The road to the NBA is especially difficult for Nigerians. However, we are a very resilient bunch; we know how to scrap; we are fighters; we are survivors. And this is evident in our track record of producing top-notch NBA talent. Nigerians account for two of the three players that have won the MVP and DPOY awards in the same season. Two very different paths to the NBA, I must remind you.
I first spoke to Dalu on social media. It wasn’t even basketball that first attracted me. I saw some pictures he took on the set of Basketmouth’s ‘PAPA BENJI.’ I looked at them very carefully, and I thought, here is a photographer that doesn’t have a camera but is scrappy. Scrappy enough to give Steve Jobs something to smile down from heaven about. Apple gave the power to create, and create, Dalu did. His pictures were creamy, like coffee when you add very little milk. Not so much that it is colored like eggshell, but enough to be considered off-brown. I was fascinated and upon closer observation at his page, I discovered he plays basketball. I didn’t know the extent to which he played, but he played, and in certain pictures, It was clear that he played with the NBA academy.
A couple of months passed, and Dalu and I became acquainted. I wouldn’t precisely label Dalu a player with an intimidating presence, but all Dalu talked about was basketball. He walked like a player, talked like a player and he possessed a bullish attitude about him. In the sense that he looked like somebody that would run into a wall because you said he couldn’t do it. I indeed was intrigued to have a photo session with Dalu. I had spent a lot of time with different people that took basketball very seriously. But, Dalu, in my eyes and in the eyes of many other people in the country, he is the truth. The young man simply has a game. Different levels of the game. I had watched his YouTube videos, and I had also seen many of his personal workout videos. But, up close, to get a feel for the strength, speed and technique was something to behold.
I asked him who his favorite player was, and he said, “Kyrieee Irving mannnn. I mean I get it when people say Kobe or MJ, but for me, Kyrie is the man.” I understood the kind of player he is from his answer. Dalu is a grinder. A grinder in this context is a player that finds solace in his routings. Doing the same move over and over till it becomes instincts. The type of instinct that builds confidence on the court.
Michael Jordan could be said to have pioneered the grinder mentality, but Kobe perfected it. Kyrie Irving is also a disciple, as is Dalu. Dalu is at least two years away from the NBA, but he thirsts. I heard the hunger in his voice; it quaked with a deep sense of longing about the NBA. I also found it particularly fascinating because he is Nigerian. Only Nigerians truly understand this precise baggage. Daring to dream in the most dysfunctional country in the world.
These days, many young Nigerians play the game but playing in the NBA is something many people don’t even dare to dream about. Not that there aren’t any talented players. It’s just the window to get into the NBA as a prospect is so narrow. Once you miss it, getting in means you have become a specialist. Doesn’t really matter what you specialize in; just do it better than everybody else, every-time you lace up. Scoring, Passing, Shooting, Defense, Rebounding, it doesn’t really matter. Just pick one and work on it every day and every night, and one day if you are lucky, you would play under bright lights. And, if you play your heart out; The right person would remember your name. This route makes the entire process tedious.
Dalu, in Nigeria’s best chance at having a Home-Grown NBA player. Not that we don’t have any Nigerians in the new generation but a lot of them are more American than Nigerian. The Dream is still the best Nigerian to ever play, but he didn’t play for the National team. Even after he became an established player, he became American and played for America. Dalu played for the Nigerian National Team when he was 16, making him the best young player in the county. A title he carries so well. “Let’s play, one on one,” I said because I always thought it was important to get a feel for his game, I wanted to see how deep his bag was. “I will hurt you, bro.” He replied instinctively, in the cheeky, off-handed way that made me believe him.
We sat in a cab on our way to the stadium when his coach called to converse with Dalu about health and general wellness. Despite the coach’s absence, It seemed the coach regularly reaches out to make sure his recruit is still on his grind. While they spoke about his health and his commitment to the game. I felt this sense of immense pride. I felt like I was in the presence of a potential world champ. And that was when I had my first epiphany on Dalu’s incoming greatness, the skywalker.
When we got to the stadium, I watched Dalu shoot for several minutes, and I watched him through my lens. I watched him grind it out with other young players. I watched him command the respect and control the tempo in ways that only mature players do. I saw him teach the game too. Particularly to a young man that had trouble finding his rhythm. The kid had strength in his arms but utterly flawed mechanics. I watched him shoot brick after brick after brick, and then some more brick. Dalu noticed too and walked up to the kid. When I saw Dalu talking to him I got up from where I was sitting and went there, to know what was happening. Dalu was teaching. “Bend your knees and tuck your elbows in,” “This is a one-motion shot, stop breaking your flow of energy,” “Let the power come from your knees and transfer it, in one motion to your wrist and let the ball roll off your fingers.” The kid listened and watched Dalu show him where he erred and the eager kid accepted these lessons. And like magic, he hit the first shot. And the second one, the third, and again, and again. We all just watched him burp out bricks but somehow his once utterly flawed mechanic now looks so much better. The eager kid, myself and every other person that saw what had happened in the very few minutes that we shot there wore out shock our faces. Dalu didn’t though he just said “These things don’t happen at once but you have come along very quickly, keep working on it.” This was when I had my second epiphany. Dalu was an undeniable SKYWALKER.