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CLOSE-UP: Rena Wakama, the first female coach to win Afrobasket title

Among the confetti drizzling as D’Tigress celebrated their 2023 Women’s Afrobasket title were shards of glass ceilings of history.

D’Tigress defeated Senegal 84-74 in the final and secured Nigeria’s place as only the second country to win the women’s Afrobasket title four times in a row.

The team had won the previous three editions and remained unbeaten in every African competition.

Similarly, Rena Wakama, D’Tigress head coach, became the first female coach to win the competition since its inception in 1966.

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She is a refreshing change to male dominance of women’s basketball in Africa after 57 years.

Wakama was appointed less than a month before the competition in Rwanda, yet she conjured brilliance and history.

How did a 31-year-old with a brief playing career become Africa’s most successful female basketball in just half a month?

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EARLY LIFE AND CAREER

Wakama was born on April 11, 1992, in Raleigh, North Carolina, US. Her parents — Johnson Wakama and Rosana Oba — are natives of Okrika, Rivers state.

Wakama has two sisters, Yvonne and Mina, and attended Wake Forest high school in North Carolina. Her love for basketball started at a tender age and was inspired by Onimisi Aiyede, her cousin, who was her partner in crime.

“We did it. Staying up all night playing video games, racing down the street head first on a skateboard, teaching me how to ride a bike, holding my hand on our walk to the bus stop on my first day of kindergarten, teaching me how to drive, installing my stereo system in my first car, kicking my behind in basketball,” she wrote on her Instagram page after Aiyede passed away in 2020.

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After high school, Wakama proceeded to the University of Western Carolina (WSU) where she spent four years playing for ‘Catamounts’ — the institution’s female basketball team.

Wakama received a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation from WSU in 2014.

She had a brief playing career which saw her join the D’Tigress fold in 2015, immediately after she left college. She accompanied D’Tigress to the 2015 Women’s Afrobasket tournament in Cameroon where Nigeria finished third.

Wakama said her name was missing from Nigeria’s team roster at that competition because of a missed deadline for registration.

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“FIBA has a bunch of rules, a bunch of regulations to meet, but unfortunately, when I came, I missed the deadline to get registered,” she told ThisDay in an interview.

She also represented Nigeria’s First Bank at the FIBA Africa Champions Cup for Women before transitioning into coaching.

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“I knew I wanted to be a coach. I knew that was my calling; that was what I wanted to be,” she said.

“I knew that was my journey; I knew I had more impact organising a team. Even while we were in Cameroon with the girls, I just knew exactly what I wanted to do with my career; that’s my calling, that’s my passion, and I had to follow it. When God puts something in your heart, you have to follow it. I wanted to start early.”

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Wakama then moved to Manhattan College and served as the director of women’s basketball operations for her first two years at the institution.

She became an assistant coach in her third year at the institution, developing talents while serving as the team’s academics and community service liaison.

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The 31-year-old was handling the job when the Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF) came knocking. Wakama would later be named the assistant coach of the Stony Brook Seawolves women’s basketball team.

Wakama was appointed a few weeks before the tournament

LESS THAN A MONTH IN CHARGE

Wakama was contacted for the role to be the new D’Tigress head coach by Musa Adamu, the team’s general manager. After several interviews and calls, she became the first female head coach of the Nigerian female basketball national team on June 30.

Waves of criticism followed her appointment as many questioned the logic that dictates the replacement of the experienced Otis Hughley with a newbie.

Hughley had led D’Tigress to three consecutive Afrobasket successes, leaving behind a vast boot to be filled.

Aside from the pressure of reputation, Wakama was saddled with preparing the team for the 2023 Afrobasket in less than a month.

TOOK CHARGE OF A DEPLETED SQUAD

Shortly after Wakama was named head coach, NBBF announced open tryouts for the women’s team in Chicago, Lagos, and Abuja.

The tryouts aimed to scout new players for the team ahead of the 2023 Women’s Afrobasket.

The move was staunchly criticised by some of the established D’Tigress players. They refused to attend, and a couple announced their retirement.

Consequently, some top players did not make the final cut. The affected players include Adaora Elonu, the team’s captain to the 2021 Afrobasket triumph, Promise Amukamara, Ezinne Kalu, Victoria Macaulay and Ify Ibekwe.

Oderah Chidom and Nicole Enabosi are other members who featured in the 2021 competition but did not make the list.

Out of the 2021 title-winning team, only Sarah Ogoke, Pallas Kunayi-Akpannah and Amy Okonkwo made the squad for Kigali.

With depleted stars and experience, Wakama and her band of new ladies were not tipped to successfully defend the continental title.

With a team bereft of stars and top players, Wakama made history

FIRST FEMALE COACH TO REACH AFROBASKET FINAL

Despite the absence of key players from the team, Wakama led the D’Tigress to a flawless run at the Afrobasket.

Nigeria defeated the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first game before thumping Egypt to progress out of the group.

The Nigerians then overcame Mozambique in the quarter-final before thrashing Rwanda in the semis.

The victory earned Wakama her first historic milestone as the first female coach to lead a team to the Afrobasket final.

A few days later, she extended the achievement to become the first female coach to win the competition.

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