By Erin Brohman
Winnipeg’s Nigerian community made some noise for their national basketball team when they landed in the city Thursday afternoon.
Team Nigeria’s arrival at Winnipeg’s airport was met with drums, song, dance, hugs, flags and even the presentation of flowers to the team captain. The team will face Canada on Friday in their second exhibition clash in the lead-up to the FIBA World Cup in China.
“Oh, it was beautiful, man — just the greatest to see all these Nigerians in Winnipeg of all places,” said NBA player Al-Farouq Aminu, who plays professionally for the National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic.
“It was beautiful to see. The energy was there, so it was nice.”
The team and their coach, Alexander Nwora, gathered with dozens from Winnipeg’s Nigerian community in the lobby of the Richardson airport to dance, take photos and meet face-to-face.
“I didn’t think there’d be this much of a population of Nigerians, so it’s kind of cool to see,” said Aminu.
Both he and his teammate Ike Iroegbu said Canada has provided stiff opposition in their exhibition series. Wednesday’s score in Toronto was 96-87 for Canada, but the players said they’ll be reviewing the tape and fixing their mistakes.
“We played them good yesterday. I feel like if we’re smarter with the basketball and do things a little differently we’ll probably win that game. So we take care of that tomorrow,” said Iroegbu.
“We are so excited and we’re rooting for them,” said Grace Kyoon-Achan, vice-president of the Nigerian Association of Manitoba, who was at the airport.
She said many in the Nigerian community also have Canadian citizenship, so they’ll be rooting for everybody.
“We are people who are alive,” agreed Titi Tijani, president of the African Communities of Manitoba Incorporated. “What we saw here at the airport was very, very small. We celebrate loudly and we expect to do that tomorrow.”
Wilson Akinwale, publicity secretary of the Nigerian Association of Manitoba, said his organization has been planning for this event for months, working with True North Sports and Entertainment, tracking the D’Tigers, the team’s nickname, from the Dominican Republic to Toronto and now Winnipeg, getting shirts made for fans showing a Nigerian and Canadian flag combined, and setting aside two sections of Bell MTS Place for Nigerian fans.
“We want Manitobans and Winnipeggers tomorrow to watch out for our section of 221 and 222,” he said.
“Tomorrow we’re going to have Nigerians in thousands. The population is growing in Manitoba and a lot of people have bought tickets.”
Ayodele Odeyemi, who came to Canada from Nigeria five years ago, is one of the fans who welcomed the team.
“It is something so exciting to see players … coming to represent their fatherland, which is Nigeria, and also Canada,” he said.
“I can’t wait till tomorrow. It’s going to be a fun day.”
Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of venues and entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment, said there are still some seats available for Friday’s game, which tips off at 7 p.m. at Bell MTS Place.
“We’re hoping for a lower bowl sellout, so 8,000 people,” he said.
For the Nigerian players, a big crowd will only add to the pride they feel in wearing their country’s colours.
“It’s a great honour, when you can represent a whole country, it’s a great responsibility and it means a lot to your family,” said Iroegbu.
“It’s not even about the name on your back — it’s always about the name on the front of the jersey, so it’s a huge honour and we take it very seriously,” he said.
“Shout out to Nigeria, shout out to every Nigerian, just trying to make some noise for them, and that’s what we plan on doing,” said Aminu.
Nigeria’s men basketball team, however suffered a defeat to team Canada 96-87 in the first of the two games pre-World Cup friendly played in the early hours of Thursday.
The Nigeria side started the game on a bright note winning the first quarter 29-25 but the home side bounced back strongly in the remaining quarters, 2nd 50-41, 3rd quarter 72-60 and winning outrightly at the end.
Ike Iroegbu was adjudged Man-of-the-match after he finished with 12 points, 5/7 FG, 1/3 points, in 13 minutes.
The second game is scheduled for the same venue on Friday.