The United States Women’s basketball team have extended their Olympics winning streak to an incredible 50 games, although they were forced to labour for it against an impressive and determined Nigerian team.
Nigeria’s D’Tigress lost to the U.S. team 72-81 in the preliminary round Group B opener at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo.
The result confirmed Team USA has been flawless since the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. It was not a pretty performance by the Americans, but they managed to get the job done.
In the first quarter, Nigeria showed good control and tenacity on the defensive end and caught the American off guard early in the game. At the end of the first quarter, Nigeria led 20-17 and had forced eight turnovers from the US women.
But the defending Olympic champions bounced back in the second quarter and dominated the game. At one point in the second quarter, they ripped off a 23-0 run, won the quarter 27-12, and built a double-digit lead at the break. At this stage, they were never in danger of losing the game.
Team USA won the third quarter 26-18 and got a little lackadaisical towards the end of the fourth quarter and the D’Tigress took control, dominated the match, and won it 22-11 to narrow the winning margin by just nine points.
‘Next Game Will Be Better’
Just last week, in an exhibition game in Las Vegas to prepare for the Olympic Games, USA humiliated Nigeria 93-62 points and D’Tigress coach, Otis Hughley, can use the latest result to motivate his team ahead of games against France and Japan.
At the post-match briefing, Hughley admitted he would have preferred playing another team in the opening game.
“It’s like starting your boxing career and they tell you you’re fighting Muhammad Ali (USA) in his prime. Now that is not something you’re looking for. ‘I want to box, but I don’t want to box that bad’” he said.
Nigeria’s Minister of Youth and Sports Development, Sunday Dare, said he was so proud of the Nigerian ladies and their performance despite the outcome of the game.
“I watched the game from the start to the end. Every moment. I saw players who can fight, and they fought.
“From 20 points disadvantage, they climbed back steadily, the height and built of the Americans notwithstanding. The next game will be better. I trust them. Going up against the Americans as they did, our team is good and can be better,” he said.
Nigeria’s D’Tigress will be back on the court on Friday for their second Group B match against the French team.
Football has always been Nigeria’s favourite sport with a historic Olympic gold the pinnacle of its success, but the country now eyes basketball for glory at the Tokyo Games.
The West African nation of 210 million people made history 25 years ago when their football team struck gold in Atlanta at the expense of top-rated Argentina, the first Olympic title won by an African team.
But for the Tokyo Games, both the men and women’s football teams failed to qualify, with medal hopes shifting to other sports including the men’s basketball team, as ‘D’Tigers’ carry the nation’s aspirations following some shock results in the lead-up to the Olympics.
Ranked 22nd in the world, Nigeria upset a United States team featuring NBA stars like Kevin Durant 90-87, having been blown away 156-73 by the same opponents at London 2012.
The Nigerians also stunned world No.4 Argentina 94-71 in another warm-up game for Tokyo.
“We have not won anything yet, but I have a feeling I can uplift a whole continent,” said 51-year-old coach Mike Brown, formerly in charge of the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We are not going for the experience, we’re going to Tokyo to win,” he said.
“This morale-boosting performance on the eve of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics is a positive signal that Team Nigeria will achieve podium finishes at the Games,” added Nigeria’s sports minister Sunday Dare.
“I am delighted with the progress our athletes are making in their respective sports and I strongly believe we will have many of our athletes in strong medal positions at this Olympics and future international global events.”
Like the Nigeria football team, the ‘D’Tigers’ squad is dominated by players from the diaspora who play in the NBA.
They have strength in depth at each position, with Miami Heat trio Gabe Vincent, Precious Achiuwa and KZ Okpala on the roster, along with Minnesota Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie and Detroit Pistons center Jahlil Okafor.
Against the USA, Vincent scored 21 points while Israel-based Caleb Agada pitched in with 17 as Nigeria became the first African nation to beat the 15-time Olympic champions.
“It gives all of us the confidence to go out there and perform at a high level just like we did against USA and Argentina,” said Okafor.
“The message is to take care of business and avoid any let-down.”
They trained stateside for four weeks before concluding preparations in Kisarazu, Japan.
However, critics argue that the team’s fate in Japan will have minimal bearing on the domestic championship, which has been disrupted in recent times by a drawn-out power tussle in the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF).
The men’s domestic league does not have a title sponsor amid grumblings that no home-based player made the cut for Tokyo.
“What the team have done is a great development for Nigerian basketball internationally, but it’s killing us locally because we’re not investing at home,” said former ‘D’Tigers’ captain Olumide Oyedeji.
