When it comes to advocacy for the development of women’s basketball in the country, one of the loudest voices is that of Mfon Udoka. But not only has she lent her voice, she has also contributed in every other way she can; from being a player, to captain, to assistant coach, to a front office personnel.
She was probably the most excited Nigerian in the Salamatou Maiga Palace of Sports in Bamako when the senior women’s team DTigress won their semifinal game against host Mali with just one point at the 2017 FIBA Women’s Afrobasket tournament securing a spot at this year`s FIBA Women’s World Cup. You could tell that her heart was filled with joy; like a true mother watching her kids that made it. Winning the trophy was an icing on the cake.
Every time the women’s senior team has made us proud, you will find Mfon in the picture. We call her Fonnie with the Midas touch, she calls herself blessed.
You were a part of all the national teams that won the Women’s Afrobasket Tournament the three times – as a player in ’03 and ’05, as a GM in ’17. What does this mean to you?
It means I have been incredibly lucky and blessed to have been a part of these teams. I am thankful to be a huge part of Nigerian basketball history and to be associated with winning. When I came to play for Nigeria I had no idea what I was getting into, what to expect or what would happen. As a player, it is always a goal to win, and in 2003 we were 3 for 3 in our competitions for that year! When we won Afrobasket in `03 it was against all odds, there was so much that went on during that tournament that made me angry but I can laugh about it today.
I don`t think anyone thought we could really win. I will always be proud of that team, coaches included. We were not the most talented but we were tough, resilient, and played hard until the very end of every game.
I have actually been a member of all SIX championships associated with women`s basketball in Nigeria: our first and only Gold medal at the 2003 All Africa Games, and two with First Bank Nigeria in 03 and 09. With this latest Afrobasket win, I believe that team can win another Gold medal at the All Africa Games.
Of all these three championships, which is the most precious to you and why?
I honestly cannot pick one, everyone meant something different. Our first win in 2003 was historic for Nigeria, male or female, and gave us the country`s first appearance at the Olympics. Going to the Olympics is the dream of every athlete. The second one was special because we did it at home, in front of our fans. Winning championships are hard, but they are even harder to repeat. I was the MVP, leading scorer and rebounder and top 5, and was also gifted a black eye, severely sprained ankle, scratches and bruises all over my body. Some of those scars are still on my arms today. To date, Nigeria has still hosted the best Afrobasket, specifically because the accommodations were top notch. We were comfortable at the Hilton and well fed. Our rooms were immaculate. This recent win in Mali was memorable because the team was so talented and we went undefeated for the first time ever.
I am proud to be a big piece of helping them behind the scenes, and it was even better to have Sam Vincent coaching us again after not winning for 12 years. From management on down we really made the best of our limited preparation time and returned to glory.
You mentioned “talent and chemistry” as the main reasons you’d rate the 2017 team above the 2005 team. What can we do to identify, attract and retain our best talents to represent the team?
It doesn`t take much to identify and attract talent because there are so many Nigerian basketball players around the world. There is never a lack of players. Players also talk to each other and do a lot of the work through word of mouth and social media. People want to play for Nigeria. To retain talent, our federation needs to make the experience enjoyable and worth the sacrifice by being honest, transparent, organized and cognizant of players and their needs. I personally want everything to be perfect for everyone. I am hoping we get to a point where there is not one single oversight or complaint.
You said getting the right people behind basketball is key to the development of the game in Nigeria. If you were to choose a role to play in future, what role do you think you’d be most efficient at?
An advisor or special assistant to the President and an advocate for women in basketball. I like to play the role of devil’s advocate and say things or propose ideas that aren`t necessarily popular or what people want to hear. You need to have people around that will listen to and challenge each other, not a dictatorship or "yes men".
Basketball is a team sport and people have to work together while staying in their designated roles. I believe strong, confident and intelligent women provide an important balance in the workplace because we often see things differently than men. If we are dealing with women`s basketball, there should be women present. We should be embraced and appreciated and not seen as a threat or incompetent strictly because of our gender.
DePaul Hall of Fame, FIBA Africa Hall of Fame. You are definitely a future Nigerian Basketball Hall of Famer. Mention 5 other female players you’d love to see inducted with you into the Nigerian Basketball Hall of Fame.
I was first inducted into Benson High School in 2004 and secondly into the Portland Interscholastic Hall of Fame in 2007. FIBA Africa also honored me with a Golden Basket legend award in 2015. I am not familiar with many players of the past, but I should know their names and faces. There needs to be more recognition for the pioneers of the sport so that the younger generations know who people are. For starters, our 2003 team should be inducted as well as Mactabene Amachree.
You are the only Nigerian to have won MVP at the continental game. We came close at the 2017 tournament. Quite a number of people felt Evelyn Akhator should have been named MVP. What do you think?
