For enthusiasts of basketball in the Nigerian sport sector, the recent triumph of the Nigerian Female basketball team, D’Tigress and Rena Wakamaz, the coach mirrors a Cinderella story that could make huge profits at the box office.
Movies fans who have watched movies like ‘Air’ (a Michael Jordan story) or ‘Rise’ which told the backstory of Milwaukee Bucks player Giannis Antentokumpo would relate those stories to that of Rena Wakama, the 31- years old US based Nigerian who was given just two weeks to form a team, take them to her first African championship as a coach and winning the tournament regardless.
Wakama, a former D’Tigress player was appointed to become the new head coach of the Nigerian women’s team on June 29th 2023 just two weeks to the FIBA Afrobasket Championship, Rwanda 2023. As a young professional who was the first female D’Tigress head coach, the odds were stacked against her to succeed like her male predecessors who have all won the competition in previous tournaments in 2005, 2013 and 2021.
Originally from Rivers State, Nigeria, Wakama attended Western Carolina University where she obtained a B.A.Sc in Recreational Therapy, later on in 2017 she received her masters in Business Administration from Manhattan College.
Wakama’s journey to the top of the basketball world began in 2005 when her team First Bank played in the African Female Club Championship. After a year, she moved to the UK where she played at world level for eight months before being called up to play for D’Tigress in 2015.
After her Masters program, Wakama became the Director of Basketball Operations at Manhattan College, a managerial role that was far from the limelight of the basketball court. Yet, it was this very role that would prepare her for the challenges that awaited her as the head coach of the Nigerian national women’s basketball team.
Behind the scenes at Manhattan College, Wakama was integral to the workings of the women’s basketball program. From managing budgets to coordinating travel and marketing, she did it all with a commitment and passion for the sport. But perhaps her most significant role was tracking the progress of prospective and current student athletes, a responsibility that would later prove instrumental in her ability to scout and recruit skilled players for D’Tigress.
D’Tigress’ needed a rebuild after a difficult 2022 after being banned by the Federal Government which led to them being kicked out of the FIBA World Cup 2022 in Australia. Their coach Otis Hughley resigned and some of the key players left because of the crisis.
Shortly after Wakama was named head coach, The Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF) announced open tryouts for the women’s team in Colleges in the United States, Europe, Lagos, and Abuja. The tryouts aimed to scout new players for the team ahead of the tournament in Rwanda.
According to reports, the move was criticised by some of the established D’Tigress players, some of whom won the competition in 2021. They refused to attend, and a couple announced their retirement. Among the players were Adaora Elonu, the team’s captain to the 2021 Afrobasket triumph, Ezinne Kalu, Promise Amukamara, Victoria Macaulay, and Ify Ibekwe. While athletes such as Nicole Enabosi who featured in the 2021 competition but did not make the list.
Bemigho Awala, CEO, Storywoxs54 and a basketball enthusiast, on Wakama’s achievement said that despite some old players quitting the team due to the tryouts, the nucleus of remaining players and the mentality they bring to the newer players spurred the winning mentality of the team.
Awala further said that having the likes of Sarah Ogoke, Pallas Kunayi-Akpannah and Amy Okonkwo who was critical to their win at the tournament helped the team surpass expectations of fans and enthusiasts alike.
Awala also said that given the managerial background of Wakama in Manhattan College and her ability to scout for young talents both locally and internationally in a short period of time, she showed both her tactical acumen and ability to build team chemistry.
The result? An impressive run at the 2023 Women’s Afrobasket competition, where Nigeria defeated the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Mozambique, and hosts Rwanda.
Wakama’s leadership and strategic acumen led the team to a historic victory, making her the first female coach to win the FIBA Afrobasket competition since its inception in 1966.
Wakama’s journey from First Bank female Basketball club, Manhattan College and now to the pinnacle of African women’s basketball is a testament to her unwavering belief in herself and her players.
Her story is not just about basketball; it’s about leadership, resilience, and the power of belief. It’s a story that reminds us all that sometimes, the most powerful lessons are learned not in the spotlight, but behind the scenes.