Originally posted at www.Courier-Journal.com by Adam Himmelsbach
Ganiyu Yahaya's family lives in a Nigerian village that makes it difficult to chase basketball dreams. The nearest court is more than an hour's drive away.
Transportation is expensive and money is tight, so for Yahaya a trip to the court is a kind of pilgrimage. When school is not in session, the 17-year-old and others play basketball all day and sleep on the court's edges at night, sometimes for several days in a row. It is not ideal, but it is the only option, and potentially the only way to a better life.
Set against that backdrop, the determination Yahaya and five other Nigerian teenagers showed during their long, sometimes harrowing journey to the AAU Super Showcase in Louisville this week is not surprising.
One plane caught fire and others were missed. There were anxious rides through dangerous areas of northern Nigeria and there was a late-night and last-gasp attempt to find a bus from Washington, D.C., to Kentucky. The players essentially missed the tournament, playing only in some scrimmages that had been cobbled together for their benefit, but their spirits were not dampened.
Ganiyu Yahaya, 17, describes his team's wild trip from Nigeria to Louisville for AAU nationals.
They were just thrilled to be here, thrilled to see so many college basketball coaches, thrilled to consider new opportunities.
"I've never seen something like this," Yahaya said, scanning the 18 glossy hardwood courts in the Kentucky Expo Center. "It is amazing."
A BASKETBALL MINISTRY
Ron Crawford is the founder of the prestigious Little Rock-based AAU program, the Arkansas Wings, and a few years ago he began working with Moses Kingsley, a Nigerian-born player who is now a sophomore at the University of Arkansas. Through Kingsley, Crawford befriended Emmanuel Odah, a basketball development coach in Nigeria.
That pipeline led three Nigerian players to enroll at Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock, where Crawford is a basketball director. The players were matched up with host families, and Crawford's non-profit Arkansas Amateur Basketball Foundation helped cover most travel expenses.
"Something we lack in Africa is fundamentals," said Eric Moses, who just completed his first year at Southwest Christian. "We start playing at 13 or 14, and we run around but do not really know plays or how to play this game. Now we are learning."
In June, Crawford and Odah arranged a basketball camp in Nigeria. Crawford, who is also national treasurer of the AAU, wanted to bring a group to AAU Nationals as a ministry trip. Six Nigerian players would join four others who had already moved to the U.S. for high school. They would be Team Abuja, named after their country's capital city. But planning was the easy part.
On Tuesday, the six players and two coaches were to fly Ethiopian Airlines from Abuja. But there was some confusion regarding the reservations and just four seats were available on that flight, and there were no other options.
The group was ultimately rerouted to fly on Turkish Airlines out of Kano, a city about 300 miles to the north. The flight was at 11 p.m., and it was already 5. So they boarded a bus and hoped for the best.
Northern Nigeria has been besieged by religious militants. The extremist group Boko Haram has killed more than 2,000 civilians this year amid its ongoing insurgency to establish an Islamic state. In April, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from a secondary school in northeast Nigeria.
The route from Abuja to Kano is dotted with security checkpoints and uncertainty. But the players made it to Kano and exhaled. As they were waiting to board their flight, however, a fuel truck caught fire and engulfed the plane's wing in flames.
There were no more flights that night. The players slept in the airport, and their coaches contacted the Nigeria Basketball Federation in search of assistance.
Meanwhile, in Louisville, the games started without the six members of Team Abuja. The team officially forfeited all three of its pool-play games. The four Nigerian players already in the U.S. were joined by some American 9th-graders in contests that did not count. They lost all three.
In Nigeria, the team's new itinerary would send it on a flight from Kano back to Abuja, and then on to Lagos, a bustling port city. On Thursday night, they flew from Lagos to Istanbul, Turkey, eventually proceeding to Dulles International Airport in Washington.
But there were no more flights from Washington to Louisville, and time was running out.
"We went to the bus station and we went to the train station, hoping there would be a way," Yahaya said. "There were no buses until the next day, and we did not realize it would take 14 hours."
So the group returned to the airport and slept. Finally, they secured tickets for separate flights on Friday morning. One was at 6 a.m. and the other was at 6:45. But there was some miscommunication, and three players missed the 6 a.m. plane.
The three other players and coaches arrived, jetlagged an exhausted, in time for their team's elimination game on Friday in the 11th grade Showcase Division. The team lost to the Georgia Ballers by four points and was out of the tournament.
Finally, the second group of players boarded a noon flight to Louisville that first connected in Atlanta. They arrived in Kentucky around 5 p.m. on Friday. They slept at a Holiday Inn that night, woke up at 6 a.m. for a prayer devotional, and held a brief practice before their scrimmage.
"They almost traveled around the world just to come to America, but they were so glad," Moses said. "The excitement here changed everything."
'WE LEARN NEW THINGS'
The players were in awe of the Kentucky Expo Center. When they finally got on the court, they did not look out of place. They are tall, lean and athletic. But it is clear that some of their fundamental skills are still crude.
During Sunday's scrimmage, Crawford instructed the team to play a matchup zone defense, and they did not understand him. But they did win the game against an AAU team from Ohio.
"Every day we are here," Team Abuja coach Emmanuel Odah said, "we learn new things and we see new things."
And their potential is noticeable. During just two days in Louisville, Crawford said, one of the six players had already received a Division II scholarship offer. And that is the primary goal. Yahaya, meanwhile, will stay in the U.S. and enroll at Southwest Christian.
In Nigeria, soccer is still king. But basketball offers a better chance at an education. And Crawford said that's why he brings these players here. And that's why they went through three exhausting days of travel just to step onto a shiny basketball court.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at 502-582-4372 by email firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach