NYC basketball trio chases Olympic dream with Nigerian women’s national team

NYC basketball trio chases Olympic dream with Nigerian women’s national team
AP Photo/ Andrew Penner

Adeola Olanrewaju quickly learned this was going to be a different go around with the Nigerian women’s national basketball team.

At the team’s tryouts in July, the former all-city standout at Bishop Loughlin, who made the squad for the third time, was approached by one of her new teammates. Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, a former Archbishop Molloy and Stanford star, recognized Olanrewaju and told her she was a fan growing up.

“I was like when I was in junior high school my mom use to take me to watch your games,” Gold-Onwude said. “I was actually between Archbishop Molloy, Christ the King and Bishop Loughlin. I was really thinking about it and my mom was like there is this nice Nigerian girl and she is doing well.”

Olanrewaju graduated from Xavier University in 2005 after starting her career at N.C. State. The 6-foot-3 center competed in the FIBA World Championships in 2006 and in 2009 tried to qualify for the World Championships. Her interaction with Gold-Onwude quickly showed she was going to be one of the squad’s veterans this time and also one of three New York City players on the roster. Former Gauchos teammate Mayoya Onikute, who played at Park West HS in Manhattan, also made it after missing the cut in 2009. Both she and Olanrewaju were born in Nigeria, while Gold-Onwude’s father is a native.

“When she came on the team she kept saying I know you,” Olanrewaju said of Gold-Onwude. “I’m like, ‘how?’ We are like years apart. It was so cute and it was almost embarrassing.”

She and her fellow New Yorkers and nine other teammates will try to lead Nigeria back to the Olympics for the first time since 2004. Olanrewaju had a chance to try out for that team, but was coming off microfracture knee surgery and didn’t want to risk the rest of her career, which has taken her overseas to Turkey and the Ukraine.

With some of the 2004 team back and the new additions she thinks this year’s squad has a chance to get them to London in 2012, They left their Orlando training facility this week for Belgium and Italy to play exhibition games. The African Olympics, for continent bragged rights, start Sept. 2 in Mozambique as a final tune up for the FIBA World championships from Sept. 23 to Oct. 2 in the Mali.

“I think this team has a really, really good chance,” Olanrewaju said. “All the aspects and all the positions are covered.”

The journey to this point was much different for Gold-Onwude and Olanrewaju. Gold-Onwude, a 5-foot-10 point guard, chose a career in broadcasting over a chance to play overseas. But when members of the team reached out to her through e-mails and Facebook she couldn’t give up the opportunity to compete and possibly be an Olympian. It didn’t conflict with her covering the women’s college basketball season for ESPN and Fox Sports.

“Here is a chance for me to be able to do both,” she said.

That meant getting back into game shape after not competing at that level since graduating as a redshirt senior in 2010. Gold-Onwude returned to Stanford, where she played in three Final Fours, and worked out with her former teammates and ran on the sands of Long Beach while coming home to see her family. She said she made up for any early physical limitations with an improved understanding of the game during her first professional experience.

“When they gave out money for the tryout I was so surprised,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh we are getting paid for this?’ I was just happy to be here.”

Ecstatic was the word Onikute, a Queens native, used when describing what it meant to be a member of the squad. The 5-foot-5 guard first found out about the national team after her junior season at Houston in 2009. Onikute later transferred and finished her career at Pittsburg State. She played in local leagues after to stay in shape.

“It’s different,” Onikute said. “It’s not like college. Everyone is out of college. Everyone is on the same skill level.”

But not everyone shares the bond of growing up playing in the five boroughs, let alone as travel teammates like Onikute and Olanrewaju. The three said they have talked more about their college days and their current situation, like Olanrewaju being married a year ago.

“New York is a small sorority, fraternity of basketball players,” Gold-Onwude said. “If you hooped for real you all knew each other and you all kind of kept tabs too.”

Olanrewaju hasn’t lost track of her goal of representing her country at the Olympics. She has many times watched the opening ceremonies and wondered what it would be like to be a part of it. Onikute didn’t want to get ahead of herself and Gold-Onwude talked about how much of a thrill telling her future children she even just tried would be.

“To imagine that you are a couple of game away from being that person walking in,” Olanrewaju said. “The words can’t even describe the feeling.”

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