Olympics

Former Knightdale hoops star Stan Okoye finds spot in Rio

Stan Okoye pulls up for a shot during the Nigerian national basketball team’s semifinal game against Senegal in the AfroBasket tournament in Radès, Tunisia on Aug. 29, 2015. Nigeria won the championship to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
Stan Okoye pulls up for a shot during the Nigerian national basketball team’s semifinal game against Senegal in the AfroBasket tournament in Radès, Tunisia on Aug. 29, 2015. Nigeria won the championship to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. FIBA.COM

When Stan Okoye tore his meniscus in the first game of his 2009 senior season for Knightdale, marking his second major injury in as many years, he considered giving up on basketball.

Seven years later, Okoye is now an Olympian.

“At Knightdale, I went through so much adversity ... I didn’t think that I could make it this far,” Okoye, 25, said prior to the Games’ Opening Ceremony on Friday. “This is the biggest stage in world sports and just being a part of this is crazy. It’s still overwhelming, it’s still hard to believe I’m really here, but it’s going to hit me soon.”

Okoye has played internationally for Nigeria, where his parents were born and where he visited frequently growing up, since graduating from Virginia Military Institute in 2013. After playing three minutes in an exhibition game against the U.S. on Aug. 1 – against the likes of NBA stars Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony – he was officially named to the Nigerian Olympic roster.

But Nigeria’s path to Rio de Janeiro, and Okoye’s path to being a part of that Rio-bound team, wasn’t always smooth.

Basketball facilities are sparse in Nigeria, a Central African nation estimated in 2010 to have 70 percent of its residents living below what is considered the poverty line there. Okoye visited his parents’ homeland every other year growing up and goes even more frequently now, but he and almost all of his teammates grew up playing the sport in America.

They’re hoping, however, that the national team’s recent surge onto the global stage will help boost basketball’s popularity within Nigeria.

“We all have this basketball experience in America and we’re trying to take it back to Nigeria and make it grow,” he said. “The success of our team has brought a lot of attention to basketball and there have been sponsors reaching out and trying to invest in the country in basketball and other sports. I think the only thing that’s limiting Africa from being a very, very dominant force in basketball is the resources.”

The success he mentioned includes an appearance at the 2012 London Olympics and winning the 2015 AfroBasket tournament (the equivalent of the African international championship) for the first time in Nigerian history, which automatically qualified them for the 2016 Olympics.

After several untimely injuries cost the team the 2013 AfroBasket title, Okoye said that Nigeria entered the 2015 tournament on the “road to redemption” and ultimately defeated defending champion Angola 74-65 to secure the championship.

“We knew there was no other way it could end other than us winning the tournament,” he said.

During the 2015-16 professional season, Okoye played professionally in Italy, but he rejoined the Nigerian team in time for this summer’s Olympic training camp, which was held at the Los Angeles Clippers’ practice facility in California.

The team played international exhibition against countries like China and Argentina, slowly whittling down its roster. There was no guarantee that Okoye would actually be a part of the group bound for Brazil until the final roster was announced just after their 110-66 loss to the U.S. to begin August.

Following the game, they left immediately from Houston for Rio.

Okoye isn’t expected to play much in the Olympics – he averaged just 3.6 points per game during AfroBasket 2015 and played only 3:27 against the U.S.

Nigeria, too, faces an uphill battle in the tournament. They placed 10th out of 12 teams with a 1-4 record at the 2012 Games, their first-ever Olympics appearance, and must contend with a challenging group stage schedule that includes matchups against 2012 silver medalist Spain and host nation Brazil.

But Okoye said, above all, he’s just honored to be there.

“This is something that I can tell my kids, they’ll tell their kids, my parents will tell their friends, my friends will tell their friends,” he said. “This is something that I can share with everybody, that nobody can ever take away from me.”

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