July 31, 2012
By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Media Relations
The Mountain Hawks shocked the world - although not themselves - when beating Duke in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Former Lehigh standout Dozie Mbonu not only enjoyed, but also played a significant role in a similar upset... although at an even bigger stage. As the manager for Nigeria's national team, Mbonu helped the team off the ground and into Olympic qualifying rounds where it recently defeated Lithuania, Greece and John Calipari's Dominican Republic squad. That qualified Nigeria for its first-ever Olympics, which begins with the opening ceremonies in London Friday.
"When we qualified by defeating the Dominican Republic, it was such a surreal moment," said Mbonu. "Not only did everyone become national heroes, but we also became Olympians. Everything that I wrote in my proposal centered on qualifying for the Olympics and future World Championship and World Cup tournaments. For this to happen in my first year as manager of the team and primary consultant for the federation, it's beyond me.
"It's that type of surreal moment you dream about," Mbonu continued. "While I wasn't able to do it as an athlete, I'm doing it in a managerial perspective, and it feels just as good. I'm so happy for my players and everybody - the federation, all the officials and the president for even giving me the opportunity to be in this position. This is the most humbling experience I've had in my life."
Currently fifth in Lehigh history with 1,791 career points, Mbonu was a standout in the Brown and White from 1988-92. He followed all-time greats Daren Queenan (currently first in career scoring) and Mike Polaha (third), becoming one of Lehigh's finest himself. Mbonu went on to a professional career in Europe which he recently retired from at the age of 39.
Mbonu had previously played for the Nigerian national team. But it was two years ago, during the World Championships, when the wheels started turning for another endeavor. A scout from the Utah Jazz called asking why Nigeria wasn't in the championships with all the talent it has.
"I told him I know the reasons why, but it's going to be a long conversation," said Mbonu. "I'd been waiting for someone with a similar idea to come on and help. From there, I put together a proposal which I submitted to the president of the Nigerian Basketball Federation. That's how it started.
"Through a couple emails back and forth, he met us for an exploratory meeting."
Normally after such a meeting, the president would take some time to discuss. But in this instance, they wanted to move forward with Mbonu's proposal. Nigeria Basketball would have its chance for the Olympics.
"From there, it took a little more than a year to finalize the contract, but I actually started working from that moment until the contract was signed," said Mbonu. "I basically worked for free until we got the contract in order."
Mbonu and the president had to figure out some logistics, including what players would need while on the road. Last August, Mbonu arranged for the team to compete in a friendly tournament against Great Britain before playing for the African Championships (which ultimately qualified Nigeria for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament).
After taking bronze, the focus was squarely on qualifying for the Olympics.
"We just started planning and reaching out to players to build this team," said Mbonu. "Even though last year's team was very good, strategically, we wanted to put together a deep roster. We had a mixture; our veteran players were logging a lot of time, which was sometimes 35 or more minutes per game. It took its toll on the players."
After failing to advance to the African Championships, they decided to add significant depth.
"We started getting some fairly good responses back from players who turned us down in the past," said Mbonu.
Among Nigeria's current roster include NBA players like Ike Diogu (San Antonio) and Al-Farouq Aminu (New Orleans). Diogu was named MVP of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament as Nigeria defeated Lithuania, Greece and the Dominican Republic. Like the Mountain Hawks did when they defeated Duke, Nigeria defied the odds. They had a belief in themselves, which is all they needed.
"We went with the expectation to qualify," said Mbonu. "No one believed in us except ourselves. We were a longshot. No one gave us a chance to even reach the knockout stage of the quarterfinals, or even a chance to get into the semifinals.
"With that being said, our expectations are to go into these Olympics with the same mindset," Mbonu continued. "Play as well as we can as a team because that's the only way anything will get done. We have to play as a team. We've always had an abundant of talent, but when it's come to team play and teamwork, those were the areas where we've fallen short."
Nigeria will join Lithuania, Tunisia, France, Argentina and the United States in Group A. Meanwhile, Russia, China, Great Britain, Brazil, Australia and Spain are in Group B. Nigeria will face the United States on Thursday, August 2.
"This group of guys started to buy in and believe in the teamwork concept; that's what got us through," said Mbonu. "That is our expectation; if we play as a team, we believe we can win in the Olympics and in our group... and we're in a tough group. Four of the six teams will go onto the quarterfinals and I believe we have a shot."
Outside of his involvement with Nigeria and the upcoming Olympics, Mbonu has been extremely busy in other areas of basketball. He's served as a sports agent, helping numerous players - including former Lehigh standout Michael Ojo - fulfill their dreams to play professionally. He's tried to give current players a resource, which he didn't have when coming out of school.
"Back then, it wasn't common for [Lehigh] guys to think about playing professionally," said Mbonu. "At the time, there wasn't a lot of information; it was basically learning on the fly. It's been great to help a guy like Michael realize a dream of playing professionally because I've been able to give him some of the advice I didn't have when I was done at Lehigh."
Mbonu has also worked in some capacity with players like Prentice Small, Zahir Carrington and Marquis Hall, serving as a mentor through their process of exploring professional possibilities. Mbonu continues to keep up with the current Lehigh men's basketball program with a great sense of pride.
"Playing abroad, you come across players who played at other good programs," he said. "The success that Lehigh's had recently allowed me some bragging rights when I was playing.
"One of my teammates who was a little older than me went to Butler," Mbonu continued. "When Butler made it to the finals, everything in the locker room was based around what Butler was doing. I could see how happy and proud he was. When Lehigh did it with Carrington, Hall and McCollum then again this year, people overseas will come and say hey, your school did it. It's a great feeling. I think it's just tremendous the team is receiving this national and international recognition."
One Lehigh memory that particularly stands out for Mbonu is a Christmas Tournament at the University of Miami during the 1989-90 season which featured Miami, West Virginia and Boston College. Dick Vitale of ESPN hosted the tournament at the time.
"He agreed to host because his daughter was attending the University of Miami and they were playing for the National Championship in football right after the tournament," said Mbonu. Everything fell into place."
According to Vitale, Lehigh actually entered with the highest team RPI. The squad went on to beat Hurricanes, 83-59 then lost a hard-fought game to West Virginia in the Championship, 92-81.
"On that type of stage, that was one of my greatest memories," said Mbonu. "You had a legend like Dick Vitale calling the tournament and the games were nationally televised... such a great memory."
Ultimately, Mbonu used his time at Lehigh to put together a lengthy professional career before eventually leading Nigeria to the Olympics. Now, focus turns to the Olympics where they hope to make waves and continue their Cinderella run.