Bakare - The Basketball Whisperer
The man dancing is in an obvious state of euphoria. You see it in his eyes as well as in the cheeky satisfied grin he is wearing. Rivers of sweat dribble down his ebony face as he gyrates to the cheers of his hand-clapping team.
Even in the gaggle of shaved heads and nappy curls his grey plume stands out making him look like the elder statesman one must respect.
His name is Ayodele Bakare.
He is a head basketball coach. The place is Caracas, Venezuela. It is last Sunday night and his team "D Tigers of Nigeria" have just beaten the Dominican Republic to secure the last ticket to the 2012 London Olympic games.
While many Nigerians woke up on Monday morning still pinching themselves in a combination of shock, disbelief and joy, the coach has long envisioned this happy ending. Even before (in a more muted form) he helped take D Tigresses down the same road in 2004, and even when he was also there in 2005 when they won the 2005 FIBA Africa Championship for Women, Bakare tells us he knew then that Nigeria had the potential skill-wise to become a reckoned force.
Over the years Bakare defied the odds and confidently stepped out of the suffocating shadow cast by Football in Nigeria by developing his own sun. Buoyed by the interest in the developing DStv League, he slowly pecked away at disbelief and persistently sold his vision to all who would listen.
He showed glimpses of his work in progress at the World Championships and then in Madagascar in 2011 at the Africa Championship, where Nigeria finished third. These multiple previews finally paid off especially to the Nigerian Americans and others born outside of Nigeria who make up the bulk of his team. They form the cream of the circa 200 professional basketball players Nigeria has.
He gradually lassoed them all in and slowly his dream was no longer just his - it had morphed into theirs.
They now remain the one constant on a team that continuously keeps changing in players. Not only does Bakare keep finding them but he uses them as wisely as an owl. Just count how many players are back from the World Championship team for instance?
Everybody talks about Nigeria's physicality and athleticism, causing many to overlook that it is primarily an excellently coached team as well. The team rarely gets exasperated and will play with anyone till the final whistle. To me that says tons about character and focus, which as we know comes directly from leadership
Even when Ibekwe's shot rattled off the rim against Venezuela and the team lost a game that they should have won, the team refused to sulk and regrouped for her monster test against Lithuania. Again it was Bakare that provided the calming effect of a soothing ointment.
He was everywhere – in the papers, over the Internet and on the air.
He told us how D Tigers would still make the quarterfinals and how this would happen and that wouldn't. His confidence in the team is unmatched, which is precisely why D Tigers love him and play for him the way they do. That is why Skinn will trickle through a maze of bodies twice his size and punish them with daft lay ups regardless of the very punishment he gets in the act. It is why egos are checked and everyone is humble. It’s why these Tigers now have monster fangs to mirror their leader’s belief.
Almost unnoticed, Bakare is not just making history he is also doing it with minimal help. Inconsequential and embarrassing is what I call it when compared to the money spent on Football in Nigeria. It is annoying when you look at the sports revolutions in Cuba in the ‘80s or more recently in Jamaican track and field.
It is more vexing when we look at the natural potential available for Nigeria to equal such phenomena and become a major player in another big time sport.
Thank God I said ALMOST unnoticed, because more and more people are beginning to notice Nigeria's "Basketball Whisperer" and many are praying, just as I am, that he is allowed and given the opportunity to keep living out his dream.