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For Casa Grande High School grad Josh Akognon all the world's his court

Published: Wednesday, August 16, 2006 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 15, 2006 at 2:03 p.m.

One of the greatest honors athletes can have is sporting their nation’s colors on the world stage. Players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have all donned the stars and stripes at one time or another, but their presence is lacking from the U.S. squad this year.

Other nations don’t seem to have the same trouble pulling together their top-tier talent for the Olympics and World Championships — just to be considered is an honor.

That’s why an agent from the Nigerian national team may have been a bit surprised when he took a trip to the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the Pac-10 tournament on March 9. He was there to recruit a player for the Nigerian's World Championship squad.

The player he sought wasn’t on the court after the game, however. Following the 66-55 season-ending loss, the Cougars’ shooting guard went straight to the team bus — the last thing on his mind was talking to anybody about basketball.

Undeterred, the representative passed the papers to the player’s teammates hoping he would get a phone call back.

“It was the end of the season and I didn’t feel like talking to nobody so I just gave the number to my dad,” the player said. “My dad called him and they were communicating, and two weeks later they gave me the invitation to try out in Texas.”

The moment former Casa Grande basketball standout Josh Akognon found out whom that representative was and what he was offering, the answer was an emphatic “yes.”

The result has been a rather uncommon summer for a 20-year old college kid. Akognon has squared off with first round draft picks, dined with African basketball icons Hakeem Olajuwon and Emeka Okafor and received a speech from the president of Nigeria.

What’s more, Akognon dazzled the coaching staff and not only earned a spot on the travel squad to Tokyo, Japan for the World Championships, but he’s spent most of the summer as the starting point guard, and his parents couldn't be more excited. “Even though I’m from the U.S., it feels great to play for my dad’s country,” Akognon said. “If I had the choice between the U.S. and Nigeria, I’d choose to play for Nigeria.”

Akognon has never been to Nigeria, but because his dad was born in there, he is eligible to play for the national team. He has used the summer both as a means of exposing his talent to the basketball world and as a chance to learn more about his heritage.

Getting back to his roots

Perhaps nobody is more proud of Akognon’s decision to play for Nigeria than his father, who was in his late teens when he left his home in Nigeria to pursue a calling from God in 1973. He traveled to British Columbia, Canada to enroll at Northwest Baptist University, focusing his attention on ministry. He left behind him a nation on the rebound from civil war, a nation controlled by a military dictatorship known as the Gowon Regime.

Thirty-three years later, Rev. Emmanuel O. Akognon still returns every so often to his homeland, but now to offer medical aide through a foundation he established for West African countries. As part of this program, Emmanuel Akognon has set up an ongoing academy that enrolls 35 kids with the purpose of educating them in the medicinal field. The school also emphasizes sports, particularly basketball, in an organized team atmosphere.

Josh Akognon has yet to see his roots in Nigeria, but he has picked up on some Nigerian words and phrases, and he hopes to get the chance to stop in on the way to the World Championships.

“When Josh and (his brother) Shola were growing up I started to teach them my language and they made fun of me,” Emmanuel Akognon joked. “Now he calls me from the computer and he’s actually saying phrases.”

Sports have always been a point of pride for the Akognons. Josh and his older brother. Shola, 24, used to battle in the backyard of their old house on Stuart Street as their younger sister, Shonte, now 16, kept a close eye on the sidelines. At the time, the older Shola reigned supreme in their one-one-one battles. But as they grew older, Shola took his game to the football field and Josh honed his skills in the street of a new house on Allen Street.

The move to a different house ironically put distance between Josh and Kenilworth Junior High School, where he opted not to try out for the basketball team and closer to Casa Grande where he would become one of the best scoring guards in California.

Seven years older and much more mature, Akognon sees his sporting experience this summer as an opportunity to learn more about his ancestry. “We'd still be proud of him if he wasn't doing this, but we think this is more of a worldly exposure for him,” Emmanuel Akognon, now 52, said as his wife, Alfreda, nodded while looking after a child on the couch.

Alfreda Akognon, 49, is a daycare provider without ties to Nigeria. She grew up in the Bay Area, but met Emmanuel when he came to California as a minister.

Emmanuel and Alfreda haven’t had the opportunity to watch Josh play for Nigeria in person, but they will be glued to the television set when the World Championships commence.

Playing on the world stage

The action gets going for Josh Akognon on Saturday, when the Nigerians play Serbia and Montenegro. Nigeria plays three games in three days to open the tournament, with Venezuela on tap on Sunday and France on Monday. After a day off, the Nigerians close against Argentina on Aug. 23 and Lebanon the next day.

The tournament is broken into two stages. The preliminary round splits the 24-team field into four groups with a round-robin format. The top four in each group advance to a single elimination, winner takes all tournament.

The Nigerians, ranked No. 21 in the latest FIBA poll, have a tough draw. Grouped with defending champions Serbia & Montenegro, Olympic champs Argentina and a star-studded French squad that includes the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker and the Phoenix Suns’ Boris Diaw, Nigeria is considered an underdog to do much in Group A. Wins against the other two teams in the group, Lebanon and Venezuela, will be essential if Nigeria is to advance.

Akognon and former high school teammate Angelo Tsagarakis, a French native playing for Oregon State, have a bet in place when Nigeria and le Français face off.

“Angelo’s telling me we're going to get stomped,” Akognon said. “So if we get into the second round, Angelo has to take me out to dinner and buy me some new shoes.”

The Nigerian team based its operations in Dallas this summer. Sam Vincent, coach of the Ft. Worth Flyers in the NBA Development League, heads the Nigerian squad. The squad has played tune-up games against various NBA summer league teams and several national teams.

Early in July, Josh posted 12 points in limited action against the Dallas Mavericks’ summer league team — a roster that included 2006 first round draft choice from Michigan State, Maurice Ager. For a guy who didn't start playing competitive basketball until his freshman year of high school, the opportunity of playing against professionals has Akognon thinking the NBA is an attainable goal.

“I honestly think right now I could’ve went on that team and played better than some of the guys they had out there,” Akognon confidently proclaimed. The Nigerian team is composed of mostly professionals with two college players making the cut — Akognon and Chamberlain Oguchi. Jeff Varem, a small forward born in Benue, Nigeria, was a teammate of Akognon's at Washington State before graduating in 2005.

The most highly touted star in Nigeria today is Golden State Warriors power forward Ike Diogu. However, Diogu chose not to represent his country this summer.

Seeking advice

After the last two months and with the World Championships on the horizon, March 9, 2006 seems like a lifetime ago. That’s the day he sat on a bus as his teammates handed him paperwork from “some guy” who was looking for him — that was the week he asked his dad to call the man and find out what was going on; and it was the month that he would once again seek the advice of former high school coach and mentor Jeremy Russotti.

“At first I said Josh, don’t do it, because I thought it was the under-21 team,” Russotti quipped.

“But I said, ‘Well, find out more information.’ Well, we found out it was their pre-Olympic team, so once he told me that, I said, ‘Oh man, you’ve got to do it.’”

Playing for Nigeria was an easy decision for Josh Akognon and Russotti, but the next question to be answered would be a bit tougher as Josh’s career at Washington State seemed to be at its end.

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