BAL an opportunity for players to showcase their talents

Hoopers adopt a championship attitude

AS Rivers Hoopers’ and their shooting guard Benjamin Ikechukwu get ready for the inaugural Basketball Africa League (BAL) tournament in Kigali, Rwanda, a new appreciation for life and the game has engulfed him.

Upon reflection, Ikechukwu says the lockdown of Nigeria, last year due to Covid-19, taught him to value the bonds of family and friendship. He has also learnt the importance of basketball, which he was unable to play or practice during the lockdown.

Benjamin Ikechukwu to ready BAL showcase
Benjamin Ikechukwu is excited about the return of the BAL. Pictures: FIBA

“It made me appreciate basketball a lot. Before the pandemic, I could wake up and go to the basketball court. During the national lockdown, it was not possible. I had to travel and find places with basketball courts to put in the work. I am grateful that things are now beginning to open up,” said the 23-year-old. “I have learnt there’s more to life than just living. I did not think there would be a time where there would be restrictions on seeing friends and family. You can’t see them because of the fear of Covid. From that aspect, I have learnt to appreciate life, friendship and family more.

Following the self-reflection, Ikechukwu has turned his attention to the BAL tournament, which tips off in Kigali on May 16. He and his Rivers Hoopers teammates have been sweating it out in preparation for the FIBA and NBA backed competition.

“I am excited because we have been looking forward to this tournament. It’s a victory for every team and player participating in it. It’s an opportunity for players to showcase their talents,” said Ikechukwu.

While Ikechukwu is happy to be back on the court, he is worried that the Port Harcourt based club is yet to play any competitive basketball, as some action on the hardwood would go some way in getting him and his teammates in-match shape.

“It’s been going great, but it could be better. We have not played together because of the pandemic. The Nigerian league has also not commenced, so we have not been able to get any competitive basketball. In preparing for BAL we have put in the work, though.” said the Lagos resident.

While Hoopers have had to make do with practices, the shooting guard says team coach Ogoh Oduadu encouraged the team to approach the situation with a winners attitude.

“Our coach has also told us to approach every practice like we are playing for a championship. So every practice we go at each other, we play like we are unfamiliar to each other. We have built an attitude, where despite not having played games, we want to compete and be aggressive,” said Ikechukwu.

Going into a tournament like BAL, teams have reinforced their squads with talents from across the continent and overseas. The Hoopers are no different; they have added D’Tigers point guard Ben Uzoh, two imports from America in Chris Daniels (centre) and Taren Sullivan (small forward). Uganda Silverbacks guard/forward Robinson Opong has replaced Festus Ezeli, who suffered a knee strain during a team practice.

Ikechukwu believes the new additions will bring value to the Hoopers. He hopes there will be a positive exchange between the new players and the current squad.

I think they are essential inclusions to boost the team. They will come with their experience and exposure to basketball. So we are looking forward to them blending in with the team. It’s an opportunity to share knowledge. Teach them how we play basketball here in Africa and also learn from them,” said Ikechukwu.

Given the talent on their roster for the competition, it is clear the three-time Nigerian league title winners want to leave their mark on the continent.

Benjamin Ikechukwu Third Picture
Benjamin Ikechukwu in action.

“As a team, I expect us to compete as hard as we can. We want to make the club proud, the state proud, and our nation proud. Hopefully, we can have a podium finish. That would be nice,” said Ikechukwu.

By Hoopers participating on the BAL stage, Ikechukwu hopes the Nigerian government will plough more resources into basketball. As a nation that has produced and exported notable talents, basketball does not enjoy the prominence it deserves.

“I hope somebody can implore the government to invest more in the sport and help us do better. Football is not the only sport in Nigeria. There are other sports like basketball, handball, volleyball and other sports that need support too,” said Ikechukwu.

The Hoopers are on the biggest stage of African basketball, which is already hard to ignore. Can they put in performances that will make people stand and take notice? The May 16 tip-off of the BAL will reveal all.

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