“We have got carried away by what we are achieving internationally.”
Oyedeji advocated for better opportunities for the players based in Nigeria.
“It’s not a crime to be born in Nigeria, it’s not a crime to play in Nigeria, it’s not a crime to reside in Nigeria,” he said.
“So, we should give the local boys a chance too, a hope for the future.”
“The players who are now available for Nigeria are those who were not previously because the NBA season was on,” he said.
“They don’t have a chance to play for the US who have so many great players, but they all now want to play for Nigeria because they will be seen at the Olympics and it will be great for their CVs.”
Tokyo marks the third straight appearance at the Olympics for Nigeria, who failed to make it past the group stage at the past two editions.
They have been drawn in a tough-looking group with Australia, Germany and Italy, and tip off their campaign on Sunday.
“I see no reason why they cannot continue their success in the exhibition matches at the Olympics,” said Will Voigt, who led Nigeria to their first-ever African basketball championship title in 2015.
Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered a historic 50-point performance when it mattered most in leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA title since 1971 by defeating the Phoenix Suns 105-98 on Tuesday.
The Bucks captured the best-of-seven NBA Finals by four games to two, becoming only the fifth team to claim the crown after dropping the first two contests.
Antetokounmpo, only the seventh player in finals history with a 50-point game, made 17-of-19 free throws while adding 14 rebounds and five blocked shots as the Bucks went a NBA-best 10-1 at home in the playoffs to end a half-century title drought.
“I want to thank Milwaukee for believing in me. I want to thank my teammates for playing hard with me,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m thankful I was able to get it done.”
The 26-year-old Greek forward matched the greatest scoring night in a close-out game in finals history, the 50-point effort by Bob Pettit in 1958 for the St. Louis Hawks over Boston.
“He put us on his back. When we needed him, he told us to just feed him,” Bucks guard Khris Middleton said. “It’s amazing to be on this journey with him.”
Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Antetokounmpo, who had been questionable for the opener with a hyperextended knee, also equaled Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to take NBA Finals MVP and NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season.
“He’s a special human being. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s a special leader,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “These players are champions every day. They’ve embraced getting better every day.”
An expanded “Deer District” party zone outside the sold-out 20,000-seat arena welcomed 65,000 people watching on videoscreens and they had the celebration they had hoped to enjoy.
“I’m happy I was able to do it with this team for Milwaukee,” said Antetokounmpo. “And Coach Bud says we have to do it again.”
The Suns were foiled in their bid for the first crown in their 53-year history. Phoenix guard Chris Paul, playing in the first NBA Finals of his 16-year at age 36, led the Suns with 26 points.
“It hurts. Badly,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “But I’m also grateful we had this chance to play for a championship. The fourth quarter, it was pretty evident we just couldn’t score enough. We just couldn’t convert.”
Relentless Antetokounmpo scored 12 of his 20 third-quarter points in a 16-8 Bucks run that gave Milwaukee a 58-55 lead only 4:34 into the second half.
He was the first with a 20-point quarter in the finals since Jordan and the game hung on a knife’s edge, deadlocked at 77-77 entering the fourth quarter.
Antetokounmpo scored eight for the Bucks in a 10-6 Milwaukee run for a 94-88 lead midway into the fourth quarter and time and again he would drive to the basket when the Suns cut into the Bucks’ lead.
– ‘We didn’t get stops’ – Phoenix’s Jae Crowder made two free throws to pull the Suns within 100-96 with 1:14 remaining but Middleton answered with a jumper and added two free throws for an eight-point Milwaukee lead.
Paul missed a 3-pointer, Middleton grabbed the rebound and Bucks fans began celebrating.
“They made timely shots, we didn’t,” Paul said. “We didn’t get stops when we needed to and they just beat us.”
Middleton added 17 points for the Bucks while Bobby Portis had 16 off the Bucks bench and Jrue Holiday had 12 points and 11 assists.
Devin Booker added 19 points for Phoenix while Crowder had 15 points and 13 rebounds for the Suns.
Paul fell to 0-13 in playoff games when game-six referee crew chief Scott Foster officiated. Paul had been critical of Foster after past outings.
The streak included Milwaukee’s win in game three of the finals, in which Antetokounmpo had 17 free throws and the Suns had only 16.
In game six, the Suns went 16-of-19 from the line, matching Antetokounmpo’s free throw total, while the Bucks were 25-of-29.
“It was the same old thing, just about every game, the free throws,” Paul said. “You know what I mean?”
