FIBA: Ify Okoro is ready to lead Nigeria at the 2024 Paris Olympics

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Contents
How did you get into basketball? And when did you start? You are one of over 16 million people who live in the Lagos metro area. What’s the basketball culture like there? And what’s the status of women’s basketball in Nigeria? Is it on an upswing or is it kind of steadily growing?What about your parents? Were they supportive or did you have to convince them to allow you to play? And now? Are they supportive? You’re playing for the national team, so they must be very proud.You played basketball in Nigeria up until 2022. And then you moved to Kenya. Why?This year you moved to Iceland. That must have been a culture shock for you.And why Iceland, out of all the places? Ever heard of Spain? Portugal? Greece?And you also played 3×3 basketball. In fact, you first played on the Nigerian national team as a 3×3 player. How did playing that type of game help you develop as a player?You got your first game on the 5×5 team during the 2023 AfroBasket tournament and Nigeria was again the best team on the continent. How did it feel to win gold for your country?The pressure was on you during AfroBasket. And was it comparable during the Olympic qualifiers in Belgium? You played Belgium, Senegal and the United States.You win that game by seven points. Was there a moment that you guys were afraid that you wouldn’t make it? In the next game, you played 20 minutes against Team USA. As a defensive specialist, who did you guard?What can we basketball fans expect from your team during the Olympics?

Ifunanya Okoro has been with the Nigerian national team since she was 16. She came up through the system, played 3×3 basketball, moved to Kenya and now, at age 25, she’s one of the top Nigerian women’s players. Last year, she moved to Europe—to Iceland—where she averaged 17.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. She talked to us about her career so far, her improvements and her team’s chances at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.


How did you get into basketball? And when did you start?

I got into basketball in 2014. I started when one of my friends invited me to a basketball camp. So I just casually went there to watch the game, and then when I got there I was like, “Ohh, women play basketball too!” So that was how I got interested. Then I registered with the Hope for Girls Academy.

You are one of over 16 million people who live in the Lagos metro area. What’s the basketball culture like there?

I would say in the whole of Nigeria, Lagos and Abuja have the most top-level athletes. Everyone wants to come to Lagos to play basketball because that’s where most of the things are happening, where the competitions are happening, the camps. We have… I think five or six female teams from Lagos.

And what’s the status of women’s basketball in Nigeria? Is it on an upswing or is it kind of steadily growing?

Yeah, I would say it’s steadily growing, like, as the years go by. In Africa, we have this mentality that the female child is not supposed to be into sport and all those things. So now it’s growing because now they are seeing that female children are actually doing good in sports. So now that more females are coming, sports is growing and it just keeps going like that.

What about your parents? Were they supportive or did you have to convince them to allow you to play?

Yeah, I had to convince them. I really had to convince them.

And now? Are they supportive? You’re playing for the national team, so they must be very proud.

Yeah. Yeah. They’re convinced. They’re very supportive now.

You played basketball in Nigeria up until 2022. And then you moved to Kenya. Why?

It was me just wanting to step out and try something different because I got to a point when I was like, “Now I need to go outside to experience the game from a different perspective.” I really wanted to go outside of Nigeria to play and that’s how I got the opportunity to play in Kenya. And I would say the basketball in Kenya, it’s not really different from the basketball in Nigeria. It’s just that they’re a little bit more physical than we are here in Nigeria, you know, and the referees are like, “Just play on.” So yeah, I would say that’s that is the only difference there. A little bit more physical than Nigerian basketball.

This year you moved to Iceland. That must have been a culture shock for you.

When I first got to Iceland, it wasn’t snowing yet. I got there in October. But still, coming from Nigeria, we have like 28 degrees Celsius in October, you know, and you go there and it’s like 4 degrees Celsius. In the winter, you have -10 degrees Celsius. And I was like, “Oh, my God.” But the cold was the only thing that was different for me, because the people there, they are so lovely. They are so nice and welcoming. The girls really made me feel welcome. They made me feel like I was a part of the team. So yeah, it was it was really a nice experience for me.

And why Iceland, out of all the places? Ever heard of Spain? Portugal? Greece?

So I met with my agent last year, in August. He was like, “Oh, it’s very late to get a job now, because most of the teams have already recruited.” So he was just like, “OK, just go with this one now and from there we can see what we get next year.” The goal for me actually is to play basketball to the highest level and I feel like for me to do that, I have to play in different environments and to be able to adjust and adapt, to help my game grow to the level I want to play in. And I felt playing here in Africa wouldn’t get me there. So I feel like me playing in different places, it’s just going to build me to become the person I want to be.

And you also played 3×3 basketball. In fact, you first played on the Nigerian national team as a 3×3 player. How did playing that type of game help you develop as a player?

I would say, being tough, you know, because you have to guard somebody constantly. So the toughness, the agility, to believe in yourself, because it’s just the three of you, so you have to count on yourself. So, 3×3 really helped me develop my mental toughness. Just keep going until it’s over, you know? Never give up. You know, even when I’m down, I know I have to just keep going until the whistle is being sounded.

You got your first game on the 5×5 team during the 2023 AfroBasket tournament and Nigeria was again the best team on the continent. How did it feel to win gold for your country?

I would say it was really big for me because growing up, everyone wants to play for their national team. I felt very, very blessed and grateful and very appreciative of my teammates because it was a team effort. Prior to us winning, Nigeria had won three-straight titles. And with winning the fourth, I was like, “Wow, I’m part of this great program and was able to keep the winning streak going.” So I felt really, really blessed just to be among the wonderful ladies that won.

Okoro defends Jewell Loyd in the game between Nigeria and the United States at the 2024 FIBA Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Antwerp.
Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

The pressure was on you during AfroBasket. And was it comparable during the Olympic qualifiers in Belgium? You played Belgium, Senegal and the United States.

Going to the Olympic qualifiers, our coach just told us we need to win one game and then we had off. So winning the first game, it was like, you know, we already got it. So in the other games, our approach was like, “Let’s just try to see what we can do about it.” But that first game we felt the pressure to win. Against Senegal, we felt pressure.

You win that game by seven points. Was there a moment that you guys were afraid that you wouldn’t make it?

Yeah. I think towards the third quarter, they had the lead and we were like, “Let’s focus. This is why we came here for this game.” You know, we just kept grounded because during the third quarter, the game was very, very close. We have to do this for each other and then we just kept fighting, fighting till the end.

In the next game, you played 20 minutes against Team USA. As a defensive specialist, who did you guard?

Let’s see… I guarded Kelsey Plum. I guarded Jackie Young. And Jewell Loyd. I would say guarding them was different for me, because that was the first time playing on that kind of stage and playing against that caliber of players. I had to shake off some jitters, but when I got into the game and got comfortable, I did my thing. They really motivated me to just keep going because they run the floor really well and everything. So it was just doing what I know how to do, keep them in front of me and yeah, that was it.

What can we basketball fans expect from your team during the Olympics?

We enjoy basketball and we are coming to put a stamp on our name, you know, just to make Africa proud. Take it one game at a time. Just focus on executing. That’s the thing. We are just gonna come and do our thing and try to win as much games as we can.


A special thank you to Thomas Prodromou of Flash Agency for arranging the interview.

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