Chima Moneke on Nigeria's win against USA, friendship with Danté Exum and more
Moneke talks beating Team USA, facing off against long-time friend Exum and signing in the ACB.
“I was singing both anthems and looking across the court and seeing my best friend, someone that I’ve been close with since 2010-2011. We talked about this moment a lot. It was just surreal.”
It may just have been an exhibition game, but for Chima Moneke, the recent game between Australia and Nigeria was a convergent milestone that brought together many facets of his winding basketball journey thus far.
Despite being only 25, his career has taken him across almost every continent. Australia remains a pivotal chapter in his memories as the place he began his basketball journey.
“I’ve had a unique childhood, I’ve had a unique story,” Moneke said. “Australia will always mean a lot to me because that’s where I started school. That’s where I graduated, and for basketball, that’s where I started playing basketball for real.
“I was 13 and moved back to the country for the second time, going to high school there, Year 9 was when I started playing for the Ginninderra Rats, and it was just surreal because I represented my state, represented my school and all the things I wanted to do in Australia.
“I envisioned myself representing Australia, but I think it worked out the way it was supposed to because no matter what, I’m Nigerian before I’m Australian - both of my parents are Nigerian, I was born in Nigeria, but at the time that I started basketball I always thought of it in the Australian sense, partly because I started there, and partly because the Nigerian program wasn’t really talked about like that. Things started to change in 2012 when they were in the Olympics, and I could see myself doing that, but I will always have love for Australia.”
Moneke’s time in Australia also allowed him to forge some lifelong friendships, one of those being one with current Australian Boomer, Danté Exum.
“[The first time I met Exum] was at the 2010 Under 16s [Australian Junior Championships]. He was playing for Vic Metro, I was playing for ACT. I heard all the hype, so at first I was a hater.
“I was like, ‘this guy can’t be as good as everyone says he is’ but then I think they beat us by like 55, they smoked us. I remember I had a hard foul on him, and I thought he was flopping and I was like, ‘ugh get up’ but he was actually hurt. I got him pretty good, and he didn’t complain or cry about it. He got up and after the game he shook my hand and I had respect for him after that. From there, I was a fan of his.”
Several years later, Exum would move schools to join forces with Moneke at Lake Ginninderra, where they would become both teammates and close friends. As Exum’s draft prospects grew, their relationship would remain steadfast.
“We’ve gotten closer as he’s gotten more famous. I remember his rookie year, I stayed with him for New Year’s when I was in Nebraska. He never switched up, he knew that people would be coming into his life just for who he is and what he does, so he stayed loyal to the people that were there before. He’s always been a good, real guy and whenever we’re both in LA I stay with him. That’s how close we are.”
Though Australia’s 39-point thumping of team Nigeria made for a one sided clash on the court, it remained a serendipitous moment for the pair, with the game even happening to fall on Exum’s 26th birthday.
“The game sucked, we got blown out, but it doesn’t really matter. Everything that happened after the game is what matters to me. You just can’t write a better story than that,” Moneke said.
Beating Team USA
What made the loss against Australia an easier to pill to swallow, was Nigeria’s historic win that had preceded it.
Nigeria, despite being a region flourishing with NBA talent, has had a limited history of success at the international level. In the lead up to Tokyo (only their third ever time competing in basketball at the Olympics), the group have been vocal about their intentions to stamp their arrival on the FIBA scene. With seven NBA players in uniform, and former NBA head coach Mike Brown leading the team, the new look squad were able to do just that, shocking the US in the first of their Olympic tuneup games, 90-87. It was the first win by an African team over the #1 ranked country in history.
“We’re finally going to get the respect we deserve. From now on Nigeria will be respected in everything we do,” Moneke said.
“The USA game is history that can never be taken away. No matter the situation of it being an exhibition game, I just know that with the amount of people that were watching, the things that we did and the way we did it [that it was special]. We play so hard in practice, I knew that they would come out and relax and play this slow tempo and try to beat us offensively, and we felt like we were going to be the most physical and most athletic team in the Olympics, and the best defensive team in the Olympics. We played way too hard in practice to let that kind of tempo destroy us.
“I knew we’d be in the game, but I didn’t expect to win, I’ll be honest, until the fourth quarter came. It’s crazy, and after we won it was like ‘yeah we just beat the US’, but then it was like we didn’t even play as well as we wanted to.
“I know we hit a lot of threes but there was a lot of things we could’ve done better, and we weren’t satisfied. We were happy, but we weren’t satisfied or surprised.”
Facing off against Team USA is a moment of stardom, even for seasoned professionals, but with NBA aspirations looming, Moneke couldn’t afford to see America’s stars as anything other than his equals on the court.
