The Olympics are a premeire event that only some athletes get the opportunity to compete in. Joanne Aluka-White, an assistant coach for women’s basketball, was able to participate in the 2004 Olympics by playing basketball with Nigeria.
After beginning her basketball career in middle school, Aluka-White said she “wasn’t very good.” She improved enough to continue playing in high school, but not at the level she aspired to be at.
In the summer between her freshman and sophomore years in high school, her friend Itoro Umoh groomed her into a starting player.
“She picked me up every day over the summer and we went and played basketball. That’s how I grew as a basketball player. She told me certain things to do and we’d go play grown men. She would pick me up at one o’clock, we wouldn’t get back until eight o’clock. We just played all day, that’s where I grew as a player,” Aluka-White said.
After finishing up her high school career, Aluka-White continued playing at Middle Tennessee. During her first year in Murfreesboro, and under new head coach Stephany Smith, the team made it to the NCAA tournament and faced a dominant Duke team.
“We got our heads blown off, but it was exciting because that was the first time in a while that Middle went to the NCAA Tournament and won the OVC Tournament,” Aluka-White said.
Once she had attained her undergrad degree and Master’s degree, Aluka-White went on to play abroad in Portugal. When she returned to the States, Aluka-White received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: playing for the Olympics.
Both of her parents had migrated to the United States from Nigeria to attend college, this qualified Aluka-White to be a member of the Nigerian National team. Umoh, the same friend that molded her into a player back in high school, was already playing for the squad. When the team was looking for players to fill out their roster for the Olympic games, Umoh recommended her former teammate.
“It was a great opportunity that came out of nowhere. It was a blessing. That type of opportunity doesn’t happen to a lot of people. For that to happen without even me really trying, I was really fortunate,” Aluka-White said.
Playing for the Nigerian team gave her an opportunity for more traveling while playing a sport she loved. After traveling around for tournaments, finally, Aluka-White arrived in Greece for the Olympics.
Growing up, her parent’s stressed the importance of education. Playing basketball, especially for her parent’s home country, allowed her family to connect.
“Basketball was never supposed to be a thing for me,” Aluka-White said. “My parents really stressed education. I could have been a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer, that’s the direction I was supposed to go in. For him to see me experience a lot of success from being a collegiate athlete, going on to play professionally and then also represent his country, our country, in the Olympics was really special.”
While training with the national team two years later, she made the decision to coach instead of play.
“I feel good about what I was able to do as an athlete. I had the opportunity to travel the world, experience different cultures, meet a lot of different people. I got a chance to sight-see and do a lot that I wouldn’t have been able to without basketball. It wasn’t a hard decision. I wanted to coach,” Aluka-White said.
She spent the next six years coaching down in Miami. During her time there, she developed her coaching style.
“I was able to find my voice, find who I was as a coach and how I wanted to be with young people,” Aluka-White said.
Eventually, with having two kids and no family close by, Aluka-White sought to move closer to family. Charlotte, which is about three hours away from her mom, piqued her interest. After a conversation on the phone with Cara Consuegra, the two just clicked.
“I got her and she got me as far as why we’re in it. It wasn’t just about wins and losses, it was about developing young women, relationships, impacting lives and empowering young women to be positive reflections of this university and of this basketball program,” Aluka-White said.
Going out on a limb, she took a job in Charlotte without her husband having a job.
“Within two days, he had two or three interviews lined up. It was a God thing, it wasn’t just for us. God has his ways of putting you in the best situations without you knowing,” Aluka-White said.
Though she loves basketball and winning, the personal aspect of the team is something she enjoys as well.
“I love seeing players develop. I love that relationship part of it, I love watching young people develop during their time here. How you come in is not how you leave, on the court, off the court and in the classroom,” Aluka-White said.
With as many seasons under her belt, there is still an excitement in the air with a new season looming.
“It’s not easy and it can be tiring,” Aluka-White said. “I’m excited about what this season holds for our girls and what they can expereince as players.”