A Penn grad promotes basketball by playing for Nigeria

Koko Archibong is an American of Nigerian descent who wants to establish basketball in the African nation.
Koko Archibong is an American of Nigerian descent who wants to establish basketball in the African nation. (WALLY SKALIJ / Los Angeles Times)
Posted: August 08, 2012

LONDON - Koko Archibong has a very impressive resumé: bachelor's degree in anthropology from Penn, nearing his master's in healthcare management from the University of Liverpool, a long professional basketball career in Germany.

So what was the New York-born, California-raised, Philadelphia-educated Archibong doing on a basketball court, wearing a Nigerian basketball uniform while Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, and the rest of Team USA scored 50 bazillion points the other night?

Funny you should ask.

When Archibong finished his career playing for Fran Dunphy in 2003, he tried out for some NBA teams. He wound up in Germany, doing quite well for himself. And because of his ancestry, he heard from the Nigerian national basketball program.

"I've been in contact with the Nigerian national team since 2005," Archibong said after his team's final game, a tough 79-73 loss to France on Monday. "Because of contractual issues in Europe, I wasn't able to play in the African championships that year. Since then, there's been a lot of changes that happened - coaching changes - and I lost contact. I was always trying to get back in contact and play in some of the competitions when I was available, but it just didn't work out until now."

And now is an interesting time for Nigerian basketball. A push is on to establish the sport in a country that loves its soccer and its distance runners.

"Basketball is a new sport, actually, in Nigeria," Archibong said. "What we've been doing is raising the awareness level in Nigeria, too. The feedback we've been getting from Nigeria, from our president and the ministers, is that basketball is growing at an exponential rate over there."

The sport's relative newness may seem surprising to American fans accustomed to seeing players such as Hakeem Olajuwan, Emeka Okafor, and the 76ers' Andre Iguodala. But those players were either born in the United States to Nigerian American parents or took up the game after coming to the States.

Iguodala said he has been invited to play for Nigeria a number of times. But he considers himself an American and said it wouldn't feel right to represent a nation he's never even visited.

For Archibong, it's a different equation. He feels closer to Nigeria, for one thing. And he's not getting invited to try out for the NBA all-star team the United States sends to the Games.

"When I did get the call," Archibong said, "I just wanted to do my best to help as much as I could, you know, to get us to this point. Now that we made it here, we wish we could have gone farther. But it's been a great ride."

Nigeria qualified for the final available spot, its first time playing in the Olympics.

"The soccer team didn't make it to the Olympics," Archibong said." We're the only team sport representing Nigeria in the Olympics, and that was a big deal for us, basketball-wise and for the country. That elevated our status as well."

It was an important first step.

"It was," Archibong said. "I think it's going to help. It brings a lot more notoriety to the program, a lot more awareness. I think we'll get a lot more involvement from the NBA guys and the guys we have all over Europe. But we wanted to show everybody it was more than that for us. We wanted to do well here at the Olympics. We weren't really able to do that."

The Nigerians got the most attention, unfortunately, for being on the receiving end of the record-breaking, 156-73 U.S. blowout last week. Just for a little extra sting, Iguodala hit the three-point shot that broke the Olympic scoring record.

The game summed up the debate over sending such a powerful team of superstars to the Olympics. NBA commissioner David Stern has proposed age restrictions to limit the number of players older than 23 who can compete for a team. Bryant, calling that idea "stupid," argues that the best players should have the choice.

Having endured the 83-point loss, Archibong still sides with Bryant's position.

"I feel like everybody should send their best," he said. "I think that's OK. If you're far and away above everybody else, that's what it is. I feel like it's raised the bar. While the dream teams have been there, I feel like the world has gotten a lot better and it keeps on getting better."

Nigeria may have a long way to go, but with a little help from Archibong, it has begun the journey.

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster, and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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