“Obviously, when I’m warming up and I see Kevin Durant warming up, I’m looking at him like ‘that’s really KD…’, but there were no nerves in front of me. I don’t feel like there’s anyone out there that plays basketball without me thinking I don’t belong on the same court as them.”
Not seeing much of the ball in his role on the team, it’s the defensive end of the floor where Moneke has had to make his presence felt, and down the stretch of the game, a series of his strong defensive contests help secure victory.
“I think the moment that really changed everything for me was in the fourth quarter. I remember I picked up Dame on the right wing on a fast break opportunity, and he was sizing me up, and I’m thinking ‘I’ve seen this plenty of times, he’s going to sidestep to the right at some point’, and he just picked up his dribble and swung the ball, and I’m like ‘okay, Dame chose not to attack me when the floor was spread. Okay… there’s something about me that’s working’. I was locked in.”
“I’ve played against Jayson Tatum before, we work out with the same trainer, Bradley Beal as well, Zach Lavine as well. When I did that to Dame I was ready, and I remember I got a stop on Jayson Tatum, I contested his mid-range and he missed it.”
“Then KD, I contested his midrange, and he had a runner on back to back possessions that he missed, but then he hit the tough three over me and I was like ‘that’s what KD does’. That confirmed I belong, even though I already knew I did, and I can guard anyone in the world I believe. I can make it tough on anyone in the world.”
Announced on Tuesday, Moneke was one of three final cuts to bring Nigeria’s roster down to 12 for Tokyo. It means falling agonizingly short to debuting in his first Olympic games, particularly given his selection to the group of 15 was out of an expansive pool of 45 initial players at the country’s training camp. As rewarding as the experience was for him, even sans the Olympic opportunity, Moneke wants to make sure that with any future opportunities with the Nigerian national team, he’s not just there to make up the numbers.
“Obviously I'm gutted I didn't make the team, but I could kind of see the writing on the wall the last few days with how I was being played. Overall it was a great experience, and I'm grateful for it, but if I ever get invited back, I'll assess the situation before committing, because I want to give myself an actual chance to make the team. I don't want to go there just to say this was a good experience and not really have a chance to make the team, so I'm grateful, but if it doesn't make sense for me to play again, then it is what it is.”
Signing in Spain
In my interview with Moneke roughly this time last year, he had just wrapped up a successful campaign with Quimper in France’s Pro B League, and had subsequently signed with Orléans in the first division Pro A league for the next season. This is what he had to say on the move:
“Obviously I don't want to get ahead of myself, but this year, if I play the way I feel like I'm going to, and have the season I hope we have, then the interest will be from almost every country. Let's see.”
Reflecting in the season that was now, it’s fair to say he lived up to his own expectations. In only 23.4 minutes per game, Moneke averaged 13.7 points and 6.5 rebounds on an exceptionally efficient 62.8% from the field. Despite the jump in competition, he would finish with the league’s 2nd highest PER (24.3) and finish sixth in the whole league in EVAL.
“The season in Orleans was perfect - exactly what I needed. It was up and down, a rollercoaster at times, with injuries, with COVID-19, the season getting pushed back, getting new players, and things like that, but ultimately was better than I could’ve ever imagined.
“We made the playoffs when no one else expected us to, even our coaches. Their goal was to not get relegated, and we made the playoffs playing with 7 pro’s for probably a month in March to April, then Tahj [McCall] came and then we played with 8 pro’s til the end of May. We dealt with a lot, and personally I was happy with the strides I made and the things I was able to do, and I was ready to move on from France and take on a new challenge, which is what I’m doing now.”
That new challenge comes via Bàsquet Manresa, a Spanish basketball team that plays in the Liga ACB. The signing is the latest milestone in Moneke’s unabating rise to the upper echelons of the sport in Europe, and he hopes one of the final stops before knocking on the door for an NBA opportunity.
“I’m heading closer and closer to reaching all my goals and competition-wise, it doesn’t get better. I want to prove to people that still want to see more, that I’m as good as you think, or if you don’t think I’m that good, that I’m better than what you think.”
Signing in Spain, representing his country, beating Team USA, and getting to face off against his childhood friend. It’s fair to say that July has been a successful month of achievements. But there’s still plenty of goals to tick off for Moneke.
“These past three weeks, but especially this past week has been incredible.
“By no means am I satisfied by that, I want more. I want to play against [Exum] in the NBA and the Olympics, I want to do all of that. I’m 25, I’m a late bloomer in this game, I have a lot more to do and I’m going to get way better, so I know that this is not the peak for me at all.”