Overcoming a language barrier and roller-coaster playoff emotions have helped Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo move one victory shy of his dream of capturing an NBA crown.
The 26-year-old Greek forward has sparked the Bucks to a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven NBA Finals with game six on Tuesday at Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, has become a vocal leader on a club where he once feared to speak up after arriving from Europe in 2013.
“Early in my career I was really quiet and with the language barrier it was harder for me. I felt like I’ll say the wrong thing, I’ll say something stupid, so I just chose not to talk at all,” Antetokounmpo recalled Monday.
“But now it’s a little bit easier for me. I realized I would rather say something stupid than not say nothing at all.”
Teammates such as Khris Middleton and P.J. Tucker have encouraged him to speak out even as his skills have evolved, from Most Improved Player in 2017 when he led the NBA in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks to his MVP 2019 and 2020 campaigns.
“Throughout the journey, throughout my career, guys helped me, especially Khris. He was like, talk, talk, say something. And P.J., I’ve been with him for like two or three months. He’s pushing me to talk. I can get a lot better.”
Antetokounmpo has also learned how to manage his emotions after the Bucks had the NBA’s best record in 2019 and 2020 but endured playoff heartbreak, falling in 2019’s Eastern Conference finals after taking a 2-0 lead on Toronto then being upset by Miami last year.
“For sure. It helped me mature and grow and become more mentally tough,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned personally in the playoffs, I think early in my career I was getting too high, too low.
“We played a good game, I was so happy, because you feel the intensity from the crowd, the fans cheering and all that. I was getting too high, and maybe the loss I felt like it was the end of the world.
“This year, lose or win, that did not happen. I was the same kind of guy. I just live with whatever outcome comes because I believe that I’m supposed to be there in that time and place. So I don’t really worry about the outcome. We got to figure out a way to win and never get too high, never get too low.”
– ‘Great passion’ – Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has watched as Antetokounmpo has evolved on and off the court into the leader the Bucks have needed in their quest to end a 50-year title drought after reaching their first NBA Finals since 1974.
“The vocal leadership you’re seeing has been growing,” Budenholzer said. “Him just understanding how powerful and how impactful he is. Sometimes it’s being vocal. It’s maybe just helping teach or learn or grow in a moment.
“His understanding of what we want to do has grown. When you understand things better, you can communicate better. He’s got a high level of understanding of what we want to do both defensively and offensively.
“He’s got great passion, he’s got great commitment, he’s got great relationships with the players.”
Antetokounmpo feels a special bond as well.
“No matter how you it ends up, I’m really proud of this team, really proud of all the work we have put in,” he said.
Nigeria shocked the United States 90-87 in a pre-Olympic basketball friendly in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Saturday.
Nigeria, with six NBA players and former NBA head coach Mike Brown at the helm, became the first African nation to beat the USA, who were playing the first of a five of tune-up games before the Tokyo Olympics.
The United States were without three players still active in the NBA Finals.
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant led the Americans with 17 points.
Nigeria, which had 12 NBA players in its 49-man training camp in California and seven in uniform on Saturday, was led by Gabe Vincent with 21 points.
“I’m kind of glad it happened,” USA head coach Gregg Popovich said, noting that the Nigerians have had the luxury of training together since late June while the US side had assembled just four days earlier.
Rap star J. Cole has signed with the Rwanda Patriots and will play as a shooting forward in the maiden NBA-backed Basketball Africa League which starts in the East African nation on Sunday.
The award-winning rapper and music producer, whose full name is Jermaine Lamarr Cole, 36, played the sport in high school and university and has long dreamed of a professional basketball career.
His name featured on the roster of 13 players released Friday night by Patriots head coach Alan Major. Cole will play in jersey number 15 for the team representing Rwanda in the BAL.
“J. Cole is a very good shooter. We picked him because He has a really high IQ for the game,” Patriots chief operations officer Haydee Ndayishimiye told AFP.
“He has a history of playing the game … We just thought that he is a great fit with the team and as we have seen in practice he is gelling well with the team. While they are practicing with him, they are looking good out there. He really compliments the team,” she added.
Ndayishimiye said Cole’s contract was confidential, and he would only be with the team for the duration of the tournament.
Cole will play in the tournament’s opening game between the Patriots and Nigeria’s Rivers Hoopers on Sunday.
The BAL tournament will run until May 30.
The first edition of the 12-club event was scheduled for last year, but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
BAL president Amadou Fall said the league “will provide a platform for elite players from across the continent to showcase their talent and inspire fans of all ages”.
