Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers used BAL delay to strengthen roster

While Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers are still trying to navigate the sea of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, head coach Ogoh Odaudu told ESPN that the Basketball Africa League's delay was a 'blessing in disguise'.

The BAL, an initiative by the NBA to grow the game in Africa, was originally scheduled for its debut in March 2020, but, just weeks before tip off in Senegal, the coronavirus pandemic made that impossible. Now, more than a year later, a condensed and bubbled version will take place in Kigali, Rwanda, over the last two weeks in May, starting on the 16th.

As a result of the long delay, the Hoopers' training schedules and protocols were changed, the team had to pivot away from the players they initially wanted to fill their Foreign Player quota, and had to deal with the new reality of having to play without fans within a bubble.

In spite of all those disruptions, Odaudu believes that the break, and all the resulting changes, have put the team in a better position to compete than they were a year ago, as it allowed the team more time to get their house in order.

Each team is allowed a quota of four foreign players to strengthen their roster, and Odaudu said that the postponement had allowed his team a chance to acquire much better players than they had last year.

"I think our chances have actually gone up because in my own opinion, I didn't think we got the best of the foreign players that we were trying to get last time out," he told ESPN.

"We didn't get the best because time was short, it was rushed. But now, we have made some solid signings, people who will actually make an impact on the team."

Hoopers have signed Nigeria and former NBA guard Ben Uzoh, along with the American duo of Taren Sullivan and Chris Daniels. And while they had the misfortune of signing and then losing another Nigeria star in Festus Ezeli due to injury, his replacement is Uganda international Robinson Odoch Opong, who was highly-coveted by other BAL teams.

"I'm bursting with excitement now thinking of what these guys can add to the people that we have already on the team," Odaudu said.

"I am very excited seeing how far they can go because our chances are higher now than it was Pre-COVID."

Last year, Rivers Hoopers would have gone into the competition as the team with the least amount of actual game time. The official Nigeria Basketball Premier League has been in limbo for going on three years due to an ongoing court dispute between the two factional leadership groups.

This would have provided a clear disadvantage for the team, playing against teams that had league minutes behind them. The postponement changed all that, and now Odaudu says the team actually has a fighting chance.

He added: "I would say it has actually been a blessing in disguise. [Aside from] the signing of the foreign players, we were going to play against people who had been playing actively in their leagues in various countries.

"But we are all now on the same level and that is a good thing for us."

Still, there were changes to be made during the pandemic. With no opportunities for practice or games, and no information about when or if the tournament would get off the ground, Odaudu found a different way to make sure his players kept in shape even when they were away from each other.

He explained: "We have a WhatsApp group where everybody is involved to make sure that they kept fit and we monitor them since we couldn't have group practice.

"We always had drills for them to do to stay in shape, which was sent out by our fitness coach. They had to do it on video and send back video evidence for us to know that they were actually going about all we wanted them to do.

"We also used that to stay in touch with them and talk to them regularly to keep their spirits up, because even if we were not sure if it was going to happen, we still needed to make sure that when the announcement finally came, we would not be caught unawares.

"We weren't going to have that much time [to prepare], and that is what has happened now. It is a good thing that we did all that because they're in shape and [all we need to do is] gather together to finally put finishing touches in place."

A lack of suitable facilities in their home city of Port Harcourt meant that the Hoopers were originally due to play their home games in Lagos, which would have posed something of a disadvantage for them. The new format, with everything in one venue, solves that particular problem for them.

The coach said: "The former [format] had his own advantages because it would have brought a lot of teams closer to their fans. Now, it is just going to be with us, our opponents and just few people.

"So, in a way, it's not too bad because there's no home advantage, no hundreds of fans trying shout you down. It's just strictly basketball. Whoever plays well that day will take the game."

Sullivan, the forward who just joined the team, is hopeful that the club - three-time Nigeria champions and 2018 FIBA Africa Zone 3 champions - can achieve great things in Rwanda.

The G-League veteran told ESPN: "I do believe that we are capable of going pretty far in the tournament, if not all the way.

"I like the history that Hoopers have had, they have been pretty successful and this is a bit of opportunity for everyone on the roster and I will try as much as possible to help them do well."

Assistant captain Roland Alalibo is more subdued about the team's chances: "Let me not shoot our hopes too high.

"The mindset is that we are moving just to take one game at a time to get to that point we are preparing to bring the title.

"But every team comes to the competition with the same ambition so I won't give you that assurance that we are going to bring it back because other teams are coming to the tournament to do same thing.

"We just have to take one game at a time."