Ex BBA player, UgoUdezue is theCEO of Continental Basketball League, Alfa Sports, as well as Basketball Clinic. An indigene of Anambra State but Enugu-born and brought up, the ex-Wyoming (Sr) playeris currently an unrestricted BBA free agent.He spoke to CHUKS EZE in Enugu where he spoke about his efforts to give back to the society through basketball, which gave him fame and fortune.
“Our goal is to empower the younger generation through basketball. Our generation has experienced a lot of turmoil, negativity, suffering and neglect in the past couple of years. So, we are striving to successfully empower a new generation for a better Igbo race and a better Africa,” he says.
When did you start playing basketball?
My foundation for the sports I love so much – basketball – started in Enugu way back as a kid. I later moved to the United States to go to college.And afterwards, I worked with one of the top sports agencies in the US called BBA Sports as a partner for 15 years. I came back to Nigeria two years ago to start Continental Basketball League, through which we are giving back to our people and as well helping togrow the game here, in Enugu,where I was born.
How have your Continental Basketball league and the Basketball clinic projects faired so far?
It has been very exciting. We just had a free basketball clinic for kids a couple of days ago. We had about 200 kids from all the five South Eastern states, and we hope to scale up to about 1000 kids in the next edition. We also want to make it an annual exercise as well as introduce other programmes that would help nurture our kids in Enugu and Anambra States, for our pilot scheme.
What is your target age range for the exercise?
We targeted 10 to 15 years age bracket, but we intend to expand the scope to accommodate kids from 7 to 15 years. The reason is because it is said that the earlier you catch a kid young the better.
Are you just concerned about the game of basketball?
Certainly not; basketball is not just about the game. It is about teaching kids how to cooperate in the society; how to partner with one another, how to learn to do team work and all that. So, it is not just a game for us, it is also a way to help shape the society better.
What is Basketball Clinic all about?
It is about teaching the kids the game of basketball to be exposed to the same opportunity I got through the sport. It is not just about playing in the MBA.
Are you considering expanding the clinic project beyond the South East?
That is in our future plan – to make it a national exercise. But our current goal is to focus on the South East. The eastern part of the country has been marginalised in the country even in the areas of sports, and yet, most of the big talents in the game come from this part of the country – the South East. So, we are trying to make sure that we develop the game here as well.
What prompted you to embark on the project?
It was inspired by passion for the game, and interest in giving back to the society. Sometimes, you get to some point in life and after looking back to the point you started life, you get inspired to help others.
What is your ultimate goal?
My goal is to help as many kids as possible – to lift them from their point of discomfort to, at least, a relatively fairly comfortable zone; to help them, as much as possible, to be like me.
How do you cope with funding; does your organisation enjoy any form of sponsorship?
We do not have any sponsorship yet; I am running the project all by myself. You know that it takes a village to raise the child. Our hope is that with time, people will start getting interested. God has blessed us extremely in the game.So, our hope is to give back without expecting anything back. Our goal is to keep giving back so that more people will grow to also give back to others. Therefore, as far as we have the ability, we will continue to do it.
But in case some individuals, governments or corporate organisations indicate interest to lend support, what kind of assistance do you want?
We need all possible help because we intend to widen the programme to accommodate more people. Every kid needs to be impacted and no kid should be left behind. So, whatever anybody can contribute to make the project succeed is welcome. We are doing everything to get everybody to understand that the more we develop the kids and give them opportunities the better for the society.
Is academic standard a pre-condition for selection of prospective kids for the training?
No, it is not.Some kids never had the opportunity to go to school not because they are not good enough. So, we encourage all kids and give them equal opportunity to participate in the programmes. The only pre-condition is that the kids must fall between our stipulated age brackets.There is no academic barrier, there is no gender barrier; everybody is welcome.
How has being a basketball player impacted your life?
It has really impacted my life in several ways, which I cannot begin to enumerate here. The game teaches you a lot. It teaches you resilience, hard work and honesty. Sport makes you to realise that if you are a hard worker, things would happen for you, and that is exactly what we teach the kids, not just the game alone. Basketball is life; it mirrors life in such a way that you feel that challenges of life come in form of a game. Sport is a great equaliser.
It helps you to learn about what to do about several aspects of your life.The game of basketball is uniquely structured in a way that justas you have five fingers, you have five basketball players, and everybody works in unison to achieve a goal.
What would you say are the key importance of your clinic to the kids and the economy?
Kids are the economy and life of the society. There is a saying that kids are gates to heaven. So, the more you teach the kids and impact on their lives the more we shape our society to be a better place.
You were once reported to have complained about poor basketball facilities across the South East; but why do you think is the cause of the seeming long neglect of that brand of sports in this clime?
