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Olympics

Nigeria’s Upset Of Team USA Calls To Mind A Bewildering Malcolm Gladwell Tangent

Caleb Agada #3 of Nigeria fouls Kevin Durant #7 of the United States as Miye Oni #13 of Nigeria defends during an exhibition game at Michelob ULTRA Arena ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The U.S. men’s basketball team did the unthinkable Saturday night: They took one of Malcolm Gladwell’s most deranged arguments and made it seem prescient.

In a pre-Olympic exhibition game in Las Vegas, Nigeria handed Team USA their first-ever loss to an African nation, 90-87. This was nothing more than a scrimmage, but it was still a major upset. Team USA hadn’t lost a game, even an exhibition, in three straight Olympic seasons. They beat Nigeria by 83 points nine years ago. Kevin Durant, who last night led the Americans with 17 points on 4-for-13 shooting, was part of both games:

Team USA’s final chance came down to Zach LaVine having to make one free throw and miss the second. He instead missed both. Precious Achiuwa, who had a pretty sweet block on Durant in the second quarter, came down with the rebound, and the game was essentially over. The Nigeria Basketball Federation endlessly gloated afterward. “Know this and know peace” is solid shit-talking.

Along with Durant, the Americans started Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, and Bam Adebayo—a potent lineup that still couldn’t do enough Saturday. Their opponents had plenty of talent, too, albeit not on the same level: Achiuwa was one of eight active NBA players (and three Miami Heat players) named to Nigeria’s 16-man training camp roster. We’re not talking about All-Stars here, but check out those dudes in the pros. Chimezie Metu! Josh Okogie! Jahlil Okafor! Wait, never mind, Okafor plays for the Detroit Pistons.

Out of all those NBA guys, the star for Nigeria last night was the Heat’s Gabe Vincent, who scored a team-high 21 points and sank six three-pointers. The entire squad, coached by Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, was 20-of-42 from beyond the arc. It’s tough to glean too much from an exhibition game, but Team Nigeria certainly aren’t the punching bags they were almost a decade ago.

As Team USA regroups and prepares for Monday’s exhibition game against Australia, it’s an opportune time to remember the words of a thinkovator who, in 2018, went on Bill Simmons’s podcast to proclaim that Nigeria could put together the greatest men’s basketball team if you completely stretched and distorted what it meant to declare that someone was from Nigeria:

GLADWELL: But I’m not done. So now I think, the last move I wanna make is, I think it’s fair, because Nigeria is just one little country [Ed. note: population 197 million], for them to also lay claim on neighboring African states. I think that’s fair. So who can I add from neighboring African states? Well, who grew up next door to Nigeria? Joel Embiid.

SIMMONS: Mm. You have a lot of centers on this team.

GLADWELL: But now so what am I missing? So now I got—

SIMMONS: You have no point guard.

GLADWELL: I need a point guard. Right? So where am I going to find a point guard?

SIMMONS: I don’t know. Just keep adding countries ‘til you’ve got a point guard.

GLADWELL: Bill, Bill. This is a great question. This is a creaky[?] question. Where am I going to find a point guard from subequatorial Africa, close to Nigeria? [Ed. note: Lagos to Johannesburg is a 95-hour drive] One of the greatest point guards in the game.

SIMMONS: Who’s that?

GLADWELL: You don’t know?

SIMMONS: No.

GLADWELL: Steve Nash. Born in Johannesburg!

[pregnant pause]

SIMMONS: Oh wow.

That conversation really was sneaky underrated.