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Vermonter's Passion For Basketball Leads To Olympic Coaching Gig — With Team Nigeria


Here are some reasons Will Voigt's path to becoming the head coach of Nigeria's men's Olympic basketball team wasn't exactly an obvious one. He was born and raised in Vermont. His father founded a culinary institute. And his mother was a poet laureate. His own basketball career only went as far as high school.

But his passion for the game and the country led him to this moment. Voigt's coaching journey had taken him all over with semi-professional teams in the U.S. and Norway and China. His job as Nigeria's head coach grew out of Voigt's experience running basketball camps in that country.

WILL VOIGT: You know, we have a lot of resources here in the U.S. And certainly from a basketball standpoint, something as simple as a ball and a basket and some shoes we take for granted. And, you know, we know that basketball doesn't necessarily lead to you becoming a professional basketball player. But it might lead to an academic opportunity for you. And, you know, that's what we've seen. And that's sort of the reality - that this, you know, is an avenue for them to achieve some pretty great things in all realms of life.

MONTAGNE: Although, of course, getting to the Olympics is not small stuff.

VOIGT: Yeah. I mean, you know, I don't want to undersell the achievements of this team. You know, we've got some tremendous basketball players. We've got really a special chemistry amongst the group and, as a result, became the first African champions in the history of Nigeria.

So, you know, we're representing not just Nigeria but really the continent as a whole and, you know, trying to continue to, you know, get resources to flow into the country to help more kids be a part of another great Nigerian basketball team.

MONTAGNE: Now, the team is the lowest-ranked in the Olympic men's basketball tournament. I mean, are you going for the gold? Or if that's beyond reach - you have other thoughts?

VOIGT: You know, our immediate goal is to be the first African nation in the history of the Olympics to get out of group play. And, you know, once you get out of your group, then it's almost like a NCAA tournament setting. You know, it's single elimination. And anything can happen in, you know, that kind of an environment. But, you know, this is a team that has certainly risen to the challenge before. And we're hoping to do so again.

MONTAGNE: Now, your team, the Nigerian team, had a scrimmage on Monday night with the American team, the dream team. How did that go?

VOIGT: Well, I mean, if you go by score, it obviously did not go as well as we would have hoped. But to play in a big arena with lots of fans and, you know, against the best basketball players in the world is, you know, certainly a great opportunity. You know, obviously, we would have hoped to have pulled off an upset.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) What was the final score?

VOIGT: We'd rather not talk about that. But, you know, we're talking about a team - and Team USA - that hasn't lost an exhibition game in 14 years. So we certainly were up against a tough opponent.

MONTAGNE: But just playing that team - right? - was very exciting back home.

VOIGT: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, you know, these guys are global icons. Every kid in Africa knows Kevin Durant. So I think for them to be able to tune in and watch us be playing against these guys is a special moment for them and hopefully inspires a lot of those kids to pick up the game and, you know, hopefully be part of our national team one day.

MONTAGNE: Well, it has been lovely to talk to you. And good luck. We'll be watching for the team.

VOIGT: I appreciate it. Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That was Will Voigt, head coach of the Nigerian men's Olympic basketball team which arrives in Rio today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Saahil Desai