Twenty-three-year-old First Bank and D’Tigress guard, Atosu Upe, tells Idris Adesina about her dreams and aspirations as a basketball player
First Bank won bronze at the 2016 FIBA Africa Champions Cup for Women in Maputo after four years of not winning anything at the competition. How do you feel?
It is very exciting to have a continental medal after several years of trying and finishing as fourth. It would have been really painful if we didn’t win anything this year because our sights were set on the title and when we fell short of it, we were consoled with the fact that we didn’t return home empty-handed like the previous years. What made it more interesting was that we were able to beat the 2015 champions, who we earlier lost to in the group stages of the competition, to claim the bronze.
What would you say helped you beat Primeiro de Agosto of Angola in the third-place match given that they defeated First Bank 76-62 in your first meeting?
I believe that the hunger to exact a revenge on them spurred us on to victory. We believed that they couldn’t beat us again and with a medal at stake, the motivation was mouthwatering. It wasn’t a high-scoring match because we were very careful (First Bank won 62-54). We defended better and made sure that their attack was neutralised. We also ensured that we didn’t commit too many fouls because that would have given them more free throws for points. We worked as a team and fought for the whole of Nigeria, not just First Bank.
You have played for several clubs in the Zenith Bank Women’s Basketball League – First Deepwater, Dolphins and First Bank. How has this improved your game?
I have learnt a lot from my journey through these clubs till date. They have all made me who I am today as a player. First Deepwater discovered my talent and I was nurtured and refined at Dolphins while First Bank also made me a better player. Currently I believe that I still have more to learn at First Bank and my game has not reached its peak – there is much more room for me to develop and become a better player than I currently am.
What is your assessment of the Nigerian league compared with other African countries?
I believe that our league is one of the best in Africa coming probably after the Angolan, Mozambique and the Tunisian leagues. The only point of assessment I have is when we meet in continental club competitions like the Champions Cup. We are not doing badly on the continent and I believe that there is room for improvement in the Nigerian league. Our clubs compete favourably against teams from other leagues in Africa and we beat them convincingly most times.
What area of the league do you think needs improvement?
Just as I said, the league can become better than it is if more funds are invested into it. The prize money can also be made more attractive to increase the level of participation and competition.
The league has been criticised for being too predictable as the battle for the title is mostly between First Bank and Dolphins. What do you think can be done to increase the competitive level of the league?
The drop in the level of competitiveness cannot be attributed to the players; rather it comes from the financiers of the clubs in the league. If we can have more investment in clubs – either from the government or private bodies, the league will become very competitive as it is elsewhere. For instance, when First Deepwater came into the league in 2009, the owner of the club was determined to break the dominance of First Bank, who were the champions of the league then. He put many things in place to attract top players from other clubs and the result was seen by everyone. They were able to win the league for four years on a trot. Good salaries and bonuses as well as medical care were enough to take the minds of the players off anything else and focus on the task at hand. The same goes for Dolphins and First Bank. They ensure that their players feel at home and have nothing to worry about. There are many private organisations that can do the same and invest in the players as well as the league, to enable it to grow.
What are the challenges facing home-based basketballers?
The major challenge facing us in the country is that of inferiority complex. A lot of home-based players feel inferior to their overseas-based counterparts, especially when it comes to fighting for places in the national teams. But they fail to realise that some of these players began playing basketball here and are not even better than we are. But some of us however do not feel as such and would rather see it as a challenge to develop ourselves and make our game better than that of those coming from abroad. The other challenge is that some of the clubs in the country – apart from not paying well, owe their players and that makes it difficult for these players to live good lives. Most of them therefore have to seek alternative source of livelihood to make ends meet. That is why some say the Nigerian league is not fully professional. Only a few clubs – like Dolphins and First Bank – employ players on a full-time basis and pay them all-year round. The league season runs for only a few months in the year – if not for the 3X3 Tour which recently keeps people busy –after that, these players would have to go out of basketball till the new season comes. Finance is really a big challenge to some players based at home.
What challenges do the D’Tigress face ahead of major competitions?
Our biggest challenge in the national team is the preparation for competitions. The timing for camping ahead of competitions is usually too short to enable us to achieve maximum impact at those tournaments. Preparing for major competitions and spending a week or two ahead of the event does not help to bring out the cohesion we need as a team. The team also need friendly matches. With these we can go far in competitions.
How will you rate basketball in 2016?
The year has been awesome for basketball. From the league to the Olympic qualifiers to the club championship and some other events in 2016, I feel fulfilled. The sport is really growing and 2016 has showed that there is more we can achieve in basketball only if we do more than we are currently doing.
Do you regret missing out on a Rio 2016 spot after D’Tigress failed to qualify for the event?
Everybody come into a competition to either win or lose – including Nigeria. We didn’t plan to exit that early in France (Rio Olympic qualifiers) but the group was quite tough – so tough that the three of us in the group had only a win each and we were separated by points difference. It was a wakeup call for us to do better in future competitions and although it was quite hurtful that we didn’t qualify, I don’t regret it because we gave our best just that we weren’t lucky enough to scale through. There will be more opportunities for us to qualify for the Olympics and I believe we will make it.
The AfroBasket for Women will be holding in 2017. Can Nigeria claim a third title next year?
After losing the 2015 All Africa Games gold medal match to Mali and beating Angola to finish third at the AfroBasket, the confidence level that we have in the team is now at an all-time high and I believe we will reclaim the AfroBasket next year. We missed out on the title by a whisker in Cameroon when we lost 71-70 to the hosts in the semifinal. Nigeria also has a fear factor working for us currently on the continent and we can build on that to get the title back. Every country thinks twice now when they want to play Nigeria – Angola, Egypt and even Senegal. We have a higher chance of winning the title next year than we had in 2015 because our players are currently in top form.
You haven’t played at the Olympics. Do you think you can make the next edition in Tokyo?
I am very optimistic that Nigeria will make the 2020 Olympics and I will be part of the team from the qualifiers to the tournament itself. What I need is to continue to play at the highest level and keep away from injuries.
What are your targets as a basketballer?
My targets are to win as many laurels as possible – both for the country and my club – and play at the highest level. I also want to win an Olympic medal for the country.
What do you think about the administration of basketball in Nigeria?
Basketball in Nigeria still has a long way to go and I believe the administrators are doing all they can to ensure it competes well with what obtains in other climes.
Angola, Mozambique and a few other countries are dominating the sport on the continent. What should Nigeria do to overtake them?
Nigeria should nurture the talents we have and ensure that we keep discovering players to replace the ageing ones. The national team should field the best players we have both home and abroad and very soon we will not only be ruling Africa, we will be competing with the best in the world.