Almost every baller that makes the jump to play overseas and pursue a professional career returns with tales of the sporting and social differences of far-flung lands. But few stories are as unlikely or as incredible as that of Nigerian-American Alcorn State alum Alex Owumi.
His dream to play hoops for a living took him to Al-Nasr—a Benghazi-based team owned by Libyan dictator Colonel Qaddafi—and into the heart of the country’s bloody civil war, part of a revolutionary wave, which would come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring.’
Forced to survive without food and water for days while trapped in his seventh-floor Benghazi apartment before staging a daring escape to Egypt, the 30-year-old has since recorded his experiences in an extraordinary autobiography, Qaddafi’s Point Guard.
In late 2010, after a season spent on the southeastern coast of France with AL Roche-la-Moliere, talented guard Alex Owumi found himself in the far less serene surroundings of Skopje, Macedonia, playing for KK Lirija Skopje, but desperate to get out.
Warming up in the glow of fires formed in steel trashcans, inside freezing arenas, before dodging missiles and racist abuse during games, it is easy to understand why anywhere else would have been preferable.
“I just wanted to play basketball,” said Owumi, as he reflected recently. “The most important thing was to get out of the bad situation I was in, and once I had the opportunity to get some place better to play basketball, that’s all I really cared about. I didn’t really care about the team, I cared about the money and that it was going to be on time and that I was going to be able to further my career and get to feed my family.”
Such was Owumi’s desperation, that when the call came from a team in Libya—the morning after one game had ended in a riot and he had been jumped at an ATM—he didn’t even ask the name of the team or terms of the deal. He just said yes.
They were on the lookout for players of African descent with international experience. He fit the bill perfectly. This was his ticket out of hell, or so he thought.
On arrival at the airport in Benghazi, crowds of green-clad fans greeted Owumi. They had been waiting for hours, keen to get a look at their new ‘American superstar’—as Al Jazeera billed him while playing his highlights on a loop.
Driven down backstreets to his high-rise apartment block, Owumi didn’t hold out much hope as to the standard of his living quarters. But he was astonished when he looked behind the heavy steel door.
“The place was huge, gorgeous, done up with nice furniture and fine things. I thought, Finally, a decent place to stay. Only this was way better than decent. This was first class, off the hook—a three-bedroom penthouse—hell, yeah!” he writes in his autobiography.
After taking in all the trappings of his new crib, Owumi was intrigued by various photos of the family of Libyan dictator Colonel Qaddafi dotted around the apartment and called team president, Mr. Ahmed, who told him, “Al-Nasr, it is the Qaddafi club. You are playing for the Qaddafi family.” The apartment belonged to Mutassim Gaddafi, the Colonel’s son.
The gravity of the situation he had stepped into became clearer when he saw how his Libyan team-mates were beaten after losses and he received national attention when Qaddafi flashed him a nod at a game. But things were about to get far more serious.
On February 17, 2011, when his driver failed to arrive to take him to practice, Owumi called his coach, who instructed him to look outside, so the Boston baller climbed to the roof of his apartment block. It was there that he saw the true terror of the Libyan uprising taking place.
“Everywhere I look people are running,” Owumi writes. “There is nowhere for them to run, but they are running just the same. As they move, they are gunned down. As they stand still, they are gunned down. As they are thrown up against each other, desperate for escape, they are gunned down.”
Forced to retreat to his apartment, he stayed behind that heavy steel door for two weeks, seemingly cut off from the outside world. He soon ran out of food and water and was reduced to eating cockroaches he found in the plant pots outside his window, as he did what he could to survive.
Eventually he made contact with Senegalese teammate Moustapha Niang, and the pair agreed to make a break for the Egyptian border with the help of Mr. Ahmed. They reached border control in Sallum but, without the necessary documentation, were held for three days before making a run for the buses into Egypt, where fellow passengers assisted the escape by hiding them from guards.
Incredibly, on completing his daring mission, Owumi opted to remain in Egypt for the rest of the season to seek solace in the game he loves, playing for Alexandria club El-Olympi. They went on to win the national championship with Owumi claiming MVP honors, which was a big step on his journey back to normality. But basketball could only heal some of the hurt.
“It’s just part of my life,” says Owumi, who is now plying his trade in the UK with British Basketball League team, Worcester Wolves. “I can’t forget about it. It is going to be with me everyday, the problem is I just have to deal with it day by day. My job is to just take it day by day. Waking up everyday is tough for me, playing basketball is tough for me. I just have to keep my head and keep level.”
In his second season in the UK, Owumi led the Worcester to its first ever silverware, the BBL Trophy in March and the BBL Playoffs title in May – all while continuing to wrestle with his own enduring demons.
“Anything can trigger [a reaction] so I have to keep a level head,” he said after his club’s successful BBL playoff quarter-final. “I can see something bad happen, I can see something on TV and it triggers anything, sometimes it’s like a ticking time bomb. But my team-mates understand, they just understand when I go off and understand what it is so I have a lot of support and I appreciate that.”
That support has been one of the main reasons Owumi feels so welcome in Worcester.
After growing up in Nigeria and moving to Boston via London before attending four different schools in his four years of college, ahead of his professional career, Owumi has only known a nomadic existence. The stability the UK has offered him is clearly important, off as much as on the court, as is the fact he can make himself understood.
He added, “I have been a journeyman since I was 18 as far as basketball, going from school to school, and as you get older you don’t want to be doing that any more. The good thing about it is that it is an English-speaking country. I really love it here and the fans have supported me on and off the court. When you go crazy in a language they don’t know people might think, ‘he’s a madman.’ I don’t really have to apologize, they just understand, and they have to listen to what I am saying.”
Owumi’s story is certainly one worth listening to, or in this case reading. From his initial journey into Libya, the terror he experienced firsthand and his struggle for survival to the great human spirit shown by the Egyptian people, it is one to captivate any reader.
It certainly isn’t your typical tale of a baller overseas. And it isn’t finished yet.
Photos via Ville Vuorinen