The first moments after the historic win remain hazy.
“Although it was a friendly game, it was a huge win for them, our confidence," Brown said in an interview days after the win. “But … more importantly, [for] Nigeria, the continent of Africa and the diaspora around the world.”
It was the first time an African team had beat Team USA, as much a generation-defining moment for Nigeria as it was an indictment of America’s fading dominance on the international stage. And behind the scenes of this Olympic underdog story was Brown, who had spent the days before the continent’s biggest basketball upset securing hotel rooms for players and phoning caterers.
And he had done it all without collecting a paycheck.
“Originally, I was a little afraid of [taking the job] because of the horror stories I heard. But then there was something inside of me,” Brown said, after a recent training camp practice in Oakland, Calif. “What better opportunity to give back, especially to a country in Africa who everybody doesn’t respect or forgets about?"
Brown has spent almost two decades on NBA sidelines. After working as an assistant under Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich, he became a head coach in Cleveland, guiding LeBron James to his first Finals appearance in 2007. Brown won NBA coach of the year for the 2008-09 season and, after a brief stint with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers (2011-2012), returned to Cleveland for one more year. In 2016, Brown joined the Golden State Warriors, where he has served as Steve Kerr’s lead assistant since.
Then, in 2020, the Nigerian basketball federation reached out about its head coaching position. Brown, who is not of Nigerian descent, said he took more than a month to decide. Ultimately, he decided he could help, said yes, and got to work. There was a lot of it.
“I cold-called everybody and their mom trying to garner support for what we’re trying to do,” said Brown, who initially reached out to Nigerian entertainer Sound Sultan, which opened doors for him to contact more celebrities. (Sultan died at age 44 of cancer during the team’s win over Team USA, Brown said. “Hopefully we were winning at the time.”)
After generating support among Nigerian luminaries, Brown turned his attention to the roster. Though the country has been well represented in the NBA — just last year nine players of Nigerian heritage were drafted — its top talent had not played for the D’Tigers in international competition. Brown spent weeks recruiting and assuring players that if they committed to the team, it would be a rewarding experience to represent their country on a global stage.
“He has big plans for Nigeria in the next few, five, 10 years,” said Chima Moneke, a 6-foot-6 forward who received a call from Brown while playing in France. Moneke was one of 46 players invited to the team’s pre-Olympic training camp held this summer at the Warriors’ practice facility in Oakland. The team’s Olympic roster includes several NBA players, including Miye Oni (Jazz), Jahlil Okafor (Pistons) and Jordan Nwora (Bucks).
As the team prepared, Brown worked to create an atmosphere that made the players proud to play for their country. At practices, a curated playlist of AfroBeats artists blasted throughout the gym. Players broke every huddle by shouting “1-2-3 Naija!” And the back of their warmup shirts carried a quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: “The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.”
“He wants Nigeria to be internationally recognized, not just as the best team in Africa,” Moneke said. “He wants us to be ranked top 10 year in and year out, and I’m right there with him.”
Nigeria is ranked 22nd in the world, sandwiched between Canada and Iran. To compete with the world powers — Team USA, Spain, Australia and others — Nigeria needs funding. But the country’s national teams have struggled financially. In 2020, the Nigerian soccer team threatened a boycott because of an 18-month backlog of bonus and allowances, according to a BBC report. And funding for the national basketball team, which hasn’t captured the heart of the country like soccer, pales in comparison to even small European countries.
So Brown hasn’t simply been a volunteer head coach. He also has served as the team’s travel coordinator. Before training camp started, Brown said, he booked the rooms at a local Oakland hotel and called around to multiple caterers in search of one who could provide the healthiest meals at the lowest price.
“I never thought I’d have to call a caterer in my life, but I’m trying to get bids,” Brown said, then joked: “After doing it, I’d think I’d be a really, really good junior college coach.”
The money to purchase the practice jerseys players wore for training camp came out of Brown’s pocket, he said. As did the green and white flags that hang inside every gym the team books for practice.
And for the things Brown couldn’t bankroll, he turned to the generosity of strangers. He created a nonprofit — Friends of Nigerian Basketball — and a GoFundMe page. For months, the total remained painfully short of the $1,000,000 goal at close to $2,000. Half of that total came from an anonymous donor: Brown’s girlfriend.
After Team Nigeria shocked Team USA, the team’s GoFundMe account reached $10,000. Also, Brown said, more companies pledged direct support, and two of the largest banks in Nigeria donated $100,000 each to the men’s and women’s programs.
And when the team opens the Olympic tournament against Australia on Sunday, players will finally wear their Olympic uniforms. For months, the jerseys and shorts licensed by the apparel company Peak had been sitting in customs in Lagos, Nigeria, for reasons unclear. But following the upset of the United States, government officials granted their release.
The surge of support came about after one historic win. Now Brown envisions an even greater impact if Nigeria can make it to the Olympic medal stand.
“Let’s turn this into a bigger thing, get more on the bandwagon,” Brown said. “Everybody doesn’t just look at Nigeria as a second- or third-[world] country. They look at all Africa that way, and if one country in Africa has success, I think the whole continent will get behind.”