Former Raptors 905 Coach Wumi Agunbiade is Changing Canadian Basketball

0
45


Omowumi is far more than just a name for former Toronto Raptors 905 coach, Omowumi “Wumi” Agunbiade. For the 28-year-old Nigerian-Canadian, it’s a purpose.

The name comes from her Yoruba heritage and means “I love children.” As she’s now proving, her family named her right.

For the past year, Agunbiade has been giving back to her community. She started a high school basketball scouting service known as Hoopers Loop that helps bring attention to Canadian girls basketball. It’s the kind of program that Agunbiade said she never really had when she was coming up through the girls basketball system a decade ago.

Back in 2010, Canadian girls basketball was incredibly diluted, Agunbiade said. The country’s top female athletes were scattered throughout the country rarely playing against comparable talent.

Today, Canadian girls basketball is entirely different. When Crestwood and Niagara took the court on March 8 for Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association’s championship game, there were five girls committed to high-major collegiate programs and three girls ranked among ESPN’s top 100 players in their respective classes.

Despite the elite talent, though, there’s been a void within Canadian girls basketball. While boys basketball is filled with scouting services, AAU programs, and the like, Canadian girls basketball is still relatively quiet.

“Growing up I didn’t really have that many athletes to look up to,” said 17-year-old Aaliyah Edwards, a Crestwood Preparatory senior committed to UConn for next year. “Coach Wumi definitely filled that void.”

When Agunbiade was in ninth grade she remembers going to her first big AAU tournament in Michigan. It was the kind of tournament that children dream about playing in. The sidelines were filled with college coaches hoping to find their program’s next star. But for Agunbiade this was all foreign. Her parents, Nigerian immigrants, were still learning about basketball, let alone the intricacies of basketball recruiting.

When her mailbox started filling up with scholarship offers, Agunbiade didn’t have a mentor to turn to who could help her through the process.

Ultimately, she decided to play her collegiate career at Duquesne University where she was a four-year starter under Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. She graduated as the only player in Duquesne history to score 1,700 points and record 900 rebounds and eventually moved overseas to play professionally in Europe.

Just three years into her professional career, early-onset arthritis in her left knee forced her out of the game, and she began looking for coaching options, first at the University of Pittsburgh, where her former coach McConnell-Serio was working.

“She was someone the players could relate to her so easily,” McConnell-Serio said of Agunbiade who took a job as a graduate assistant for the Panthers. “I think her personality is a magnetic personality. People are drawn to her.”

After nearly three years at Pittsburgh, Agunbiade was ready to move on. She had another coaching opportunity lined up, but like so many Canadians trying to work in the United States, it came down to getting a visa, and Agunbiade wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

While her visa was ultimately approved, it took too long to come in the mail, and just like that, the opportunity slipped through her hands.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I remember calling home and I got on the phone with my dad and I was just super disappointed. … He explained to me that that was just a glitch. You know, that was just a glitch within my journey.”

Forced to return home, she reached out to her former high school coach Charles Kissi who recommended her to Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela for a coaching position.

“We just immediately struck up this great rapport and within a week or two (I) decided that she would be the person that would fill that role for me,” Mahlalela remembered. “I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of coaches in my time, and she’s one of the special ones.”

It was an incredible opportunity that never would have come had Agunbiade got her visa on time. Today, she calls that moment a “blessing in disguise” because it sent her on a new journey.

After a season with the 905, Agunbiade returned to her prep basketball roots. She remembers walking into a high school gym in October 2019 and having flashbacks to her high school days.

“I was literally shocked,” she said, remembering the talent of the girls on the court. “Watching them, something triggered within me. Right there I almost saw myself in the game.”

Since then Agunbiade has been trying to give those girls the kind of mentorship she longed for when she was growing up. She’ll drive from game to game with her notebook in hand, looking for ways to help Canada’s burgeoning girls basketball community.

For girls like Edwards, Agunbiade has been an invaluable resource. The two chat about everything from how to improve on the court to what it’s like being a female basketball player in — and even what to watch during quarantine.

She’s like a big sister, said Ro Russell, Crestwood’s girls basketball program director.

Canadian girls basketball is showing no signs of slowing down. Crestwood has two girls ranked in ESPN’s top 75 in the class of 2021 and a 6-foot-1 incoming freshman named Toby Fournier who can already dunk. As the country’s talent continues to grow, Agunbiade is going to play a vital role in bringing attention and mentorship to help shepherd these girls onto college and eventually the national stage.

Aaron Rose covers the Toronto Raptors and Canadian Basketball for Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @aaronbenrose or on Facebook @AllRaptors.