How a former pro and aspiring lawyer became the driving force behind youth basketball in Thailand
What does a professional basketball player do when suddenly his offseason is all year long? For Ikenna Nwankwo, the answer to that question was waiting for him in Thailand.
“I just came here to play at the end of my career,” says Nwankwo, a Houston native, NCAA national champion at UCLA, and 15-year veteran of professional basketball leagues around the world—from the NBA, to the Russian Basketball Super League, to his last stop on the Thailand Tigers in the ASEAN Basketball League. “I wanted to go to law school. I figured I’d take a year off here, see the beaches, see the islands, and refocus. It seemed like a good place to study.”
Law school has been put on hold, however. Since 2010, Nwankwo has channelled his energy into Top Flight, a basketball academy for kids between the ages of 4 and 18, as well as a competitive junior league and a men’s league for “weekend warriors”, as he puts it. The men’s league plays at the New International School of Thailand (NIST) every weekend for six months a year. The academy, on the other hand, currently has over 1,000 kids in its programmes, most of them students at some of the 60-plus international schools in Bangkok.
“We run the whole gambit at this point,” says Nwankwo. “We have after-school programmes, weekend programmes, and we have an elite basketball team that plays against the other top teams in Thailand.”
The buy-in to Top Flight’s programmes has been incredible. What started with just five or ten kids practicing after school at NIST has grown by the year. Every summer, Top Flight brings its elite team to basketball camps in the US “just to give them the experience of summer basketball in the States”—the Kobe Bryant Academy, the Michael Jordan Flight School, a summer camp run by the UCLA basketball programme, and more. This year, the team will join the American AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) summer circuit for the first time, playing against some of the best youth players in basketball-mad America.
The academy has caught the attention of foreign basketball talent, too. Former players and high-level coaches from around the world—Russia, Ukraine, the US, Turkey—come to Thailand to work with Top Flight anywhere from months to years at a time.
“They kind of find me now,” Nwankwo admits with a chuckle. “Some have other jobs, or play in the Thai league, or do this as a part-time summer gig while they’re in university. I feel very fortunate to have them.”
Nwankwo credits technology for the growth of the sport in Thailand. Kids have better access to NBA games than ever, thanks to the internet. Unlike when Nwankwo was playing, basketball has become a global game. Steph Curry and LeBron James are household names these days. Even if NBA superstars have brought basketball to the collective Thai consciousness, Top Flight has played a major, hands-on role in spreading the game’s gospel among emerging generations, too.
The talent level and interest has increased to the point that the NBA now runs a free, month-long clinic in Thailand. Each year the league sends stars like Taj Gibson and Will Barton to the Land of Smiles to nurture young players.
“They select 10 kids from Thailand, 10 from the Philippines, 10 from Indonesia, and then those kids play games in China,” Nwankwo explains. Even the professional leagues have improved. Nwankwo believes Hi Tech and Mono—the top Thai teams—can compete against some of the best teams in the region.
Nwankwo, who at six feet and eleven inches tall towers above nearly everyone in Thailand (Mono has a player who measures in at a vertiginous seven feet and five inches), still speaks with a sense of astonishment at the academy’s growth. “I could never have imagined in 2009 that I would be doing what I’m doing now,” he says.
His astonishment might stem from the winding road down which his life has led him. As a teenager in Houston, Nwankwo was one of the most sought-after recruits in the cut-throat world of elite high school basketball in the US. The year before he would graduate high school, he lacerated the ulnar nerve in his left hand in a bizarre accident; he could no longer extend his fingers to their full length, and he lost all feeling in his fourth and fifth digits.
“Most of the schools recruiting me dropped out. UCLA stuck with me and honoured their commitment,” he says. “I had a great experience and loved [my time at UCLA], but I didn’t play very much.”
The NBA didn’t come calling right away, either. After graduating, he bounced around the world, with pit stops in Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey before he got “a couple of cups of coffee” with the Miami Heat and his hometown Houston Rockets in the NBA. He followed where the best contracts led him—including stints with the famed L.A. Lakers and the Clevland Cavaliers—and played against some of the top talent in Europe and South America. Like many long-term expatriates, he began to discover that distinct sense of displacement from his home culture coupled with a curiosity for foreign ways of life.
