Patriots’ Ibeh hopes star turn in BAL will see his NBA dream realized

Despite years of injury setbacks since he burst onto the scene at the Texas Longhorns, Patriots BBC star Prince Ibeh is shining at the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and fighting for a long-awaited NBA breakthrough.

Ibeh, who was at Texas from 2012 to 2016, still has time on his side, but he had to overcome injury setbacks, like tearing his quadricep during the pre-draft process, which likely denied him the privilege of playing in the NBA.

He went on to play in the NBA G-League, as well as in Japan, the Philippines, Germany, and most recently back in England with the Plymouth Raiders.

However, the London-born Rwanda international feels he can make it in the world’s premier league, telling ESPN: “As I’ve gotten older and more professional, I’ve really put more time into taking care of my body and doing all of the things necessary to maintain my health — even going above and beyond.

“[An NBA move] is definitely still on the horizon. Even now, I’m not close to the player I’m going to be when this is all said and done. I’m still improving daily and there’s still a lot I have to improve on.

“I’ve seen the progress as time has gone on, so until I get to a point where I’m not getting better anymore, that’s always going to be on the horizon.”

Ibeh, a 26-year-old center, believes in the value of betting on himself. Therefore, he is unsurprised by Jermaine Cole’s transition from an ongoing multi-platinum rap career as J. Cole to playing as a shooting guard for the Patriots.

“Honestly, he’s such a down-to-earth person that at this point, I’ve kind of even forgotten about his celebrity status. He’s just another player on the team,” Ibeh said of Cole, who scored three points in his first two games for the tournament hosts.

“He’s really encouraging for the guys — he plays hard, he does the dirty work — so it’s easy to play alongside him.

“I’ve seen the videos — everyone has — of him playing with some of those guys in the NBA and training with his trainer. I knew he was capable. I didn’t know how serious he was about wanting to compete on a professional level, but [the potential was evident] from what I saw in those videos.”

After an 83-60 win over Rivers Hoopers, Patriots beat GNBC 78-72 in a closely-fought contest. An injury to Ibeh’s former Texas teammate Cameron Ridley prevented a reunion in the latter game, but he might well come up against another old Longhorns peer in the playoffs in Maputo’s Demarcus Holland.

“It’s just one of those crazy experiences that basketball brings about. It’s good to be able to see those guys again and see them playing and see all of us doing well. I was excited about playing [in the BAL], especially with this being the first time it’s around. Being a part of history is amazing,” Ibeh said.

While Ibeh was born in London and his family resides in Dallas, Rwanda is no longer far from home for him. Despite being of Nigerian heritage in addition to his Rwandan roots, he opted to represent the latter internationally and became a naturalised citizen. He was added to Rwanda’s roster in February.

He aims to contribute to the cause through his exploits for both club and country and is settling for nothing less than silverware with both.

“Both of my parents are of Nigerian descent, [but] I just recently became a naturalised Rwandan citizen in February. That was my first time playing with the national team and we built a good relationship, which led to me playing here,” he said.

“It was sort of a surprise. It came suddenly. I was contacted and I got to meet them and talk to them and they explained to me the vision and the goal surrounding Rwandan basketball and the vision they have for the future. After having gone through those talks, it sounded like something I wanted to be a part of.

“Whatever competitions it is that take place in the future, whether it be AfroBasket, BAL or anything of that sort, I would like to bring the championship home, so they [Rwanda] can experience that and it can help the growth in the country.”

While the 6ft 10 powerhouse believes that fans have yet to see the best of the Patriots, despite the fact that they wrapped up a playoff berth with relative ease.

“[The Rivers Hoopers win] was our first game together after practicing with each other for maybe two or three days. We’ve got to be around each other more and we’ve dealt with some adversity in our last game. All of that stuff just contributes to the progress the team makes,” he said.

Even as they head into what is likely to be their toughest game of the tournament to date against US Monastir on Saturday, Ibeh and his teammates cannot help but command respect.

Bound by individual and collective dreams, the new boys on the block among Africa’s basketball elite have proven beyond all doubt that victory against them will need to be taken by force.