Perfect time to represent Nigeria for Utah Jazz’s Miye Oni

Miye Oni’s favourite Nigerian food is pounded yam with egusi soup served with oxtail.

That is as Nigerian a dish as you are likely to get, especially the oxtail part. It is a dish that can be found in classy restaurants and run-down bucks alike, and is a staple in most Nigerian homes.

Oni can understand the Yoruba language and while his “ese o” is spoken with an American accent, there is no doubt that he was raised in a Nigerian home with Nigerian values.

He cannot speak pidgin English, but having Burna Boy and Wizkid among his favorite musicians more than make up for that.

Oni, like most other children of first-generation Nigerian immigrants, has been a target of the Nigeria basketball federation as they seek to rebuild the program around NBA talent.

But things gained impetus with the appointment of Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown in 2019. His outreach, profile and willingness to scout, persuade and cajole has accelerated the process and convinced the likes of Oni, Jahlil Okafor and others to commit to the Nigeria national team.

But the Jazz guard tells ESPN it was more a question of when, not if, for him.

“It just wasn’t the right time,” he said. “Things didn’t work out then. But now is the perfect time and I’m ready to represent Nigeria in the Tokyo Olympics.”

And now that it has finally happened, he says pulling on that green and white strip was immensely important for his parents.

“They were really proud. It’s important to them. They always teach me about Nigerian culture and everything like that. So it’s been important to them and something I dreamed of and something that my whole family is excited for.”

Oni made his competitive debut for D’Tigers as they went down 67-84 in a bruising battle against Australia in their opening game of the Olympics. But disappointed as he was by the result, it was overshadowed by something bigger — the pride of representing the motherland.

“To me, it meant the world,” Oni said. “My mother was born there, the country my father has lived in. I’ve been there. It means a lot to me and my family, that we carry that pride everywhere we go.

“So just being able to represent this country, with all this rich history, and really try to make this country proud, means a lot to me.”

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Nigeria’s ambition going to Tokyo was to medal. Coach Brown has made that very clear and the players have bought into the goal. But losing against Australia, especially after two exhibition wins against the USA and Argentina, gave the team a reality check. They now have to push the reset button.

“Every game is going to be a war and a challenge. That is what we expected and that has not not changed,” Oni said.

“We just have to play our hardest and not really worry about our opponent, just worry about what we can control and play our hardest to execute where coach wants us to and put us in a good position to win every game.”

In those two exhibition wins, the team overpowered number one-ranked Team USA and followed that up with another smothering performance against number three-ranked Argentina. But the displays showed different sides of the offensive and defensive arsenal Brown has assembled.

“Just our athleticism overall. We are long, athletic, fast. As Nigerians that’s what our strength is always going to be.

“So we can get to the rim and defend. But I think once we come together as a group, and really start clicking, we can really be special.”

If they do succeed in getting on that podium, it will be a first for an African nation. But being first is not new to the Nigerian basketball team, especially in these last few years. They became the first African team to qualify for the Olympic Games from World Cup play, and also became the first African team to beat Team USA.

And with potentially more NBA class talent still to be added in the future, the prospects of Nigerian basketball are promising.

For Oni, all he wants to do is contribute to making history with D’Tigers.

“I always play hard and I always play the right way with the intensity, the effort, I’m always going to give my all and just trying to make the right plays every time I step on the court and do what our coach asks me to do, I feel like I could play a lot of different ways. So just whatever the team needs, and whatever coach asks me to do, I’ll do that and step up from my team.”

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