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Nigeria's Jordan Nwora is no coach's pet... even if coach is his dad

Jordan Nwora's call up to the Nigeria squad was met with scorn initially, till fans realised his dad being the coach had nothing to do with scoring points. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With just under a minute to go in the fourth quarter of their second exhibition game against Canada, the Nigeria men's basketball team were facing a squeeze.

They had seen their 10-point lead squashed to just one point by the 23rd-ranked Canadians, and it was looking shaky.

In a game that had witnessed multiple lead changes, it looked like the home side, in front of an 8000-strong home court at the Bell MTS Centre in Winnipeg, were about to turn the tide again decisively in the final seconds.

Someone needed to step up for D'Tigers, who were taking this exhibition game more seriously than expected. In came Jordan "The Sniper" Nwora.

From an inbound ball, the Louisville Cardinals forward locked, loaded and and took aim from the corner, draining a trey which took the scores to 85-81. It proved to be a decisive shot.

They never let the lead slip after that, restricting Canada to zero of 10 shots and ending the game on a 90-81 full time score. For Nwora, that three was his third of the game and he finished with a game-leading 19 points, showing why, at 20, he is one of Nigeria's special talents.

On the sideline, watching carefully, was another Nwora: his dad, Alex. He was not (only) there as a proud, cheering spectator-parent. He was on the sidelines as coach of the Nigeria team.

The men are making history as the first father-son coach-player duo to represent Nigeria at such a high level. Actually, they are the first in any sport in Nigeria, which is a surprising statistic given the country's generational sporting history.

There have been sibling duos of course, in basketball as in other sport, including football. But this is the first time ever for a father-son combo, and Alex Nwora is especially proud of this.

"I'm very proud of him as a parent for all he has done and all the sacrifices he has made. For him to believe in me to come play for Nigeria [Jordan was born in Buffalo, New York], as a dad, I'm very proud and I know the sky is the limit for him because he is still a work in progress," he tells ESPN.

Proud dad he may have been, but a cheering one he most certainly was not. In fact, the young Nwora got himself thoroughly chewed out early in the first of the two-game series for a couple of bad shots in the first quarter, according to former player and now NBBF Vice President Babs Ogunade, who was in the stands.

"The first game in Canada, he took some shots the coach didn't like and the man gave him a serious pasting before he yanked him off the court," Ogunade tells ESPN.

"That is the beauty of their professional attitudes. The father/son relationship doesn't exist when they get in here."

It is exactly the sort of dynamic that Alex, a former NCAA player himself and a current NJCAA coach at Erie Community College, has tried to instill in the roster, as he puts distance on the father-son relationship while with the team.

"'Dad' ends the moment he gets on the flight and reports to camp," the Alex says. "Dad resumes when camp is over but once we are in camp, he is just like every other player.

"There are no special treatments because he is Jordan Nwora. If anything, I'm harder on him.

"He can handle my screaming and antics because he is used to and has grown up with them all of his life but I can't talk to other players that way.

"He does what he has to do, if he is a shooter then he has to shoot that ball, rebound and play defense with his team mates like everybody else and give us a chance to win.

"He is here not because he is my son, but because he is a Nigerian just like every player here. Unfortunately for him, his dad is the coach of the national team."

Not everybody saw things the same way when Nwora first called up his son for the World Cup qualifiers, says Ogunade: "There were those who were saying some nasty things about the coach calling up his son, even when they had never seen the boy play.

"People who don't even know their left from their right were questioning his invitation. Until he poured 36 points on Mali during the qualifiers."

Those 36 points became a Nigerian scoring record, overtaking captain Ike Diogu's previous high of 31. Jordan finished the campaign with a team-leading average of 21.7 points, adding an average of 8 rebounds and 2.7 assist into the mix.

It was enough to silence the doubters. Then again, that is not exactly virgin territory for Jordan. He was one of the stars of his high school basketball team at Vermont Academy, New York, leading them to a state title to earn 3rd Team High School All-American honors and First Team All-Academic.

In his sophomore year in college, he was named 2019 ACC Most Improved Player and Third team All-American. Nwora was expected to be drafted into the NBA as a first round pick, but made the tough choice to return to college for his junior year.

With the college season still a few months away, the Nigerian has already been named into the Blue Ribbon All-American First Team.

"He is a good player, an NBA prospect, especially if he keeps developing the way he did last year at Louisville," Olumide Oyedeji, former Nigeria basketball captain, tells ESPN.

"I have no doubts about his skill, ability and potential. I believe he has a chance to do much better at the World Cup playing against tougher competition than college."

Jordan's journey to D'Tigers, as a Nigerian born in the USA but representing the country of his father, is similar to that of many of his teammates. Alex, naturally, had plenty to do with that, coaching the youngster in his early years and shaping his basketball future.

"I have always taught him not to take anything for granted, to work hard every time, and also to understand that there will always be doubters but hard work will always show and that's the moral I lived all my life," Alex says.

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But even he was not sure Jordan would make the Nigeria choice: "If I said I did know, I will be lying to you.

"I'm sure the USA would have tried to grab that kid if he wasn't playing for Nigeria for what he brings to the table. He is a very skilled player that wants to bleed green-white-green every time because of the love he has for his father land.

"Regardless of what people say, he is going to help us win. He has done it over and over again every time he showed up.

"He plays for a very good college team, he was highly recruited and is very well known over there. As I speak, he was called for the Nike Top 100 NBA camp which we turned down to enable him come to [Nigeria] camp."

Sam Ahmedu, a former Nigeria international who also serves on the NBBF board, says once the elder Nwora became Nigeria coach, it was no longer a debate.

"Playing for Nigeria was a foregone conclusion once Nwora became Head Coach of the D'Tigers. His daughter Ronnie, a talented player, is also primed to play for Nigeria as well," Ahmedu tells ESPN.

That will be further history made, if it happens while Alex is still coach of the D'Tigers: Father, son, and daughter representing their country in the same sport, at the same time.

Alex, perhaps because of the initial criticism that followed his earlier invitation of Jordan, bristles when the light-hearted question about his wife's thoughts is raised, especially in relation to whether he will have an angry mother to answer to if he cuts her son from the squad.

"Anyone who is asking this question doesn't know basketball and is one of those who thinks Jordan can't help Nigeria," Alex fires back.

"Jordan making the team or not has nothing to do with his mum and his mum has nothing to do with the national team. Anyone who doesn't want me to take Jordan to World Cup is sabotaging me and the national team.

"We are supposed to take the best players to the World Cup and currently he is one of our best players to make the 15 and it's the best we can have for now. So anyone talking about cutting him and him not making the list doesn't know anything about this game."

That is unlikely to happen however, as Nigerian basketball experts are unanimous about the quality of the youngster and how he has earned his place despite being a college player, stacked as the team is with players with NBA experience.

"Behind that cool exterior is a very hard basketball player," Ogunade adds. "That is a guy who has his head screwed on properly.

"I think he will do well for Nigeria at the World Cup. He lacks the experience of basketball at that level but the game is the game. If you shoot the ball it goes in and that is all that matters."

As for Nigeria, they will enjoy making FIBA World Cup history with their father-son duo. But what they will enjoy even more is finishing in the top seven and qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games.