Why did Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers get booted out of the Basketball Africa League?

The second edition of the Basketball Africa League will be missing a significant component when it tips off in March, after Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers were replaced at the 11th hour by Morocco's AS Sale.

Both sides competed at the first edition, and Hoopers had qualified for this year's tournament before FIBA, the sport's governing body, deemed them ineligible and replaced them with Sale, who had reached the quarterfinals in 2021.

The team announcement on Feb 8, where it was confirmed that the Hoopers would not be playing in Dakar come March 5, was the final heartbreak for the Nigeria team.

They had gone on a desperate but ultimately unsuccessful race against time to get them in as representatives for this year's edition, after holding FIBA-supervised elections on January 31, in which Musa Kida was re-elected as NBBF president.

Basketball stakeholders were hoping that the conclusion of the sanctioned electoral process would see Nigeria return to FIBA's good graces and allow the country to field Hoopers as the representative at African Basketball's premier competition.

But why did they fall foul of FIBA at all, and how did Africa's basketball giants end up being unrepresented at the biggest tournament on the continent?

In short: FIBA does not allow governments to interfere in their competitions, and Nigeria's government flouted that rule.

The long version...

Hoopers were scheduled to represent the country at the BAL after winning the domestic Final 8 playoffs, which was organized by Nigeria's Sports Ministry, and emerging champions of Nigeria.

But they were subsequently disqualified from the tournament by FIBA as a result of interference in NBBF affairs by said Sports Ministry, despite two warnings from the world basketball governing body.

"It's really a bad, heart-breaking situation we find ourselves in," Hoopers coach Ogoh Odaudu told ESPN.

"With all the experience of the first edition, we were looking to build on what we had achieved so far, only to be handed this card."

That 'card' was a January 14 letter from FIBA to the Nigeria Basketball Federation, advising that Hoopers "is not retained to participate in the final phase of the BAL".

FIBA's reasoning was simple, according to the letter signed by Secretary General and FIBA Africa Regional Director Alphonse Bile.

It said: "As the Nigerian Basketball Federation has not confirmed that it has, by its own initiative, ensured the effective organization of a regular national championship this season, FIBA Africa cannot therefore authorize the participation of a Nigerian Club in the BAL this year."

The Final 8 tournament, now FIBA-disavowed, was the second and concluding part of the domestic league championship. The first part, which was originally organized by the NBBF led by Kida in September, saw four teams each qualify from both the Savannah and Atlantic Conferences.

However, before the second competition could take place, the Sports Ministry dissolved the leadership of the NBBF as it prepared for elections on October 31, then proceeded to take over the running of basketball, via General Secretary, Afolabi-Oluwayemi Olabisi.

All of these disruptions stemmed from the war of attrition which has been waging in Nigeria basketball since the elections of 2017, where two factions emerged from two separate elections, each claiming legitimacy. One was led by the then outgoing president Tijani Umar, and the other by the incoming president Kida.

After a fact finding mission, and months of dawdling, FIBA ruled that while both elections were flawed due to the NBBF not having a Constitution at the time. FIBA said it would communicate and recognize the Kida board, and directed that all parties come together to work on a Constitution that would lead to new elections.

That process was concluded in 2019 with the Congress ratifying a Constitution, which was then approved by FIBA. However, the Umar faction boycotted the process.

With elections due in 2021, a fresh crisis was sparked when the Umar faction challenged certain sections of the Constitution, and demanded the amendment or removal of certain clauses.

To resolve the issues, Sports Minister Sunday Dare set up a Reconciliation Committee which recommended, among others things, that elections be held according to the 2019 Constitution.

In spite of those recommendations, the Ministry went ahead and cancelled the elections, which had been agreed by the NBBF Congress, and took over the running of affairs of the NBBF. A FIBA no-no, obviously.

Although the official reason was that the elections were cancelled due to security concerns about Benin City, the venue of the Congress, sources at the ministry told ESPN that the decision was taken to allow the warring factions to settle their differences, especially with respect to changes in the NBBF Constitution.

NBBF president Kida was not buying the cancellation and insisted that the elections would go on. Ultimately, he was forced to back down under pressure from the government.

In the end, and predictably, these actions by the ministry, considered third-party interference in the NBBF's activities, were met by FIBA disapproval, prompting a letter from FIBA in November, warning the ministry against usurping the authority of the federation.

Rather than yield, the ministry went ahead and organised those Final 8 playoffs anyway, where Rivers Hoopers emerged champions and were forwarded as Nigeria representatives, without the NBBF's sign-off.

This all happened despite a clear warning from FIBA in their letter of November 10, stating that "FIBA will not recognise any competition or result that stems from an event not controlled by the NBBF".

FIBA's decision to throw Hoopers out of the competition finally forced the ministry to stand down, and allow the elections to proceed. Those elections were then rescheduled for January 31.

The ministry, still trying to control the process, directed that the elections be held in Abuja, but Kida instead that the election would hold at the same venue, Benin City, approved by Congress.

With some of the other faction still boycotting the elections and holding rival polls in Abuja, under the direction of the ministry, Kida ran unopposed and won re-election as president two weeks ago.

Hoopers were fruitlessly hoping that the re-elected NBBF leadership could present them with a lifeline, with General Manager Ifie Ozaka telling ESPN in January: "I'm hoping there is still a window of opportunity to reverse the decision after these elections."

As a plan B, the team also took part in, and won, an NBBF-sanctioned invitational tournament which took place in Lagos between February 1 and 5.

All of that was for nought as the FIBA deadline for entries had long closed.

"This is a big blow for us," Odaudu lamented. "We worked so hard to get here.

"In the end, after all this fighting, it is the players that suffer. This has to end."

NBBF president Kida said he was saddened by the entire situation, telling ESPN: "I feel sad about it. None of this needed to happen.

"The first BAL cut-off was mid-November but it was extended to January 15 and we still failed to get our house in order now we are paying the price of having our team watch from home."