JALINGO, TARABA: Happy Sylvester wakes up every morning at 4 am to cook for her little siblings, prepare them for school and then continue with other house chores.
At 7 am, the 23-year-old dresses up in her favourite number twelve jersey and with a headphone resting on her ears and trek her way to the basketball court within Jalingo Motel, which is just a 2km distance from Anguwan Mallam Gabdo, where she resides.
She usually arrives early at the court and waits for other players to come before training starts. By 10 am, the game ends, and she will return home and rest before returning for evening training at 4 pm.
Sylvester understands that this is a daily price she has to pay to get to where she wants; “This has been my daily routine for eight consecutive years that I have been in this game,” she said.
Sylvester’s journey to basketball isn’t a straight and easy one. Up until 2015, she knew nothing about the game she now loves.
Sylvester said she didn’t know the difference between basketball and handball until Uba Barde, a computer studies teacher in Muhammad Nya Secondary School, Jalingo, told her, “You should try basketball, I’m sure you will go places because you’re a star.”
Barde then took her to a court to watch the game.
“After watching how young people play the game, I was amazed,” she said.
With the teacher’s support, she and the other students formed a group called Near Thunders, initiated by their captain, Sunday Idiah. The group then trained, played, and honed their basketball skills together.
That was the turning point for Sylvester, now one of the fastest-rising basketball stars in Taraba State.
But learning about the sport wasn’t the only challenge she faced. As a woman from the conservative Northeast of Nigeria, where compulsory domestic roles are allocated to women, Sylvester had a battle in her hand. So, she constantly juggled her responsibility at home and getting better at this sport she has come to love.
Also, there was little or no investment in female sports in the area. Danjuma Haruna, a coach of a male-only basketball club, said coaches avoid taking on girls as “their parents see us as people who can influence their children into immoralities,” he told Prime Progress.
Sylvester said there were times when relatives came home to warn her parents about the dangers of letting their daughter venture into male-dominated sports. The relatives told her parents that it would be difficult for their daughter to get married in the future, and playing the sport would lead her astray.
“It was irritating to hear all that they said,” Sylvester said.
Despite the warnings, Sylvester had the backing of her mother, and it fueled her desire to push forward.
“My mother believed in me, which was the biggest motivation I could get. I stopped paying attention to what people say because that is not who I am or what I do anytime I get to the basketball court,” she said.
Conquering the hoops
By 2018 when she was leaving secondary school, Syvester had mastered the rudiments of the game and even led her school to the Milo Secondary Schools Basketball Competition.
She carried on playing at the Taraba State College of Education Zing, where she got her National Certificate of Education or NCE.
Over the years, basketball became more than a game for her, and she is now comfortable playing. “The atmosphere is different, welcoming, safe, and lovely. I’m always looking up to American basketball stars like Stephen Curry and LeBron James,” she said.
Sylvester said basketball had taken her to places she never thought about when she started in 2015. She has travelled to Adamawa, Gombe, Bauchi, Kano, Abuja, Benue, Kogi, and Lagos playing basketball.
She has also won competitions like the DDI Local Governments Basketball Competition and the Taraba State Basketball Championship in 2021 and 2022, and recently led Ahmentors Academy to the finals of the Milo National Championship, which was held on July 2, 2023, in Lagos.
Even as she works towards her dream, many young girls see Sylvester as a role model and want to follow her path: “I enjoy watching her, it makes me happy, and I want also to start playing like her,” said Amirah Shu’aibu, a teenager in Jalingo.
For Abdulbasid Umar, a teammate of Sylvester, there is a lot to admire and learn from her. “She is calm and cool; that’s why we call her, Coolace. She possesses excellent dribbling and scoring abilities,” he says. “Honestly, it excites me playing with her every day.”
But for Sylvester, her dreams are bigger than where she stands now; “I’m working to improve my skills every day with the hope that someday, I will see myself playing at the Olympics and the Women’s National Basketball Association League.”