“I loved Venezuela and Turkey when I was there. In Turkey,” he recalls. “I played in a small town called Izmir. That was some pretty high-level basketball, like Euroleague-level.”
In all the countries he played in over the course of his career, however, he never had a chance to stay in one place long enough to delve into the complexities of a foreign culture. “I’d go to games and practices, and then return to my apartment at the end of the day.”
Thailand offered the element missing from the equation. Nwankwo joined the Thailand Tigers (the team no longer exists) in the inaugural season of the ABL. For him, it was a fitting way to cap a multicultural playing career before moving on to a life working in law in the US, a dream he had held onto since he was young. Basketball wouldn’t leave his life so easily, though.
“All my teammates over the years would go into coaching or broadcasting or something else related to basketball [after they retired]. I always wanted to be the guy who did something different,” he says. “I never had a desire to coach.” That is, until he tried it.
The varsity basketball coach at NIST was a fan of the ABL and had seen Nwankwo play. He asked Nwankwo to work with his team in his spare time. Soon the athletic director invited him to start an after-school basketball programme to help more than just the school’s team. It quickly became popular. They offered more days, then weekend programmes. In time, Nwankwo was hooked, even if his hanging around in Thailand was met with a sceptical eye back home.
“For most players, [playing abroad] is just a cheque. A lot of my friends think I’m crazy for staying overseas all this time,” he admits. In a way, maybe he is. Competitive basketball is relatively new to Thailand. Nwankwo estimates the sport has only existed here on a professional level for 15 years. The city has few places for teams to practice or play organized games. There are courts in Benjasiri Park and concrete gyms under highway overpasses, but B Pro might offer the only well-equipped, air-conditioned courts in Bangkok outside of international schools.
“This culture is a lot different from my own. It’s not as competitive. Here, it’s more about having a good time, the community aspect of it. It’s not as much about winning and losing,” says Nwankwo, who says he is still growing into his skin as a coach.
“Ninety percent of the kids we work with don’t aspire to play in college or the NBA. Of course, we want to give everyone good fundamental training, but we specialize in character-building and personal development. For an eight-year-old, especially, you shouldn’t be stressing them out about winning the game—it’s about the lessons you learn from competing.”
Watching Nwankwo and his fellow coaches work with younger players, it’s clear Top Flight is filling an important niche that had previously been ignored. As importantly, Nwankwo has found a calling, even if it’s one he may never have envisioned.
“The younger kids—that’s my favourite group to work with,” he says. It shows. He frequently throws high-fives, bellows words of encouragement across the gym, and at the end of sessions names a player of the week to thunderous rounds of early-youth applause. Before leaving the school, he engages in conversation with students who race up to him to say hello and throw even more high-fives.
While the future of programmes like Top Flight is rarely, if ever, certain in Thailand, Nwankwo hopes his academy can become a key development tool for the country outside of international schools and organized men’s leagues.
“I feel like the next phase for Top Flight is sport development in Thailand. I would love to get contacts within the Thai Ministry of Sport, run programmes outside of Bangkok in some of the provinces, and develop basketball courts and sports facilities,” he says, adding that he dreams of launching an adult women’s league to rival the Top Flight men’s league, but there aren’t yet enough teams to form a league. He has also launched Top Flight in Hong Kong and hopes to connect the two academies with greater frequency. He is, as he puts it, excited by the prospects, but grounded by the circumstances.
On a personal level, he still wants to go to law school. He discloses that he is particularly inspired by the ground-breaking discussions occurring around pay-for-play and amateurism in American sports. For now, though, his work remains in Southeast Asia. “I’m proud of what we’ve done so far, helping the sport to develop the way it has,” he adds.
The next stage might be obscured to him at the moment, but Nwankwo has never let life limit his opportunities before; it seems certain he won’t start doing that now.
For more information about Top Flight, including how to get involved with any of its leagues or programmes, visit www.topflightbangkok.com.
By Craig Sauers