Best of Both Worlds



It's the WNBA Draft day, 2012.


I remember exactly where I was. I was seated in the library studying for my MCAT. This was my fallback plan just in case my dream of playing professional basketball did not work out. But on second thought, why wouldn't it?


Just a year ago, my team and I celebrated having won the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament - an achievement only a handful of players have attained in the tournament's history. And we did it in style by defeating number one seeds Baylor and Stanford en route to the championship against Notre Dame. It was special because no one gave us a chance. We had a solid team showing all competition. And in my estimation, I felt that I had done enough in my 4-year period at college to be drafted to the WNBA.


Truth be told, I didn't know what to think of the draft. I say this because I was not heavily scouted, so there was a possibility that I would not get a call-up. But deep down, like every kid who has ever thought about going pro, you dream not just about winning championships or taking the last shot in crunch time of a championship game; you dream of draft night. Players talk about it on the playground. We simulate it at practice and even role-play in front of the mirror.



As the day wound down, so did my anxiety. My fate was clear. There will be no WNBA for me - at least not by the traditional way of entry. And I was OK with that. However, I was not OK with letting the draft determine how I saw myself as a player and the type of professional career I dreamt of having.


Call it the Nigerian in me.

Naija inside

As a child of Nigerian immigrants, I always explained my experience of living in America. However, within the Elonu household, it was as if we were in Enugu. Everything we did was centred around Nigerian values and culture because my parents were born and raised in Nigeria. In fact, the large population of Africans living in the Houston area made it easy for my siblings and me to grow up embracing both experiences. Every turn, you would find a Nigerian family. It was beautiful.


My childhood was fun. It was full of colour, culture, love, and discipline - you cannot miss that in an African home.


My parents were hard-working and expected nothing less from us. They spoke fluent Igbo around the house and told stories about Nigeria - the good, bad, and ugly. They had the funniest quips. For example, say I walked into the living room and asked my Mother where to put something. She would respond, "Put it on my head." Lol! They were the total package. Proud, loving, supportive and cultured, and that rubbed off on us.


As a kid, I remember it was hard fitting in sometimes, especially when other kids at school teased us about our Igbo names. My brothers go by Chinemelu and Chibuzo - so you can imagine. There was no hiding. With those kinds of names, everyone knew you were African. But as we grew older, it taught us to be sure of who we are and to be proud of our heritage.


Lessons from my parents on self-awareness and self-confidence also came with a healthy dose of a need to be ambitious and independent. To find what makes us happy and pursue it as though our lives depended on it. To walk into any room with our heads held high, without fear of intimidation. To listen much and speak little. To love God and prove it by constantly looking out for the little guy.


My love for the game of basketball was also influenced by family. I watched my brothers play and wanted to follow in their footsteps. Although I started with volleyball, my Mother encouraged me to take basketball seriously.


Crossroads

So here I was at a crossroads.


Was this the end of my dream to play pro basketball? Was this a sign to go in a different direction regarding my career? Perhaps this was the perfect juncture to head to medical school as my Dad always intended for me - and I know he is still holding out hope.


But deep down, I knew I had not reached my ceiling in basketball. I had the potential to play smarter, to read the game differently, and to work on other facets of my game that I felt were somewhat limited in college. I still had a burning desire to compete at a high level. So it was clear that medical school was not an alternative - at least not in the short term. Sorry, Dad.


Luckily for me, my brother, Chinemelu, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, had opted out of his contract to play in Spain. He had gone where - in the minds of many American kids at that time - there was no clear path, but he had left a trail behind. One that I happily followed.


Moving Overseas

So I took my talents overseas to Israel to play for Hapoel Galil Elyon, after which I signed in Spain with Beroil-Ciudad de Burgos. Then CB Conquero, where I was selected as the tournament's MVP after winning the 2016 Copa de la Reina.


It was a new experience for me. A whole new world out there. It was diverse - the food, the people, the lifestyle and most definitely the basketball.


From day one, I challenged myself to be much better than I ever was in college. I committed to being a student of the game. I soaked in everything. There were aspects of my game that I could build on and some aspects that I had to re-learn. And yes, there was that part of me that wanted to prove I did not need to be in the WNBA to validate my game.


One of the best things about moving overseas was the new bonds that I formed. It was a melting pot of nationalities. I made new friends and connected with other Nigerian women like myself who had moved to Europe to play pro basketball. I began learning about national teams, and I met a few women already playing for the Nigerian team.



Homecoming

I got introduced to Helen Ogunjimi, one of the vets on the Nigerian national team. She did not have to sell me on joining the team. I had already made up my mind to play.


As a teenager, my family and I visited Nigeria almost every year. So the idea of being a part of the team was not strange at all. However, I found it weird that they had reservations when I informed my parents about my decision.


It was a little strange.


We had been raised to embrace both worlds. To be proud of our heritage. To take risks and carry ourselves with dignity. So here I was doing everything they had taught me.


However, in retrospect, I understand it now.


There is a certain stigma about playing for Nigeria - which is defined by a general lack of organization, poor planning, wage rows and administrative incompetence. At least that is how it felt looking from the outside in. So I understood their fears and anxiety. Any parent will feel the same way. So it was hard for them to wrap their minds around why I would leave the comfort of playing in Spain to take on the uncertainty of playing for a country still struggling to put the basics in place.


Why we play

For me, my decision was simple. And it was more than just basketball. It was about the opportunity to contribute back home. Not just by elevating the game but by being a role model to young girls interested in playing sports. I have been involved in Hope For Us Charity drives across Africa, so I understand the need to be intentional regarding giving back. But what I realized is that charities are great for that push effect they have. But playing for the national team could have an even more significant pull effect on the fans and people. And I wanted to be a part of that.


I'm glad I made the decision to play for Nigeria. The women here have accomplished much - putting Nigeria on the map and making playing basketball look cool. I hope our legacy as a team shows that through sports, we built bridges between diverse Nigerian communities - home or abroad; that we improved the representation of women in sports, and that we were worthy ambassadors for a new generation of Nigerians pushing the envelope of black excellence around the world.



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