she knew she could help younger girls also realise the opportunities that sports can bring.

The Hope 4 Girls Africa which was officially launched in March 2010 has created opportunities to some ladies to play basketball and study outside Nigeria. Since its inception, H4G has engaged thousands of girls and has opened its doors to girls with disabilities as well.

Mobolaji’s focus through H4G is to use basketball to help instil discipline, develop leadership skills, promote pro-social friendships, and reassert a sense of hope in the future amongst girls from less-privileged backgrounds.

“Mobolaji Akiode can be regarded as a pioneer,” foremost basketball commentator and writer, Bode Oguntuyi, said in an interview with The Nation. “She was one of the first set of foreign based women basketball players to be invited to wear the colours of D’Tigress but her biggest achievement is being recorded off the basketball floor with her annual basketball camping programme called Hope for Girls; it has exposed Nigerian girls to the discipline of basketball, and given them a chance at a better life through scholarships in American universities.”

The giant strides of H4G under Akiode has not gone unnoticed and this to her delight had been featured on  media platforms such as CBS sports, Good Morning America, Outside The Lines, ESPN Magazine, NCAA Human Buick Highlight Reel and ESPN which was broadcast prime time both in the U.S and all over Africa.

“Honestly, I wish I could do more (for H4G),” Akiode recapped. “H4G is particularly proud of the 12 girls it helped secure student athletic scholarships both in the U.S and in Nigeria.

“I have it in my heart to create opportunities for so many girls, but I thank God I’ve been able to keep it alive for this long and still able to make an impact in many lives.

“To answer your question, I haven’t achieved the goals that I have for hope for girls, but I think I’m on the right track.”

Of course, good deeds are never gone unnoticed and Akiode’s accomplishment with H4G has widely been applauded.

For her tireless work, she was recognised both as an Everyday Hero by Toyota and in 2014, as one of the 25 most impactful women influencers in sports by ESPNW.

“Of all the women folks that have come to play for Nigeria from the diaspora, Akiode occupies a pride of place with her pet project “Hope 4 Girls”, through which she has nurtured and groomed so many upcoming Nigerian prospects,” Ahmedu further said. “Her emphasis on education as a means to an end is second to none and players like 6′ 9″ Felicia Aiyetan at the University of  Virginia and  6’3″ Akinbode at Duke University who are products of her camps in Nigeria, which also involves life skills training, hold the future for our female basketballers.

“Mobolaji Akiode is a precious gift to this country and her contributions to the development of our women folks know no bounds. When the history of Nigerian basketball is written, Akiode, who holds a Master’s Degree and served at Nike briefly before being picked up by the NBA office in New York, will have her namewritten in gold more than ten times.”

Of course, it’s widely said that the sky is one’s limit, no wonder Akiode is still setting her eyes on greater things to accomplish. “For my short term goals, I just hope to get better and better every day; learn from my mistakes and continue to challenge myself.

“Long term, I hope to be in a position of leadership where I can have the most impact on improving the lives of others,” she concluded.