In this interview, D’Tigress point guard Uju Ugoka tells PETER AKINBO about her humble beginnings, why she switched from football to basketball, her parents resistance and how a scholarship changed her life story
Not much has been heard about you in recent times. Where are you playing now?
My last season was in Germany’s division one and I just signed to play in France Ligue Feminine 2 this season.
Why did you opt for basketball ahead of other sports while growing up?
Actually, I started my sports career as a goalkeeper in my secondary school and we did well. It was after my secondary school I opted for basketball through some positive stuff I saw at the stadium with the girls who were training. So, that’s how I switched from a footballer to a basketball player.
As a girl, did your parents support your involvement in sports?
As a girl-child, initially my parents didn’t support me doing sports because they felt it was for men. They wanted me to go to school, study hard and become whatever I wanted to become but I had the passion for sports. I got a scholarship from sports in my secondary school but it was still not enough to convince them. They still insisted that I stopped playing. When I switched to basketball, I had to be a little bit stubborn.
Eventually they allowed me to play when I was invited to the national U-16 team, they saw my name in the papers and they were very happy. Everyone was talking about it and they finally let me be.
Mobolaji Akiode’s camp helped you achieve your aim of earning a scholarship in the US and playing basketball. Can you recall your early beginnings in the game?
Yes, the Mobolaji Akiode camp really helped me by giving me the scholarship to go to the US to study and play basketball. It wasn’t really easy because I started late. It was after secondary school I started playing, so, I was really raw without skills. But what helped me was my athleticism and I used that to make up for the skills I didn’t have. So, it was difficult but I had the zeal to become a good basketball player. So, I worked my way up from being invited for the U-16 to the U-17 and U-18 twice, before the Mobolaji Akiode camp came up and it was for 50 girls in Ogun State then. Going there, I had it in mind that I wanted to be among the top two players in the camp because only the top two were going to get the scholarship. I did my best, I worked hard and luck shone on me.
How did you feel first time you were called up to D’Tigress squad?
The first time I was called to D’Tigress squad, it was a dream come true. I was so excited because I had played for the junior national teams. It was an opportunity to represent the country and I was very glad and my parents were excited too. That was a great feeling and I did my best in the camp then.
Were you jittery in your first game for Nigeria?
Actually I wasn’t jittery in my first game for Nigeria. From all the camps, I was always aggressive and head on because I love to play on the big stage. It was just me being myself. The first big stage was the 2016 Olympic qualifiers in France. I was there and played well and I’ve always waited for that big stage moment. I’m built for that.
What do you do before every game?
What I do before every game is sleep well and wake up quite early. i eat lightly, whether it’s a morning or afternoon game, and listen to a lot of music to keep my vibe going into the game. Music helps me not to think too much about the game.
What are your best and worst moments as a basketball player?
My best moment as a basketball player was getting the scholarship to the US. The things people say I can’t do, the things I can’t become, they said I couldn’t become an All-American, my coach said it was going to be difficult. But I worked hard, I trained and immediately in my first year, I did it back-to-back. It propelled me to know that whatever you believe you can achieve. I was very happy because the coach said I couldn’t. That was one of my best moments. As a basketball player, there is no specific worst moment, but whenever I lose games, I feel bad and terrible that I didn’t do enough to help my team. Normally for players, injuries are worst nightmares and in my career, I’ve struggled with injuries a lot.
Are you involved in any project to breed future basketball stars?
I do have basketball projects and camps once in a while. I have a foundation called Turning Hope into Reality Foundation where I train young boys and girls. I also have a group of girls in Lagos and in the east who I train during the off season and help them with their basketball skills. And there are other players that I’ve helped to move to other countries like Italy. So, I’m really involved because the same opportunity made me who I am today. I’m always giving back to help out future basketball stars.