Rena Wakama: I’m Well Prepared for D’Tigress Challenge

Rena Wakama was named as the new coach of the Nigerian national women’s basketball team, D’Tigress last week. The American-based Nigerian was seen by some as inexperienced for the level of D’Tigress but Wakama says competence should be the parameter and not age

Congratulations as the first lady to coach a Nigerian national team.

How did you get this opportunity to coach D’Tigress? You got or was there an advert?

Oh yes, I was contacted. I was contacted by Musa (Adamu), the team’s General Manager. And from that I got to know there was an opening for the Nigeria national team job and was asked if I was interested in going through the interview process with some other candidates. Of course, I was interested and there were series of interviews and calls from different people. That’s how I got here finally. And I thank God for this opportunity to coach the national team and being the first woman to lead the national team.

Some questions came up after your appointment concerning your time with the national team. Did you ever play for D’Tigress? Did you make the team or you were just a part of the extended squad?

 Yeah, I’ve been involved since I graduated from college. I graduated from college in 2014 and then in 2015 I was with them (D’Tigress) when they travelled to Cameroon (AfroBasket). We did not qualify; I think we finished third or fourth and so we did not qualify. And then I played for the club (First Bank) and we won a championship. But I was involved in 2015/2016.

After that I moved on to start the process to becoming a coach because that had always been on my mind. I wanted a good career as a coach. Many people don’t know that getting into coaching here in America is extremely hard but I had my mind made up to coach and was ready go through the process no matter how difficult. I knew my journey, I knew my task; I knew I wanted be a head coach someday and so I knew I had to give it shot sooner or later.

And so 2015 was the last time with the Nigerian team because I had to concentrate on the coaching task ahead of me. I got my career back into college athletics and had my Masters and here I am still coaching and happy for this opportunity to do the right stuff.

Available information confirms that you were in Cameroon with the team but I couldn’t find your name on the roster. What happened? Did you actually play or you were a part of the larger squad?

Yeah, obviously you know a lot of rules on registering for the first time. FIBA has a bunch of rules; a bunch of regulations to meet but unfortunately when I came I missed the deadline to get registered. But before then I had met and trained with them and then played with them in London. In London, there was issue about releasing me but then later everything was cleared and I was able to play for First Bank.

Okay, you mentioned playing in London…who did you play with in London? Which team, which group or players?

 I played for a couple of teams…

 That’s like club sides and not the national team…

 Yes, clubs.

How old are you? You are hesitant to give an answer but I need the answer to help me arrive at the next question. So how old are you?

Okay, I’m about 31. 31.

So you’re not just the first woman but I guess you are also the youngest head coach the national team has had. Some people are 34 or 38 and still playing. Why did you stop playing so early?

 Maybe because I knew I wanted to be a coach. I knew that was my calling; that was what I wanted to be. I knew that was my journey; I knew I had more impact organising a team. Even all the while we were in Cameroon with the girls, I just knew exactly what I wanted to do with my career; that’s my calling, that’s my passion and I had to follow it. When God puts something in your heart you have to follow it. I wanted to start early.

But I had played all my life though starting early and competing through the high school and the university.

You are taking a new team going for a major competition in such a short time and the team actually starting all over. Are you not worried? Would you have preferred like three or four months to prepare your team?

 If you worry about everything then nothing can happen for you. I don’t want to worry about things that I can’t control. Since I was appointed I have been working nonstop round the clock to get things moving and to make sure that we are prepared. I don’t want to run away from issues, I want to run straight into them and this is a phenomenal opportunity.

You said you were travelling the other day we spoke. Have you met the team now?

I’m on my way to meeting them. We have camps here this weekend – open trials – and we have camps in Lagos and Abuja so there’s a whole lot of work to do. I want to see everybody whether you are here in the United States or back home. The team is being formed; I’m still looking for players. I want to see everybody play whether you are based here or back home and then we can go from there.

You want to see everybody play first? That means you would run the camp in the USA and also in Lagos and Abuja?

 Yes, I will eventually get there and meet with everybody. I will travel down after the trials here.

 Now you are coaching a team that has been African champions three-straight times and going for the fourth. As a matter of fact they have not lost a game to any African team since 2017. Nigerians love D’Tigress for who they are and the expectation is still very high. Now what can you promise the country?

Expectations are great.

What should they expect from you? First, second or…

 I wish I can say that; I wish I can give a straight answer but I can’t do that. I can’t say that. What I can say is that the type of basketball I am going to put out is going to be marvelous; magical. How we are going to play is what matters and it’s going to be like no other because that’s what I have done all my life. I am going to teach these girls like nobody has.

They are going to be cared for; they are going to be pushed; they are going to be disciplined. I am not going to say we are coming first, second or third. I am not going to say that now but what I can say for sure is we are going to play tremendously well. We are going to play very well and every other thing will take its place.

I saw a post online…I can’t remember if you did or it’s the NBBF. It’s a scripture that says God does not call the qualified but qualifies the called. Who put that out?

Yes, I did.

What message are you trying to pass by that? Are you not qualified?

I know that I am more than ready; I know that I am the right one for the job. That’s pretty much what I am saying. I know I can lead this team and I know I can make Nigeria proud. There are a lot of talents back home and I want to do this not just for the players but for the coaches too.

I know that I can make great impact with Nigerian basketball. I want to be a good representative, a good advertisement for these ones that are not so celebrated. There are good players and good coaches like coach Taye (Adeniyi) coach Owolo (Aderemi) who gave me the opportunity with First Bank. I want to do well and create opportunities for them. It’s not just about me but about everybody. I want to help push people up for a better basketball in Nigeria.

You talked about some people thinking you are not qualified…like you read them or you were told so?

I read them myself. I read quite a couple of negative comments on the internet but that’s none of my business because I do know I am here for a good reason and that reason will soon reveal itself.

How well do you know Nigeria and the system here?

My parents are in Abuja but we are from Okrika. I am a Rivers girl. I was born in America and schooled there but thanks to my parents because they made sure I didn’t lose touch. I was coming home every year and the last time I visited was in 2019 just before Covid started and the travels restrictions came up. But before then I was home every year so I know very well where I am from.

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