Building a Team

Nigeria's hopes of becoming a basketball power are on Cook

By Damien Pierce

HOUSTON � Nearly 48 hours after his WNBA season ended in Sacramento, Comets assistant coach Kevin Cook was back in Houston diagramming plays and scheduling practices.

Getting an early start for next summer's training camp, right? Wrong.

Cook was actually preparing to coach the Nigerian national team.

"I feel blessed to be the head coach of the Nigerian national team," Cook said. "I was approached by the Nigerian Basketball Federation in the spring of last year and I'm very excited about the opportunity. I'm happy they contacted me."

Cook, who has been an assistant coach with Houston since the WNBA's inception in 1997, will lead Team Nigeria into the FIBA World Championships in San Paolo, Brazil, beginning with the preliminary rounds on Sept. 12.

Despite having little success historically in the sport, Nigeria became the first women's basketball team from Africa to win a game at the Olympics in 2004 with a 68-64 win over South Korea.

The landmark win has Nigerian officials hoping to build off that momentum and improve on the country's 11th place finish at the Athens Games.

So why did Cook, who grew up in Fremont, Ohio, want to be the coach to help rebuild Nigeria's basketball program? He couldn't turn down the challenge or the opportunity to be a head coach.

"I've always loved a challenge," Cook said. "I've always been interested in international basketball and this quenches my desire to be a head coach. I don't want to be a lifer as an assistant. Everything just seemed right to me."

Over the past three weeks, Cook has been leading Team Nigeria through training camp in Houston.

He has a roster filled with players who have played college basketball in the United States, including current Virginia center Aisha Mohammed and West Virginia center Olayinka Sanni. Forward Mfon Udoka, who was Nigeria's leading scorer at the 2004 Olympics, is a former Comets player.

None of the players, however, are on a current WNBA roster. Cook is trying to mold the team's chemistry and develop a well-conditioned squad.

"We don't have any set goals other than play hard and do our best each and every time out," Cook said. "The whole thing is learning what it takes to be successful and how hard you have to play each and every possession. They've made an incredible jump just over the last couple of practices."

Cook knows putting Nigeria on the international basketball map won't be an easy task.

Before the country's triumph at the 2004 Games, Nigeria essentially had zero success in international basketball tournaments and didn't have the basic resources within the country to develop talent. Many of the basketball courts in Nigeria are outdoors in a humid climate.

Besides developing talent and creating a system where younger players will pick up the sport, Cook is seeking corporate sponsorship for the team.

If he can build a foundation for the country, Cook believes his players will eventually reap the benefits.

�The players will be the ones to change it," Cook said. "My responsibility is to lead and guide and motivate. I'm here to build the structure for future success."

Cook said he has spent time talking with former Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, about the issues involving Nigerian basketball.

Olajuwon has offered to help Cook revitalize the country's basketball program.

"He came to one of our practices and stayed there the entire time," Cook said. "He has taken our team out to dinner. He's going to be instrumental in our success."

Still, Cook is realistic heading into next week's World Championships.

He is coaching a team that has been placed in the same pool as the United States, Russia and China. The U.S. has won 42 consecutive international games, including the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, and Russia claimed the bronze medal in Athens.

Bad draw? It could be better.

Cook, however, doesn't mind because he's getting exactly what he signed up for.

"I'm really grateful to be coaching this team," he said. "I know we're the underdogs going into the tournament and we'll be the underdog in every game we play. But we've seen some pretty big underdogs win. David slaying Goliath. The U.S. hockey team in Lake Placid. I'm not predicting victories, but we'll be ready to play every time the ball is thrown in the air."