Qaddafi’s Point Guard by Alex Owumi and Daniel Paisner is a fascinating read, charting Owumi’s life from his childhood in Nigeria through school and college in the States to playing professional basketball, first in Europe, then in Libya and Egypt.
In the middle of all that, there’s the small detail of the Arab Spring, of Owumi (staying in a plush apartment owned by Mutassim Qaffadi, one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons) witnessing murders, rape and suffering in Libya’s civil war, before making a risky escape from the country and finally returning to his family in the US.
The book reads in many ways as an extended apology from Alex to his family – and his mother in particular. Having grown up in Nigeria, playing hoops with his brothers, Owumi’s family move to Boston. Clearly a very bright kid, Alex tells how he consistently ignores the advice of his mother – and pretty much everyone else – making decision after decision about his future which turn out almost uniformly badly and very nearly lead to his untimely death more than once.
Owumi makes his name in a tough High School not only as a great athlete but also an outstanding scholar (even appearing in a TV documentary), but he ignores all advice and, rather than going to an Ivy League school, heads off to Georgetown University in Washington in the hope that he can have it all: american football, basketball and a medical degree. In the event, trying for both sports gets him neither so Alex bails out after a year (and he can’t say he wasn’t warned).
The next couple of years go in a similar vein. Owumi decides to focus on basketball, first at a Rhode Island community college, then in New York, and finally – and most bizarrely – heading off to Mississippi having taken it upon himself to only go to a college that would also take his slightly-less-talented friend as well.
By this point, his friends and family had probably given up on the idea of Alex ever taking the good advice he’s given, but his move to play professional basketball in France seems amazingly sensible. The alternative, he explains, was to play D-League in the US, which on the plus side gives more exposure to NBA scouts, but pays a lot less – between $2000 and $5000 a month.
After a spell back in the US (and hitching up with a girl who, from Owumi’s description, sounds far more understanding that he has any right to expect), Owumi heads to Macedonia. Unimpressed with the local fans’ chants of “nigger”, “Gorilla” and “Ku Klux Klan”, not to mention on-court riots and street robbery, Alex takes the obvious next step: go and play for Colonel Qaddafi in Libya just at the time half the Arab world was erupting. Again, he’s warned – begged – not to go. Again, he goes anyway.
Although his family and girlfriend may have despaired, it’s lucky for us that Owumi headed to Libya as his eye-witness account of the uprising gives us real insight.
Within a couple of weeks of his arrival, Owumi is trapped in his plush apartment in Benghazi, watching the protests that fermented civil war, seeing the security forces fire on the crowd, standing there as a neighbour is beaten almost to death and another brutally raped, before making his escape to Egypt and finally back to his family in the US.
We see the overnight transformation of a confident young man who sees himself in charge of his own destiny to terrified fugitive. With no power and no water, Owumi drinks from the toilet, ekes out a rapidly diminishing supply of food and prays for a phone signal, all the while hiding behind the steel front door of his apartment as the world-shaking events continue on the streets outside. It’s a salutary reminder of how quickly our sense of control over our lives can crumble when events conspire against us.
His escape to freedom – which could so easily have resulted in his death on any number of occasions – provides more excitement than most of us would want to see in a lifetime, never mind over a few days.
We can only hope that Owumi’s latest decision to play for Worcester Wolves in the British Basketball League proves more successful (and less eventful), but Qaddafi’s Point Guard remains a riveting read about a basketball journey few of us could even imagine.