Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Unique Role Basketball Plays In Developing Nigeria's Economy

By Alicia Jessop,
Forbes, November 24, 2013

The Nigerian economy is in the midst of a renaissance.  Led largely by the oil industry’s presence in the country, experts expect Nigeria’s economy to overtake South Africa’s as the largest in the African continent within the decade.  Some expect that feat to come as soon as the end of 2013, due to a rebasing of Nigeria’s GDP from 1990 to 2008, which will reportedly cause the country’s reported GDP to soar.

Nigeria’s economy has grown and become more stable since democracy came to the country through the end of militarization in 1999. While Nigeria’s government and economy are on the upswing, jobs have been slow to come to the country.  A 2013 survey by Gallup found that only 9-percent of Nigerians reported they were employed full-time in 2012.  That survey also found that 34-percent of Nigerians listed job creation as the most important issue for the Nigerian government to address.  This issue beat out every other issue posed in the survey, including corruption.  With 63.1-percent of Nigeria’s population falling under the age of 24 and over two-thirds of its population living on less than $1.25 per day, job creation is critical to sustaining Nigeria’s growth and political freedom.

Earlier this month, a group of unlikely sources banded together to address the need of job opportunities and leadership development for Nigeria’s rising labor force.  In November, the NBA along with WNBA, Africare and ExxonMobil launched an initiative aimed at using basketball to develop health, leadership and life skills for Nigeria’s youth.  The initiative, called “Power Forward,” will provide opportunities to 300 students in ten public and private high schools in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.  Boys and girls will be equally represented in the program, which will utilize classroom and athletic activities led by coaches aimed at teaching students leadership skills and building health awareness.  A main emphasis of the program is goal setting, which will be facilitated by program leaders evaluating the initiative’s participants at different stages of the program.

In supporting the initiative, one thing the NBA, WNBA, Africare and ExxonMobil committed themselves to ensuring was that each school has the necessary supplies, including basketball equipment, to facilitate the initiative’s mission.  While seemingly innocuous, this commitment is perhaps the most necessary factor for building a stronger basketball presence in the country.  That basketball presence, in turn, will hopefully lead to job creation for Nigerians.

A solid infrastructure is one of the greatest factors preventing Nigerian youth from excelling at basketball.  Currently, soccer is the most-played sport amongst Nigerian youth.  Ugo Udezue, a Nigerian-born NBA agent explained the infrastructure that is necessary for the growth of basketball in Nigeria.  ”Soccer is the biggest sport in the country, because soccer is easily accessible–all you need is a ball.  You don’t need a built-in infrastructure to play the sport.  With basketball, though, you need more of an infrastructure.  You need a court and hoops to play.  And in Nigeria, there aren’t many of them,” he said.

Given the lack of an existing basketball infrastructure within the country, it is perhaps surprising that since the NBA’s founding, over 20 Nigerian-born players have found their way onto the league’s hardwood.  Arguably the greatest of the group, Hakeem Olajuwon, like so many other Nigerian-born children, grew up playing soccer.  It wasn’t until an initiative similar to Power Forward came to Olajuwon’s home in his teenage years, that the twelve-time NBA All-Star, two-time NBA Champion and 1994 NBA MVP picked up a basketball.  ”I’m one of the beneficiaries of a program like this.  About 32 years ago, basketball was introduced to my school during my senior year.  I know how that impacted myself, my friends and other schools,” Olajuwon said.

Olajuwon is succinct in explaining the role that basketball played in molding his future:  ”Basketball changed my life.”  He goes on to explain, “It gave me an opportunity to go to school on a basketball scholarship, and from there, to be a professional.”  Thus, it’s no surprise that he is one of the biggest supporters of the Power Forward initiative.  ”It’s always been a dream of mine to see the NBA in Nigeria developing a grassroots program that could also be a vehicle for life skills.  For the NBA to actually develop a program in Nigerian schools is such a wonderful program.  I feel very privileged that the NBA came to Africa and looked at Nigeria as a platform for doing this,” Olajuwon noted.

Olajuwon firmly believes that Nigeria is the perfect place to not only develop future basketball talent, but to provide young people with the life skills necessary to chart the course of a newly democratic nation.  ”We have all of the talent here in Nigeria.  All they are looking for, are the same opportunities as others to develop that talent,” he said.

Olajuwon isn’t alone in his belief that basketball is a gateway for Nigeria’s continued economic growth.  Udezue cites Nigeria’s booming film industry, nicknamed “Nollywood,” as an example of how sports and entertainment opportunities can build the country’s economy.  Nigeria’s film industry ranks second in the world in annual film productions, putting it ahead of the United States and behind India.  ”When the film industry exploded, it brought a lot of revenue to the country.  Different people were becoming employed and different avenues for businesses were opened,” Udezue noted.

Using the success of Nigeria’s film industry as an example, Udezue argues that Nigerian leaders could be swayed to follow another method unconventional to economic growth to build the country’s economy.  That unconventional method?  Investing more resources into building the country’s basketball infrastructure.

 ”Most of the leaders in Nigeria don’t look at sports as a means to an end for anything.  They don’t understand how you can develop the country through it or build revenue.  Nigeria, though, has the natural resources necessary for basketball.  Its people are tall and big.  If basketball was developed in Nigeria, it could open up a whole stream of revenue for the country,” Udezue said.

While it will be some time before basketball experiences Nollywood-like heights in Nigeria, one thing is certain:  The path for the sport to develop the lives of the country’s youth and in turn, impact its economy, is being paved.  And paving the path’s way, are basketball’s loyal enthusiasts:  the NBA, its players and former players and biggest supporters.
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