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.