Commentary

Nigerian basketball star gives back

Updated: April 4, 2010, 3:43 PM ET
By Kristin Huckshorn | Special to ESPN.com

What is the moment in a pleasantly ordinary life -- 9-to-5 desk job, apartment in the suburbs, Camry in the driveway -- when a person decides to turn her back on pleasant and ordinary and follow a dream?

For Mobolaji Akiode, that moment arrived one afternoon this past summer. She was sitting in her old bedroom in her parents' home in New Jersey, rifling through memorabilia from her days as a basketball star. There were the photos of the Columbia (Maplewood, N.J.) High School team that won the 1998 state finals, clippings from her record-setting years at Fordham University, mementos from her tenure as a Nigerian-American member of the Nigerian teams at the Summer Olympics in 2000 and 2004.

"I looked up at the wall in my room," says Akiode, who was a junior accountant at ESPN at the time. On the wall was a photograph of Akiode in Fordham's maroon and white, framed with an inscription: "Follow the path of integrity and never look back. For there is never a wrong time to do the right thing."

She read those words. And that, she says now, was that.

"My plan was, working at ESPN, and after that I was going to get my master's [degree]," she says. "I had my car, my apartment … and in one inspiring moment, it just went away."

In the middle of an economic recession, Akiode quit her job and packed the apartment. She moved 5,000 miles from Bristol, Conn. -- population about 60,000 plus all those satellite dishes -- to Lagos, Nigeria, which is going on 18 million and soon to be the most populous city in Africa.

Her goal was both simple and grand: to use sports, particularly basketball camps, to inspire and empower impoverished young women, first in Nigeria and then throughout the African continent. Her journey back to Africa to follow that dream is the subject of a special program, "Her Story: Ten Times Over," which airs Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

"Women are second-class citizens," says Akiode, 27, "not just in Nigeria, but really, in Africa in general.

"Participating in sports does so much for your confidence, especially at a young age. You get to socially network with other girls like you. You get to learn more. You get to build confidence, friendships. Those are the things that help you develop as a young woman. And I think it's missing at a really young age here."

[+] EnlargeMobi Akiode
Courtesy Fordham UniversityMobi Akiode at Fordham with her parents, Lawrence and Christiana Akiode, at right.

Akiode began noticing the disparities during visits to Nigeria while she was a member of its national and Olympic teams. "I just was heartbroken that the things that helped me as a young girl, I didn't see that in place [in Nigeria]," she says.

That lack of opportunity especially troubled Akiode because of her own childhood traumas. She was born in New Jersey, but her family soon returned to its homeland of Nigeria, then permanently relocated to the U.S. when she was 8 years old. She had left as a native of this country but returned, for all intents and purposes, as an immigrant.

"I was bullied in school," she recalls, the wound still seemingly fresh. "I was tall and gawky. I had an accent." She says mean girls at her urban school near Newark shoved her down in the bathroom and chased her home. "The kids called me African booty scratcher," she says. "I remember I tried to find it in the dictionary."

She took refuge in her bedroom, reading every book she could find and excelling in school, a feat that only made the bullying worse. Then one afternoon, kids on a basketball court noticed her standing nearby. "They said, 'She's tall! Come play!'" Akiode says.

The path from that happenstance afternoon led to a standout career at Columbia High School and a scholarship to Fordham, where she majored in accounting, and from there to a job at ESPN. But she began returning to Nigeria as regularly as possible, collecting $10s and $20s from colleagues to try to put together an inaugural basketball camp for girls. In August, she gathered 65 girls for her first Hope 4 Girls camp, some of them traveling two and three days by walking or riding public buses, begging to participate even though she had exceeded her planned enrollment. "They were so desperate for something like this," she says. "They were so hungry."

She returned home and quit her job.

[+] EnlargeMobi Akiode
Courtesy Mobi AkiodeMobi during her days on the Nigerian national team.

Six months later, Akiode sat in a dining hall of a dilapidated recreation building in Lagos, lecturing about the importance of education to 40 young girls who traveled to attend her second Hope 4 Girls camp. They wear matching camp shirts, prized new sneakers.

"Don't ever say you can only make it through basketball," she warns them. "Make sure you give yourself different little avenues. 'I'm going to be a doctor … if being a doctor doesn't work out, I'm going to go into business.' Never say that only one thing is going to make you. … That is the mind of poverty."

The girls spent the weekend honing their basketball skills under the tutelage of Akiode, former WNBA standout Yolanda Griffith and local coaches. Between sessions, Akiode cajoled them to stay in school and hold tight to their dreams. The girls clung to her words. She helps make them believe in the possible.

"I'm so excited," said Aisha Adamu, one of four campers from the city of Jos, where religious violence between Christians and Muslims has left hundreds dead this year. "I have this joy in my spirit. I can't express it out. When I reach home, I'll tell my mom, other girls, my brothers, my sisters, my neighbors all about Hope 4 Girls."

And yet, as camp ends, you would think it is Akiode who has been given a gift.

"There's an old Nigerian proverb: 'What you give you get 10 times over,'" Akiode says. "It means when you give a lot of times, you get things in abundance that you don't expect. I expected to just give basketball and bring empowerment … and what I got back was so much more."

Akiode now lives in Lagos, and returns to the U.S. occasionally. She plans to hold camps every few months for girls who already play basketball. She's also visiting dozens of public schools to hold clinics and talk to girls about education, sports and empowerment.

Her next camp is in August.

Kristin Huckshorn is a senior news editor at ESPN and coordinated production elements of the "Her Story" project. She can be reached at kristin.huckshorn@espn.com. The TV feature was produced by ESPN's Justine Gubar and narrated by ABC's Robin Roberts.