Before I ever stepped foot in Benghazi, my basketball journey had already taken me all over the world—from the dirt court outside my childhood home in Lagos, Nigeria, to the blacktop playgrounds of Boston, where we moved when I was eleven, to collegiate gyms in Washington, DC; Providence, Rhode Island; Rochester, New York; and Lorman, Mississippi. After these came stints in pro leagues both in France and Macedonia, of all places. People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I chose to play pro basketball in Libya, but the truth is that the conditions there, for a time at least, were an upgrade over those I endured while playing in Skopje, the Macedonian capital. The arenas there were unheated and so cold inside that we’d warm up before games in gloves and knit hats and huddle around fires set in steel trash cans placed behind one of the baskets. And that’s not even to mention all the racial insults I suffered, the threats and degradation. So when my agent called to tell me he’d fielded an offer from a team in Benghazi that would pay almost double what I was making in Macedonia, I jumped at the opportunity. I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?
What my agent didn’t tell me, of course, was that Al-Nasr, the team I’d be joining, was owned by the Qaddafi family. Yes, that Qaddafi family. He also failed to mention that the team’s home arena had been host to dozens of public, televised executions over the years, some of which had been carried out before thousands of schoolchildren bused in to bear witness. He didn’t tell me anything, really, until it was too late, and I’m not sure I would have believed him if he had. The last thing I expected was to walk into a revolution.
Al-Nasr’s coach, Sherif Azmy, was famous for running his players into the floor. This guy was like a local legend. I’d read up on him before coming to Benghazi, read that he was from Egypt originally but had learned the ins and outs of the game from all these great coaches in the States. He had, like, a thousand different plays for a thousand different situations. Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but there were, like, twenty different half-court sets, maybe a half-dozen inbound plays, maybe another half-dozen ways to beat the press. A lot of our practice time was spent going over all these different plays, and then we’d scrimmage, hard. Shoot some free throws, then scrimmage hard some more. During my first practice, all I was seeing were guys who wanted to be someplace else—anyplace else.
During a break, I got to talking with one of my new teammates, a six-ten center from Senegal named Moustapha Niang—a talented all-around player who could even play the wing and hit threes. He was the only other international player on the team, and we’d go on to become good, good friends. We were both outsiders looking in, so that became our common ground, and here in this first session, Moustapha filled me in on what was going on, told me our teammates were in a bad, desperate mood. He’d been in Benghazi since September, so he knew his way around. He told me the team was under tremendous pressure to win all the time, but now especially. Already they had lost three games in a row, so the players were tentative, nervous. It was only practice, but almost everyone seemed like they were afraid to make a mistake. Even in drills, even while we were scrimmaging, nobody wanted to be the one to screw things up.
Moustapha said, “If we lose another game, bad things will happen.”
I said, “What bad things? You mean the coach will run us hard in practice? You mean some players might get benched?”
“No,” Moustapha said. “Worse.”
He did not explain further, but I learned from my new teammates that in Libya, when you played for Colonel Qaddafi’s Al-Nasr team, you were expected to win. If you lost, you would carry a great shame. If you lost, you would not be paid. If you lost, you would be beaten. Qaddafi’s strongmen would visit the locker room after the game and shove you against the lockers, hard. They’d hit you with sticks and clubs. Then they’d drag you into a bathroom stall and rough you up some more.
I asked Moustapha about this the next day, on our way to my first game. We were traveling to Tripoli on the team’s private jet, NBA style. Nobody issued us any airline tickets. Nobody asked us to walk through security. We just stepped on the plane, stretched out, and took off, and it was hard for me to consider the contrast between such extravagance and the brutality I was hearing about in the locker room, behind the scenes. On the one hand, they treated us like royalty, and on the other hand, like slaves.
I said, “Moustapha, is this true what I’m hearing? Qaddafi’s men beat us if we don’t win?”
Moustapha said, “The foreign players, me and you, we don’t have to worry.”
I did not take these words as reassuring. Instead, they filled me with more caution and concern. I did not want to be singled out for special treatment, but at the same time I did not want to be dragged and beaten. For the first time in my life, I was scared to step onto a basketball court; for the first time, I understood what it meant to play under pressure.
Before the game, I was visited on the court by another of Qaddafi’s sons—Saadi, Mutassim’s older brother. Saadi Qaddafi was supposedly a great soccer player, and I guessed he was the real sportsman of the family—one of them, anyway. While his players were warming up, he came down to the floor, surrounded by eight or ten young men in military garb and another eight or ten young boys in street clothes. Saadi himself was dressed in pressed jeans and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt. He crossed the floor to where I was standing, and we shook hands.
“We have been waiting for you,” he said pleasantly. “We are going to win tonight, yes? We are going to win the championship this year, yes?”
I could only agree. I was afraid to go against this man or his family. Also, I could see from the commotion in the arena that Colonel Qaddafi himself was taking his own seat in the stands, alongside military personnel. I was still talking to Saadi, but at the same time I could not keep my eyes off his father. All around the arena, the crowd seemed to take Qaddafi’s appearance in stride. To these fans in Tripoli, it was no big thing for the colonel to appear at a sporting event dressed in his military whites, especially to cheer on one of his teams, but to me it was like playing in the Roman Colosseum before Caesar.
Saadi Qaddafi gestured towards his father and said, “My entire family, we are happy you are here.”
I followed Saadi Qaddafi’s gaze and met his father’s eyes. The Libyan dictator seemed to flash me a little nod.
Before he prepared to take his own seat, Saadi Qaddafi had one more thing he wanted to discuss. He asked me about my religion. The question kind of threw me—the timing of it, mostly: right there on the floor of the arena, in front of thousands of people, with the game about to begin. At first I could not think how to answer. I remembered that in northern Nigeria, when I was growing up, Muslims and Christians had been at each other’s throats. Literally. I could only assume that the Qaddafi family was fully aware of my background, my beliefs. They must have known I was born and raised a Christian, that I came from a churchgoing family. But to tell the truth was to put me in conflict with the Muslims who had brought me here to play basketball. And to tell a white lie was to let it be known that I could not be trusted.
Either way, I was screwed.
“I am a Christian man,” I finally said.
There was nothing else to say. I was, after all, a young man of faith. I could not go against that faith or my church or my family, even if it was only to appease my hosts. I could only speak from my heart and tell my new employer what he already knew.
“That is no problem,” Saadi Qaddafi replied beneath a wry smile. “There is only one God up there.”
As I returned to my warm-up, I noticed I was shaking.
Art by Jim Cooke