It is because our people always feel that education is everything. Education is good anyway, but sport is also very essential and I think we have not really been able to grasp that fact.
I come from a family where everybody is a PhD holder, so, I believe in Education too. But I think that we still look down on people that play sports around here. Like I said earlier, sport is a great equaliser in the sense that there is no distinction between the reach and poor; the well-educated and the slightly or educated and non-educated.
If you are good, you are good. In developed countries, they have WMCAs in every neighbourhood because it is very essential to teach kids from the early age, about the opportunities that sports present.
You seem to exude immense affection and passion for basketball, but how did it all start; does it run in the family?
No, it does not. I just found myself loving the game.It is a game I had always wanted to do since I was a kid. Basketball has really exposed me to great opportunities. It gave me a scholarship to go to college. And apart from that, after playing basketball professionally, the strength I get from having played the game – understanding life’s failures and opportunities, through the game of basketball, has been something has been awesome.So, I want to impartsameon kids to expose them to similar opportunities too.
Did your huge frame work for you during your playing days?
Obviously, when you are tall and imposing as I am, it is advantageous in some situations, but I always tell people: Be careful what you wish for. For instance, I cannot just go to the market and buy shoes or clothes like you can, or make cloths like everybody else can.
I cannot even fly economy seat when I am travelling. Therefore, huge frame could bring a lot of opportunities, but at the same time, I believe that everybody has the same opportunities that we have, just as we have some challenges that others do not have. Life is all about give or take. The shorter or slimmer person can be quick and faster than you. Michael Jordan is not the tallest basketball player ever. And that is the beauty of sports; you cannot have it all.
Let us talk about your tournament – Coal City Jamz. How long has it been running?
The one that we just did was the inaugural session. But we are planning to make it an annual event as well.
When is the next lap expected to come on?
We are already working out the modalities for the next edition. We have not fixed the date yet because at the moment, we are considering the possibility of even taking up double editions per year. But we hope to come up with concrete schedule pretty soon. What is certain, as we speak, is that the follow-up session, which would be the second edition, will take place next year, 2018.
What about the continental basketball league that you also run; what is the current development about it?
The league is still on; we have done the first edition and our second edition will commence next year. We are starting again in March, 2018. We are currently running in 6 African countries.
The first edition of the league held in Cameroun, Nigeria, Gabon and Abidjan, and the grand finale in Lagos, Nigeria.
Once again, I ask you: How about funding; do you have sponsors for the league?
Well, the thing is that when you have a good product, people would be disposed to pay some money to come and watch your game. In sports, when you privatise and you package a good product, people would definitely like to pay, not just to enjoy themselves but also to encourage the organiser.
Even TV partners and other sponsors usually buy into good products. That is what our government have,unfortunately, failed to realise. So, we have managed to create a very good product that everybody is interested in being part of. So, to answer your question, the tournament enjoys some level of sponsorship.
Do you have any government partnership so far?
There is absolutely none at the moment.But I hope that things would change and there would be support as we forge ahead.
So, how do you intend to cope with the poor facilities that you earlier talked about, as the programme progresses?
The most important thing is that we have started. I believe that as we progress and share our values, opportunities will come for us to build our facilities. We definitely plan to improve the facilities at some point, but you have to start somewhere and let people see the opportunity. I believe that things would change when people begin to see what is going on and the inherent opportunities.
Do you have any advice to parents who usually discourage their children and wards from taking up basketball as a trade?
I encourage them to release their kids to join the train. Basketball is not a dangerous game; it is played all over the world. More so, while the best basketball talents in the world are of African heritage, the best African basketball players are from the Eastern part of Nigeria.
So, it is something that has been proven to be successful, and helping a lot of people. We have the personnel, we have the talents and we have the opportunities here. We just have to utilize those resources to develop the gameandbe able to lift our abundant talents down here and as well help the game to grow.
Did you experience the usual parental resistance when you chose to take up basketball as a profession?
Obviously, yes. I told you earlier that I come from a family where everybody is a PhD holder. It was not really easy.
But you cannot blame anybody because of the wrong perception that had been created over the years that the game is not a conducive, acceptable venture. Like you know, every parent would want their children to succeed in life; and you choose to go into a terrain that is unproven. You sure would have some challenges and oppositions. But hopefully, the people that are coming behind us would not have such challenges. That is what we are trying to avoid.
Did your parents wish you became a medical doctor, lawyer or something of that sort?
Yes, they did. But I would not have made this kind of money, if I had danced to their tune (laughter).
So, you are saying that basketball has been paying your bills adequately and comfortably?
Yes, it has, and I am happy about it (more laughter).