The BAL is being supported by the International Basketball Federation and the USA-based National Basketball Association.
It will be the first NBA-sponsored professional league out of the US.
Cole’s Rwandan debut will come two days after the release of his sixth studio album “The Off-Season”, a nod to his love of basketball.
“I’m at a point in my life where I’m like, are you going to be doing this forever?” Cole said in a recent interview with Slam, an American basketball magazine.
Indiana Pacers forward JaKarr Sampson was suspended one game without pay by the NBA on Wednesday for headbutting San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills.
The league also announced fines for Australian Mills and Spurs forward Rudy Gay for their roles in an on-court altercation that came with 9:32 to play in the fourth quarter of San Antonio’s 109-94 victory on Monday at Indianapolis.
The incident began when Sampson and Mills were battling for a rebounding position and continued on the next possession when Mills made contact with Sampson, who shoved Mills in response.
Sampson then aggressively confronted and headbutted Mills, resulting in a flagrant foul 2 call and an automatic ejection.
Sampson will serve his ban Wednesday when the Pacers play host to Oklahoma City.
Mills, who received a technical foul in the altercation, was fined $25,000 and Gay, who also received a technical foul, was fined $20,000 for escalating the incident by shoving Sampson.
The Pacers rank ninth in the Eastern Conference at 26-31 while the Spurs are 10th in the West at 28-28.
New Orleans All-Star forward Zion Williamson and Washington forward Rui Hachimura of Japan were among 20 players named to NBA Rising Stars rosters Wednesday even though the game won’t be played.
A showdown between US and World lineups of top first- and second-year players is a traditional start to NBA All-Star Weekend, but the game was wiped out by COVID-19 and the choice to stage All-Star events only on Sunday.
The league continued the custom of having NBA assistant coaches to recognize deserving rookies and talent second-season players.
Hachimura was the only Asian representative on a global squad that also included Miami rookie forward Precious Achiuwa of Nigeria, French rookie guard Theo Maledon of Oklahoma City, Washington rookie forward Deni Avdija of Israel and Denver rookie guard Facundo Campazzo of Argentina.
Five second-year Canadian players were in the World lineup — New Orleans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New York swingman R.J. Barrett, Golden State guard Mychal Mulder, Memphis forward Brandon Clarke and Oklahoma City guard Luguentz Dort.
Williamson is joined on the US team by 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant of Memphis, Charlotte rookie star guard LaMelo Ball, rookie guards Anthony Edwards of Minnesota and Tyrese Haliburton of Sacramento, rookie center James Wiseman of Golden State, Denver forward Michael Porter, Miami guard Tyler Herro, San Antonio swingman Keldon Johnson and Atlanta forward De’Andre Hunter.
NBA playoff games are set to resume on Saturday, but players are determined to keep the focus on the fight for social justice and racial equality with help from club owners and the league.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said in a joint statement on Friday that “All parties agreed to resume NBA playoff games on Saturday.”
“We look forward to the resumption of the playoffs and continuing to work together -– in Orlando and in all NBA team markets -– to push for meaningful and sustainable change,” the NBA/NBPA statement said.
Players and the league agreed to form a social justice coalition to address a broad range of issues including access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and police and criminal justice reform.
The announcement came on the third day of postponed NBA playoff games after the Milwaukee Bucks — shocked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, refused to take the court Wednesday for a scheduled Eastern Conference first-round matchup against Orlando in the NBA’s COVID-19 quarantine bubble at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
The move led to postponements in support of social justice in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the Women’s NBA, the National Hockey League, and tennis.
Milwaukee is scheduled to take the court against Orlando on Saturday, with a chance to advance to the second round. Oklahoma City take on Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers face Portland in another potential series-clinching game.
Lakers superstar LeBron James was reportedly among a small group of players who consulted with former President Barack Obama to find a productive way forward after games were halted.
“As an avid basketball fan, President Obama speaks regularly with players and league officials,” Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama, told the New York Times.
“When asked, he was happy to provide advice on Wednesday night to a small group of NBA players seeking to leverage their immense platforms for good after their brave and inspiring strike in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting.”
Hours of meetings — first among players as they discussed whether to continue the season at all and then among players, owners and league commissioner Adam Silver — resulted in the coalition and some concrete next steps.
Among the initiatives agreed on, NBA owners whose teams own and control their arenas will work with local elections officials to use them for voting locations for the 2020 US general election, allowing safe in-person voting options in communities fearful of COVID-19.
