by Greg Bishop
The buzzer sounded the end of the fairy tale, and the Nigerian team limped off the court in slow motion, unwilling, unable to let go. As they filed into the tunnel, the crowd stood in unison and cheered the team they call D’Tigers.
D’Tigers lost against on Monday, this time to France, standing ovation notwithstanding. To their list of firsts – first Olympics appearance, first Olympics victory – they had added something less historic: their first Olympic exit.
The run ended with the point guard in the hospital, with Sunday’s leading scorer nursing a broken toe, with only eight players healthy enough to practice. It ended with another comeback against a France team stocked with N.B.A. players. It ended with another round of questions about what it meant, a basketball team from Nigeria here in the Olympics.
Afterward, not even the D’Tigers could make sense of the events of the past six weeks. On one hand, with a roster cobbled together at the last minute, they toppled established international teams – Lithuania, Greece and the Dominican Republic – just to qualify. It was not hyperbole to say they inspired a nation.
On the other, they finished Olympic group play with a 1-4 record, lost to the United States by a whopping 83 points and endured racist chants and a rash of injuries. Disappointment mixed with pride.
“People think that was the goal for us, to get here,” forward Derrick Obasohan said. “It wasn’t. Coach said we were the first African team to win an Olympic game. We earned respect, but. …”
His voice trailed off. The man Obasohan called Coach, Ayodele Bakare, sat nearby. He looked tired, his eyes bloodshot, his shoulders slumped. He spent the morning at a hospital with Tony Skinn, the guard who led George Mason on that magical N.C.A.A. tournament run in 2006.
Skinn had surgery for a torn quadriceps on Monday, his teammates said. It surprised no one that Bakare went to see him.
For weeks, he and his staff performed so many jobs they forgot where one ended and another one began.
Bakare, the coach of the Ebun Comets in Nigeria’s professional league, constructed the roster on the fly. He built the team around Ike Diogu, a former Arizona State star, and Al-Farouq Aminu, a forward for the New Orleans Hornets. Bakare managed to find 10 players with college basketball experience to fill the roster out.
He later traded his general manager cap for his coach’s one, and after less than a month of practices, Bakare took that makeshift team to Venezuela, where, Diogu said, “we were just supposed to come in and get blown out.” Only D’Tigers stunned three opponents.
Diogu said the local crowd embraced the Nigerians, and although Diogu heard from his brother about celebrations in Nigeria, reality awaited, so many tasks and not a single person with experience to perform them.
Bakare had to arrange travel plans for his team. He even booked the flights. He found gyms for practices. He helped those without insurance to obtain it. He did so in a country fraught with political infighting, even for its sports teams. He and his players alluded to the politics Monday but declined to go into specifics.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize all the stuff that we really had to go through,” Diogu said. “If people really knew the true story, it would be an accomplishment in itself, just us making it here.”
Only Nigeria did not simply show up for its first contest and ask for autographs from its opposition. In the first game, D’Tigers defeated Tunisia, jumping ahead early and holding on late.
A country in turmoil rallied around the team that had been introduced six weeks earlier. Bakare’s voice mail filled.
Hiccups followed. A fan from Lithuania was fined for making Nazi gestures and yelling monkey chants during a Lithuanian victory. The United States scored 156 points against D’Tigers, the most ever in an Olympic game.
Yet Nigeria refused to yield. It stormed back against France on Monday, behind 35 points from Chamberlain Oguchi, he of the broken toe. Bakare said that as D’Tigers tied the game late in the fourth quarter, he wanted to yell, in reference to the United States coach, Mike Krzyzewski: “Bring on Coach K! We want a rematch! Tonight!”
Afterward, unbroken, Bakare and his players dared to dream. This summer, the run, allowed them that.
They noted the injuries that plagued them, the way the roster thinned. They talked about the limited time they spent together, how, come the African championships next summer, much more could be accomplished. Bakare guaranteed Nigeria would improve more than any Olympic team over the next four years.
“You haven’t seen the last of Team Nigeria,” Obasohan said.
Players and coaches decided Monday to leave the cosmic questions, the what it meant, for later. Most planned to visit Skinn at the hospital, then scatter back across the world.
Bakare called the reaction in Nigeria uplifting, but said he received negative phone calls, too. Diogu hoped his play over the past six weeks had earned him another shot at the N.B.A. Obasohan wanted to return to his 3-month-old son, Darren, before he returned to Spain in one week for another season.
The three of them sat in a circle, in the near empty news conference room, as if competing to look most tired. The experience that inspired others had drained the men involved. Bakare even said he would consider stepping down as the coach, perhaps in 30 days.
“Nigeria basketball has come of age,” he said. “Nigeria basketball doesn’t need me anymore.”
His players quickly dismissed that notion. Bakare, their coach, general manager, insurance agent and travel secretary, embodied what D’Tigers became over the past six weeks. Not simply a basketball team. A historic one.