I thought she was going to win as well, I think she got robbed. It seems as if FIBA decided to do something different and went off statistics, as they did with Ike Diogu. Evelyn`s statistics weren`t dominant, but she was also on a team that could and did play 12 players. Senegal didn`t have our depth or talent so for one player to average a lot of points and lose doesn`t make them an MVP in my opinion. But at the end of the day Senegal was crying and Nigeria was celebrating, and I would rather have a championship than an MVP trophy.
The last time Nigeria was in a World Cup was in 2006 and we finished last with a 0-5 record. From your assessment of the current team, should we expect a better outing?
Absolutely!!! If we find a few true post players with height and physical presence we will be dangerous. We also need to have two more experienced coaches on the bench, as most countries do. We will be playing the best teams in the world so we need to have a staff that is knowledgeable and prepared.
The team in 2006 was probably my most frustrating experience with Nigeria. First off, I tore my meniscus and had arthroscopic surgery in June and was probably around 70% healthy by September. My knee was still swollen and sore and just not ready for major competition. The roster was not constructed well and some players who were supposed to show up did not. We had too many young inexperienced players and the chemistry was not good either. We actually had a decent camp in Houston but didn`t play enough warm-up games before we got to Brazil. We did not have a complete coaching staff, just the head coach, which is INSANE. If I remember correctly, there was a visa excuse (of course) and we didn`t even have an assistant coach on the bench in Brazil until the very end. I don`t even remember if anyone from the federation showed up.
It was absolutely ridiculous for a tournament of this magnitude, and just another example of the past behaviors of the NBBF regarding proper preparation and always making excuses for their incompetence. In addition to all of those challenges, we had three of the strongest teams in the world in our bracket: USA Russia and China. We should have won our last two games vs. Chinese Taipei because we beat them by 20 in a warm-up game, and lost the last game to Senegal by 2.
So as you can see, it is almost impossible to do worse! It was an upsetting experience and I am confident our new board will put Nigeria in the best situation to represent Nigeria properly this time. We have to be organized and dedicated to preparing our team as best as possible in a timely manner.
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Only two out of ten teams – Senegal & Mali – have won a single game at the World Cup in the last two decades. What are we not doing right in women’s basketball in Africa?
Developing the game of basketball has to become a priority for Africa and then money needs to be allocated for creating and maintaining development of the game. Ideally, the government would have a budget for sports programming for people of all ages, and the private sector would just be a bonus. It is not a gender issue, it is a lack of interest in sporting culture issue among other things. African players are generally not as experienced as the rest of the world because there are not enough quality programs for children to play basketball at a young age. Fundamental development is important during formative years and if you start playing as a teenager, you are already behind a majority of the world. Of course, there are exceptions.
In addition to not having programmes, there aren`t enough facilities, equipment or quality coaches. For players to receive proper coaching, training and playing opportunities they usually have to leave the continent. It is a complicated and frustrating situation, and there is a lot of blame to go around. There so much wasted potential and talent and we know there is money, but basketball just isn`t a priority yet. We just need enough people with resources to care and work together then we will be able to see Africa compete with the rest of the world.
We are beginning to focus on front office roles in Nigerian basketball. As the GM of the Women’s team, how relevant is the front office to winning tournaments and basketball development in Nigeria?
Teams must have competent people in a front office for a franchise to succeed. The duties of a General Manager vary, but they often are in charge of coaching suggestions, player personnel and certain day to day administrative duties. Roles are extremely important. While each person has a job to do, people still have to communicate and work together for the sake of the team. There are so many areas such as basketball operations, business operations, corporate sponsorships, Human Resources, development, marketing and sales, ticket sales, etc. so it is imperative that each employee do their job and not someone else`s.
When Nigeria is able to procure more sponsorships we will see better basketball. You need money to have a better product and attract better talent to develop the game.
Your best Afrobasket moment?
Definitely beating Mozambique on their home court in 2003 and realizing we would be going to the Athens Olympics. We had less than one week of training camp, survived terrible accommodations in the city of Nampula, which I`m sure was done deliberately. In the championship round, were losing in the semifinals to Angola and then Mozambique in the finals but we ended up winning in the last few minutes of both games. Mozambique was devastated and they still talk to me about it today. We really broke the hearts of the entire country.
You had a brief coaching stint in 2011 when the women’s team was preparing for the African Nations Cup and the All African Games. Will we see you on the sidelines again anytime soon?
I don`t think I need to be on the sidelines, but I am definitely capable of providing assistance because I know the game. I can offer my opinion or give suggestions if asked and I don`t need to be a coach to do that. The GM and head coach are always communicating anyway. I enjoy administrative duties and fostering relationships with players off of the court, which is just as valuable.