… How a former college soccer player ended up in the Olympic basketball arena
Will Voigt grew up in Vermont, played college soccer in California and moved to Idaho earlier this summer. But he hasn’t been home much since then, and he won’t be until after the Olympics. He’s been too busy working: Will Voigt is the coach of the Nigerian men’s national basketball team – the D’Tigers.
This is more than the most unexpected job of Voigt’s career. It may be the most unusual marriage of any coach and any country in the entire Olympic Games.
“What are the odds,” said Fran Voigt, his father, “that a little white guy from a little town in Vermont who never played college or professional ball would be selected to coach the Nigerian team?”
The odds of Nigeria winning a medal in Rio de Janeiro next month might be even longer. That would be the single biggest shocker in the history of Olympic basketball. As the lowest-ranked team, Nigeria’s goal is to become the first African country ever to get into the knockout round, and they’re aware of how improbable that sounds. “Obviously,” said captain Ike Diogu, “nobody believes we can come out of our group.”
That they’re even playing in the Olympics is almost as remarkable as how the Nigerians ended up with a 39-year-old, soft-spoken, baby-faced American as their coach. This has been Voigt’s full-time job for the last year, and every day he asks himself the obvious existential question: “How the heck did I end up here?”
It’s a wild story that continues in Rio after multiple stops in basketball hinterlands on several continents. And it began in a town that was rural even for Vermont. Voigt grew up on what used to be a dairy farm in Cabot, where he was one of 18 kids in the graduating class of his tiny high school, which was one of the smallest in the state. “There were more cows than people,” said his former coach Steve Pratt.
Still, people in Cabot sensed that Voigt would do something interesting with his life in part because of who his parents are. His father, Fran Voigt, founded the New England Culinary Institute. His mother, Ellen Bryant Voigt, was Vermont’s poet laureate and won a MacArthur genius fellowship last year for her poetry. “The gene pool,” said his father, “would not have anticipated this.”
Voigt went to Pomona College, a Division III school in California, where he played on the soccer team. His parents can still remember their response when they asked what he would major in and he told them he wanted to be a basketball coach: “Say what?” Fran Voigt said.
But he once explained to his mother why he wanted to coach basketball rather than the other sports he played. “He was always interested in the strategy,” Ellen Bryant Voigt said. “He was the point guard on the basketball team, the catcher on the baseball team and the center striker on the soccer team. He wanted to be right in the thick of it and make strategic decisions—which clearly you can do and need to do in a basketball game.”
Voigt’s surprising career in professional basketball began with an internship with the Los Angeles Clippers. It stalled during the 1999 NBA lockout, so he worked for a data-warehousing company. It continued with the Clippers when the lockout ended—but he still kept the job with the data-warehousing company.
Then he moved to San Antonio to be video coordinator for the Spurs. At the time, the Spurs’ front office was stocked with future coaches and general managers, and many of them had peculiar backgrounds. Voigt’s was the most unexpected of them all.
“It’s like me wanting to be a water-polo player,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Voigt soaked up Popovich’s wisdom—but not only at work. They were roommates, too. Voigt found himself in need of a place to stay in the middle of the NBA season, and Popovich let him crash in his guest room for a month.
He moved out, left the Spurs in 2001 and soon became a basketball nomad. For his first head-coaching job, Voigt went to Norway for what he thought would be a week. It turned out to be three years. He was lured back to the U.S. for a magical run with a semi-pro team called the Vermont Frost Heaves that was founded by Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff. He later relocated to China for a job with the Shanxi Brave Dragons.
Voigt is now coaching Nigeria in part because of that peripatetic career. He coached the Bakersfield Jam in the NBA’s D-League from 2009 to 2014—the longest Voigt has stayed in one place since college—and had key Nigerian national players on his teams there.
But even before then, Voigt became friends with Masai Ujiri, the Nigerian-born general manager of the Toronto Raptors. When Ujiri began setting up basketball camps in his native country, Voigt was one of the first volunteers. He worked camps in Zaria, Abuja and Lagos and impressed Ujiri by venturing to smaller cities hours away on his off days. “A lot of people ask a hundred questions,” Ujiri said, “which you’re supposed to do.” Voigt didn’t. “Will was just, like, ‘Let’s go,’” he said. “He’s one of those explorer types.”
For all the rules in Olympic sports, there are none that govern the nationality of coaches, and the result is a lot of arrangements that make as much sense as the coach of Nigeria being from Vermont. It’s one of the strange realities of every Olympics that gets overshadowed by the spectacular theatrics on fields and courts, on the track and in the water: If you look away from the action, you find people whose paths to the Olympics were incredible in their own right.
Voigt had been to Nigeria before and has been to Nigeria since, but the country’s basketball officials came to Dallas to interview him last year. He was offered the job in June. Olympic qualifying began in August. His contract ran through September. That meant Nigeria had to win the continental tournament known as AfroBasket or it would almost certainly have another new coach—and Nigeria had never before won AfroBasket.
Africa typically only gets one basketball team in the Olympics. That team is usually Angola, which opened the Barcelona Games with a nightmarish loss to the Dream Team. The few people who remember the Nigerians’ first Olympic appearance in 2012 might recall them the same way. “When you think about us,” Diogu said, “all you think about is us losing to the USA by 80 points.” It was actually 83 points: Team USA won, 156-73, in the most lopsided Olympic basketball game of all time.
But last summer, with Ujiri watching from a bar in Senegal and Voigt’s parents streaming the games on a computer in Vermont, Voigt and the Nigerians beat out 15 other nations for Africa’s automatic Olympic entry. One of his trips to Nigeria since then was for a celebration at Aso Villa—the country’s White House.
Voigt’s job is part coach, part general manager. He cobbled together a coaching staff from Nigeria, Norway, and the NBA. He constructed a roster with current NBA players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Michael Gbinije and notable college players who are now scattered around the world. Then he had to figure out how they should play. Nigeria still plans to run and press, but Voigt wants the team to be more efficient in the halfcourt, too. “In the past, people would look at African teams and say they’re athletic, but they have no discipline and play wild,” said Voigt, wearing a Nigeria green polo shirt and matching G-Shock watch. “We’ve really worked hard to change that. That was our approach at AfroBasket, and that’s our approach for Rio.”
There are 12 nations playing Olympic men’s basketball, and Voigt has the Nigerians convinced they could be one of the eight that get out of the group round. In the last two Olympics, no team ranked lower than No. 20 survived the group stage, and Nigeria enters the Olympics ranked 25th in the world. But it’s not impossible. Last week, in fact, Nigeria beat No. 4 Argentina.
“This is not the Jamaican bobsled team,” Voigt said as he munched on a turkey sandwich afterward.
But the difference between the Nigerian and U.S. teams is roughly equivalent to the difference between basketball and badminton. One day last week, Nigeria rolled into practice riding 15-seater vans. Team USA walked off Wi-Fi-enabled luxury buses to hundreds of fans waiting in oppressive heat for their autographs.
Next week, Nigeria will play the U.S. in its last Olympic tuneup, a matchup of the only American head men’s basketball coaches in Rio: Voigt and Mike Krzyzewski. One of them has been a coach longer than the other has been alive.
That game will begin like other U.S. and Nigeria games: with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Arise, O Compatriots.” Voigt’s parents were delighted last year by what happened after AfroBasket’s final buzzer. Nigeria’s players lifted Voigt in the air, climbed the podium and, with iPhones in their hands and medals around their necks, belted out their country’s national anthem. Voigt knew every word.
“We’re going to sing the anthem with pride,” he said, “and I do.”