I still remember the first time someone placed a basketball in my hands—it was after I had seen Nigeria’s Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon play on television. He played centre position in the NBA for the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. I was 15 years old at the time, and from then on I knew it was what I wanted to do. The feeling, even when I think about it now, remains indescribable.
Inspired by that moment, I worked hard on the court and eventually played in college for the University of Maryland Terrapins before finally making it to the NBA. For several years, I had the privilege of playing alongside and competing against some of the greatest basketball players in the world.
Playing basketball helped me build a successful career, but it did far more. Playing basketball taught me persistence, teamwork, and communication—skills that have helped me succeed off the court. After retiring from competitive basketball, I invested my NBA earnings into promising business opportunities. Currently, I am the CEO of Nigeria’s premier online travel company, Wakanow.com, which is also the fastest growing online company in Africa. Despite existing in an extremely challenging market, we are rapidly changing the way travel is planned and booked in Nigeria.
I am grateful for the opportunities basketball has afforded me. But I also realise that many young people around the world don’t have the same opportunities to experience the benefits of sport. This is a missed opportunity. Today, young people make up one fourth of the global population. Many of these youth live in Africa, which has the youngest population of any continent. Researchers estimate that in less than three years, 41 percent of the world’s youth will be African.
Africa’s youth are the key to its future. Nigeria’s youth have the capacity to shape social and economic development, challenge social norms and values, and lead Africa toward a brighter future. But youth can only succeed if they are empowered to do so. One of the best paths to achieve this goal may lie on the basketball court. Sport is one of the most effective means of empowering youth. Physical activity is critical to young people’s development, contributing to physical, social and emotional health. In addition to building strength, engaging in athletics also helps improve mood and focus, reduce stress and increase confidence.
Beyond giving youth a way to stay healthy, sport also provides an opportunity for young people to learn skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Working with teammates teaches young people how to communicate and work together, while mastering a specific technique instills discipline and persistence. These lessons are not limited to athletics. Studies show that sport can improve young people’s learning performance and encourage a desire to succeed academically.
All of these statistics point to one conclusion: the skills that youth learn by mastering a sport stay with them long after the game ends. With that in mind, governments, civil society, and businesses must work together to ensure that children and young adults have access to sport and other athletic ventures.
Last week, I was excited to be part of the movement to expand access to sport. A new programme, “Power Forward,” will start in Abuja Nigeria, and will focus on using basketball to teach life skills to youth. Launched by the National Basketball Association, ExxonMobil and Africare, this innovative programme, will leverage the power of basketball to teach youth the skills they need to thrive and become leaders in their communities.
The groundbreaking school-based programme, being implemented on the ground by Africare and local partner Youth Empowerment and Development Initiative, YEDI, will take place at 10 schools in Abuja throughout the academic year. The programme will initially engage 300 students in their last three years of high school. In addition to the lessons learned through sport—such as teamwork, resiliency and responsibility—the programme’s curriculum will also use students’ interest in basketball to educate them about public health and to improve literacy and job skills. While students learn how to perform on the basketball court, they will also gain knowledge that will protect their health and development.
The programme builds on a long-standing commitment to Nigeria by all three organisations. Over the past few months, all three organisations, and YEDI, have worked with school and education officials to develop a programme that matches their needs and ensures that each school has the necessary supplies and support to make this programme a success.
In addition to helping the students it reaches directly, I hope Power Forward will serve as an example of the type of innovative partnership necessary to empower Africa’s youth. Its lessons and curriculum can serve as a blueprint for future endeavors. For example, national governments and organisations could establish their own sport programmes to encourage youth empowerment and the development of life skills.
As Africa continues to invest in education for its children, we must not forget that a full education means opportunities outside the classroom, including sport. Investing in athletic programmes, equipment and infrastructure can complement existing efforts to improve children’s lives, while also better preparing them for their future. Playing basketball has helped me develop myself as a team player, but also as a healthy person, innovator and community member. Now is the time to offer these opportunities to others.
Ekezie is a former NBA player and founder of Wakanow.com