By Nelson Igbineweka with Agency report
Chimezie Metu still remembers what he was doing when he got the call in 2017.
It was the early hours of a summer morning in Los Angeles when his phone rang. Metu had been asleep, resting for another grueling August day of strength and conditioning to ensure he was in peak shape for his highly anticipated third season at the University of Southern California. On the other end of the call was Alexander Nwora. Nwora informed Metu that he just secured the position as head coach of the Nigerian senior men’s basketball team.
“I just got the job and I wanted you to be one of the first people that I called, and I just want to let you know whenever you want to come play, we’ll have a spot [for you],” said Nwora, according to Metu.
This call was the realization of a dream for a kid who lived in Nigeria from ages 6 to 12 and had some of his fondest childhood memories amongst his family and friends in Lagos, the capital city of the West African nation.
The call had been a long time coming for Metu.
“I’ve honestly been trying to get on the team for a long time,” said the 22-year-old Metu, who was born in Los Angeles. “Probably since high school, or college. Back then they had a different coach. I was in a different situation. Obviously, I never got the call.”
When he was offered a spot, it took two summers before Metu was able to make his way to Lagos to finally throw on his green and white Nigeria threads and prepare for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.
Not only was this an opportunity for the San Antonio Spurs big man to represent Nigeria on a global scale, it was the first real opening for him to return to Lagos after a decade away from his adopted homeland. In the time between, Metu rose to Los Angeles high school hoops stardom, pieced together an impressive career revitalizing USC basketball, was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs and played his first NBA season while splitting time between San Antonio and its G League affiliate in Austin.
Chimezie Metu spent his rookie season splitting time between the San Antonio Spurs and their G League affiliate before heading to China with the Nigerian national team. (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)
“You know, most of my memories of my childhood are back in Nigeria honestly,” said Metu. “Obviously, those are the years you learn about yourself, you learn about family. It was really good to go back there and see where I was from. Now when I go back, I’m not lost. I know where things are, I know where people are. And it’s a really good feeling.”
Metu returns to a Nigerian nation that has fallen in love with the game of basketball just as he had. Boasting an impressive list of NBA players – including Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon – Nigeria has developed into a hotbed for hoops in Africa. On Nigeria’s roster alongside Metu will be two other Nigerian NBA players in Al-Farouq Aminu (Orlando Magic) and Josh Okogie (Minnesota Timberwolves), as well as Jordan Nwora, a forward at Louisville and son of Coach Nwora.
Metu spoke emphatically about the team he was lucky enough to join.
“I think we’re scrappy,” he said. “I think we’re hungry, I think just because of how things have gone down for us during these last few weeks it’s making us really eager to go out there and show the world we are capable of going out there and competing with the top tier teams.”
In a crowded field of international talent, Nigeria will have its work cut out for it in order to finish on top of the podium. While perennial international powerhouse USA will not have the same star power as in previous years, countries teeming with NBA talent like France, Spain and Serbia are poised to fill a potential void. While wary of the multiple threats, Metu is confident that the talent from Nigeria can rival any other.
In the 2018 FIBA World Cup African qualifiers, Team Nigeria won 16 games while dropping just two, without any aforementioned NBA talent. While the team has made considerable advances without him, Metu is excited to hop on board.
“I love being Nigerian,” said Metu. “I love playing basketball. And I love representing Nigeria playing basketball”
He will have the opportunity to do both of those activities starting with group stage games against No. 10 Russia, No. 5 Argentina and No. 32 Korea in Wuhan, China. Nigeria opens play in Group B on Saturday at 4:30 a.m. ET against Russia.
Metu departed Nigeria and headed back to Los Angeles as a 12-year-old to attend school and forge the beginnings of a promising basketball career with his eyes set on the NBA. Now, 10 years later, he returns having accomplished many of the goals he set out for. While he enjoyed his three-week stint in Nigeria filled with basketball and family, last week Metu departed Nigeria again, this time for China, with a new goal in mind: gold.