If that option won’t work, NBA team owners will try to find another election-related use for the arena, such as for voter registration or ballot counting.
Oklahoma City star point guard Chris Paul, president of the players union since 2013, said the solidarity shown by players was unprecedented in his experience.
“Fifteen years in this league and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Paul said of the hours of meetings in which players voiced their feelings and sought ways to use their public platform to battle racism and inequality in the wider world. “The voices that were heard, I’ll never forget it.”
Players pushed NBA club owners to undertake broader measures for social change, frustrated by the video of Blake, a black man, being shot in the back seven times by a policeman.
Paul choked up as he told reporters about speaking with Blake’s father, and said NBA players, the majority of whom are black, were exhausted as similar stories continue to surface in the United States, where the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May sparked protests across the nation and beyond.
“We’re all tired of just seeing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “And everybody just expects us to be OK because we get paid great money.”
Ultimately, Paul said, players realized continuing the season would give them greater visibility as they press for change.
“We’re going to continue to play but we’re also going to continue to make sure our voices are heard.”
A Moment To Breathe
Silver had told league employees the measures were coming as he expressed full support for the players’ walkout.
“I wholeheartedly support NBA and WNBA players and their commitment to shining a light on important issues of social justice,” Silver wrote in an open letter to NBA employees posted on the league’s website.
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said that despite the emotionally charged atmosphere, meetings between players and owners weren’t contentious.
“The key to this thing is we all needed to take a breath,” Rivers said. “We needed a moment to breathe. It’s not lost on me that George Floyd didn’t get that moment.
The Los Angeles Lakers wore special “Black Mamba” jerseys to remember Kobe Bryant in game four of their first-round playoff series on Monday in the NBA’s quarantine bubble in Florida.
The Lakers also wore a special patch bearing the No. 2 in a heart as they paid tribute to Bryant’s daughter Gianna as well before the Western Conference contest against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The 18-time all-star Bryant died, along with his daughter and seven others, in a helicopter crash seven months ago in Calabasas, California. He was 41, and Sunday would have marked his 42nd birthday.
Monday was also ‘Kobe Bryant Day’ in Los Angeles, where the city is honoring the five-time NBA champion with a move to rename the downtown road in front of the Staples Center arena after him.
“This is a gift to the city of Los Angeles and to all the Kobe Bryant fans around the world,” councilman Curren Price said of the proposal.
Kobe Bryant Boulevard will stretch south from the arena for several blocks to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
In 2016, Los Angeles initially declared August 24 to be “Kobe Bryant Day”. Orange County followed suit earlier this month with the same honor.
Bryant wore No. 24 for his last 10 seasons and No. 8 before that with the Lakers.
The move comes one day after Vanessa Bryant posted a heartfelt message to her late husband and daughter.
“To my baby. Happy birthday. I love you and miss you more than I can ever explain. I wish you and Gigi were here to celebrate YOU! I wish I could make you your fav food or a birthday cake with my Gigi. I miss your big hugs, your kisses, your smile, your loud ass deep laugh,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
On Sunday, Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers paid tribute to Bryant with a pre-game ceremony before their 11-3 win over Colorado.
The Dodgers donned Bryant’s No. 8 and 24 jerseys and the team played a video tribute.
Bryant became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Lakers.
The 6-foot-6-inch Bryant scored 33,643 points, the fourth-most in NBA history, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928) and LeBron James (34,241).
Bryant was chosen as the NBA finals MVP for both of the two most recent Laker championships.
Michael Ojo, a Nigerian basketball player who previously played for Red Star Belgrade, died at the age of 27 during a training session in the Serbian capital on Friday, the club said.
“We are deeply saddened by the news”, Red Star’s spokesperson Igor Vujicin told AFP.
The club couldn’t confirm the cause of death, but local media reported that Ojo suffered a heart attack.
Born in Lagos, the 2.16 metre (7ft 1in) centre played for Florida State University in the United States before coming to Europe to start his professional career.
After a stint with the Belgrade team FMP Zeleznik, he moved to European giants Red Star, where he spent two seasons, quickly becoming a fan favourite.
Ojo had been without a club since June 30 but was training in Belgrade.
His former team released a statement mourning the loss of the “cheerful giant”.
“The sudden and shocking death of Michael Ojo has deeply affected everyone — players, coaches and the management of a club that accepted him from the first day, and that he considered his own,” Red Star said.
EuroLeague also extended condolences to Ojo’s family, teammates, coaches, “and many fans who enjoyed his performances”.