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Let Nneka Ogwumike play for Nigeria: FIBA’s bad decision is bad for basketball

On Wednesday, basketball’s world governing body denied WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams the right to play on the Nigerian national team in the Tokyo Olympics.

FIBA said it denied the players’ petitions to play for Nigeria due to their “substantial involvement” of more than 10 years with USA Basketball.

But the ruling contradicts FIBA’s own mandate to try to grow the women’s game globally. And instead of adding two talented Nigerian-American women to a team from a continent that has never won an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s basketball and paving the way for three sisters to suit up for Nigeria — Nneka’s younger sisters Chiney and Erica Ogwumike are expected to play for Team Nigeria — FIBA instead overlooked its own provision that allows such exceptions.

On its website, FIBA states that a big part of the organization’s mission is “the unifying of the community, along with the promotion and development of the sport.” And that FIBA’s three current strategic priorities are “empowering national federations, promoting women in basketball, and enlarging the FIBA family.”

All of that would apply to allowing Ogwumike and Williams on Team Nigeria.

It’s true that FIBA has stricter rules for eligibility for national teams than some other sports’ governing bodies. If by age 17 a player has represented one nation’s team in a FIBA-sanctioned event, that player isn’t allowed to play for another country in such an event. Nneka Ogwumike was a longtime member of Team USA, winning gold in two FIBA World Cup competitions with the Americans. Williams also has competed for USA Basketball.

But FIBA’s regulations leave a loophole that should be large enough to allow participation by both players — and for reasons that completely align with FIBA’s aforementioned goals and priorities. FIBA’s secretary general, Andreas Zagklis, can authorize a player to compete for his or her nation of origin if “this is in the interest of the development of basketball in this country.”

How about the development of basketball on an entire continent? FIBA Africa is the only one of FIBA’s five confederations that has never won an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s basketball. Wouldn’t the opportunity to have two former WNBA All-Stars and collegiate All-Americans play for the country where their parents were born — and for which they have dual citizenship and have frequently visited — make sense in terms of both Nigerian and African basketball development?

Add in that Nneka and her sisters — Chiney, like Nneka, is a former No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick who was an All-American at Stanford, while Erica was a standout at Rice University — are missing out on the opportunity to represent their country together. Isn’t this the heartwarming story and kind of positive publicity that FIBA should want?

Some might say FIBA’s rules are necessary to keep teams from bringing in “ringers” or to protect the so-called integrity of national teams. But what decade are we living in? For years now, American athletes in many Olympic sports have been able to get national status in other countries for all kinds of reasons — from having family ties to those countries to simply playing professionally there. The latter was how former WNBA player Becky Hammon played for Russia in the 2008 Olympics and how current Seattle Storm player Epiphanny Prince also competed for Team Russia, although she didn’t play in the Olympics.

FIBA’s stated big issue here, though, is the time that Nneka Ogwumike and Williams spent with USA Basketball. But if USA Basketball doesn’t have a problem with them playing elsewhere — both were given their releases by that organization — why should FIBA? Odds are, this is about other countries that don’t want to see Team Nigeria add two WNBA post players who are still in their primes. So much for the “unifying” of the basketball community.

Also consider that every player currently on Team Nigeria’s women’s roster played college basketball in the United States. Some grew up in Nigeria, others in the United States. But all feel a strong tie to that country because it’s a part of their heritage, just as Williams and the Ogwumikes do.

Why didn’t Williams and Nneka Ogwumike play for Team Nigeria to begin with? Because both wanted the opportunity to compete for the best women’s program in international basketball, which is understandable. Team USA will be going for its seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo.

The Americans have more talent than they know what to do with; just look at the WNBA All-Stars’ 93-85 victory over Team USA in Wednesday’s All-Star Game. Since 1996, Team USA has lost just once in international play, in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA Women’s World Cup. Is it such a bad thing if another country benefits from the Americans’ wealth of basketball ability?

Ogwumike, a Stanford grad, and Williams, a Duke grad, represent everything you could ask for in Olympians. Ogwumike is the president of the executive committee of the WNBA’s players union. She and Williams have been leading voices in the league’s social justice initiatives. Ogwumike admitted she was hurt when she didn’t make the U.S. team this year, as many expected she would, but she decided to move on and find another option.

FIBA had a chance to weigh all the factors; think about its own stated mission; and allow two players to represent a country that means a great deal to them and help advance that nation’s global footprint in the sport. FIBA could have done something that made sense on so many levels. Basketball’s governing body chose a different path.

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