THE last time the National Women’s Basketball League, called the Zenith Women Basketball League, was held in Nigeria was in 2019; since then, players have been begging to return to the court, leaving some female basketballers to untold hardship in the game of basketball.
The last edition, won by debutant Air Warrior, witnessed teams like First Bank, Dolphins, Sunshine Angels, Ekiti Angels, Oluyole Babes and Ogun Babes who played among themselves in Lagos, while in Akure, Delta Force, IGP Queens, MFM Queens, Coal City Queens of Enugu and First Deep Waters, fought for the eight slots into the national conference phase.
Also in Zaria, Taraba Hurricanes, Kebbi Angels, Adamawa Angels, Zamfara Babes, Exousia Angels, GT-2000, Nigeria Army Amazon and AHIP slugged it out among themselves, and in Abuja; Nigeria Customs, Benue Princes, Plateau Rocks, Nasarawa Amazons, Blackgold Queens, Air Warriors Babes and FCT Wing played each other.
Aside from the scene of some organised private championships for women’s basketball games, many of the above-mentioned teams have been forced to exit. At the same time, some have been left in the shadow of themselves, except MFM Queens and First Bank, which were involved in some tournaments last year.
The leadership of the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF) has been replete with crisis. In 2022, the crisis was triggered after two elections, one by the federation’s president Musa Kida and another by Mark Idoche, held in two different places.
The former’s election was in Benin, Edo state, while the latter was in Abuja. This leadership tussle degenerated into a two-year ban on basketball activities ordered by the federal government.
The ban left the hapless Nigeria’s female basketball team, D’Tigress, to suffer like the grass; it is always at the receiving end of the battle between two elephants, as they were denied to compete in Sydney 2022 World Cup after they deployed their arsenal to qualify for the tournament. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) replaced them with Mali.
However, two months later, the federal government lifted the ban.
Also, the female basketballers could not feature at the African U18 championship in Madagascar, and the 2022 Women’s Basketball World Cup played in Australia in September and October. This has left a sour taste in the mouths of players and coaches.
‘Bring back our women league’
In a cross-interview with basketball coaches, they shared the same sentiments of how the lack of a basketball league has caused a decline in women’s participation in basketball.
According to the coach of Zamfara Babes, Usman Rabiu, he said that lack of a women’s basketball league has affected the performance of the female basketball players in Nigeria, adding that many of them have switched to the game of football.
“Of course, there has been a decline in the game of female basketball; as I am speaking to you, some of the basketball players are switching to other games because they don’t want to stay idle, they are not only doing it for the fact they want money, but they have to be physically fit. You see that there is a huge difference between female footballers and female basketball players in their successes and our own successes. There are some girls that start playing football, and between two years, they are something else; now, because of what is happening, the female basketball players have switched to playing football,”.
He stressed that playing in the league gives the players the opportunity to get scholarships and also eke out a living.
“2019 was the last time we had the league, and since then, we have not been in the league; one of the advantages of playing in the league is that it takes the girls out of the street, and the little stipend they get is what they use to feed themselves, their parents and siblings. Also, it promotes them to get more scholarships to schools, so statistically, for the past three years compared to other years that they have not been active, they have minimal admission into colleges and institutions in Nigeria and abroad,” Rabiu explained.
He noted that the NBBF leadership’s inability to organise a league for women has snarled the progress, urging them to try to ensure the league is held in 2023.
“The people that say they want to become the president, let them not fight to become the president (only), let them also organise a championship to boost the girls”, the Zamfara babes coach added.
The coach of Kada Angels, Simpson Morrison, said the lull has led to the retiring of some players, “It is unfortunate for selfish reasons that I will put because, for me, the actors are not even looking at the players; everyone is driven by self-interest, and so far, not having a league since 2019 has retired some; it has sent some into marriages and other things, and some has stopped playing. So, I don’t know if we have anything to tell these players, some of them will live not to forgive us this four years space, from 2019 till date”.
Morrison added, “We have a serious decline, and right now, all we are doing is re-shuffling players; this player will leave teams A and B; next time, you will see the person in the same team. So, there is no more improvement because no one understands the direction, we don’t have a league, and nothing is happening, so for them, what are they playing for.”
On the way forward, the Kada Angels coach said it’s “to have people on board now to run the affairs of basketball, so there is no need again for a blame game; come with a programme and put something up, and let people begin to play.”
The Mountain of Fire Ministries, MFM Queen’s coach, Ochuko Owolabi, said the focus should be on leagues, not tournaments.
“What everybody wants is a league for the girls to play, not just 3-day tournaments like what individuals are doing; that is okay; at least, it is better than nothing; we want a league. Now, it is not necessarily about the money; players are eager, and they want to play, so that is just what we are saying”, Owolabi stated.
Players express their concerns
Joy Ebiega, who played for First Bank in 2019, said that not playing in the league for over three years has made many basketball players rusty.
“It has been tough; it has made players rusty because there is no game, and it seems that basketball is going down because of no competition to play frequently either at the state or zonal level, there is no competition”, she said.
She added that “A lot of people have even stopped playing when you are not playing consistently like how you used to play before. Definitely, your style of playing will drop. Personally, I have been training, but you have been training, and there is no competition; it does not make any difference; you don’t know if you are improving or not. If you want to compete at an international level, you also have to play games. In Nigeria, players are getting rusty by the day.”
Beatrice Amgbabuba, who played for the Dolphins in 2019, said things are going downhill as no team would pay for their services when there was no league.
“Many things have changed; it has not been easy, all our lives have been in a basketball league, but now, most teams are not paying anything; it has really affected us; we are not receiving anything from any team again; they said we should go home,” she said.
Grace Ezebilo, who played for the debutant MFM Queens that lost in the finals in 2019, revealed that she had to travel to Cotonou owing to a lack of league, “ I travelled to Cotonou for two years; I only returned last year for Christmas, so everybody is looking for something elsewhere, and when you come back here, most of our good players have gone, most tall girls have gone. There is nothing profitable about playing here,” Ezebilo said.
Also, a basketball journalist, Queen Moseph, the lack of a league is causing a talent drain, “…our best legs now play in Benin Republic because nothing is happening; that is what some girls are doing, while some others are hoping that they will have a tournament. I hope something comes”.
Zenith Basketball League will resume – NBBF
Speaking with a member of the NBBF media team, Maxwell Kumoye , he explained that the pandemic forced the league to stop in 2020, while in 2021 and 2022, there were issues around the federation elections, but he promised that the female basketball league would resume in 2023.
“There was a league that ended in 2019, but there was an issue of COVID-19 in 2020, so we have no league as a result of that restriction, 2021, when the restriction was partially lifted, there were issues of election and Olympics, it disturbed the flow, that same 2021, we had a sports festival, so there was a loaded calendar, the calendar did not open the way for us to have a league at that time, so the partial restriction cannot allow the league to run effectively,” Kumoye.
“In 2022, an election was conducted in Benin, but there was a faction that was trying to make a claim to the leadership, so there was this tussle that prevented the federation from running the league. The federation just got the go-ahead to run the association in August; how many months are left to start running the league, not that the federation is not doing anything?
“But I can assure you that in 2023, the Zenith Basketball League will go on, it has been on for 17 years, and the sponsor is willing to support it, so there will be a female league come 2023”.