Rena Wakama, proud daughter of Nigerian natives and ex-Jasper coach, leads nation to glory


History with an exclamation point sums up the title-winning run for the Nigeria women’s basketball team at the 2023 AfroBasket tournament. One of the catalysts was head coach Rena Wakama, a 31-year-old coach who spent the last six seasons on staff for the Manhattan College women’s hoops team.

For the fans of a proud sporting nation, the jury was still out on Wakama, who had never assumed head coaching duties before. However, Wakama laid that all to rest with the blistering showing from her team in Rwanda.

The 12-team field was dominated by Nigeria, who won their five games by an average margin of 20 points.

“I am just a vessel pumping confidence in them and they are performing,” Wakama told The News Times about her team. “It’s not a credit to me; it’s a credit to them.”

Wakama is one of their own, too. Although born in North Carolina, Wakama’s parents hail from Okrika, an island in Rivers State, Nigeria. She has memories of going back to visit every year.

“That’s how it got started,” Wakama said. “Learning about my family and their culture.”

Wakama and her team were on a mission to continue a hoops dynasty that includes four consecutive AfroBasket titles since 2015. The national team nicknamed D’Tigress has won their last 24 games in AfroBasket competition. The numbers don’t lie, and with Wakama now leading the program the winning refuses to stop.

“I’m aware of the great history and tradition of winning,” Wakama told the media before the tournament.  “I will protect and fight for our girls and keep Nigeria at the forefront of excellence.”

Wakama has been part of her share of firsts, including firsts in a long time, such as helping lead the Jaspers to back to back Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship games the past two seasons as an assistant coach. At AfroBasket, she was the only female head coach and the first woman to coach the championship squad since 1966.

Before studying the X’s and O’s, Wakama even built up her credentials playing four years at Western Carolina University in NCAA Division I before transitioning to pro ball in the United Kingdom and Africa. She even dabbled as a player for the Nigeria national team for a short stretch.

Her former players in the backcourt at Manhattan marvel at how she comports herself as a leader, coach and person.

As positional coach for the guards, Wakama played a role in the development of All-MAAC performers Dee Dee Davis and Brazil Harvey-Carr.

That will to win vaulted Wakama’s career in Riverdale from director of basketball operations for two seasons to four seasons as an assistant on Heather Vulin’s staff.

“She brought contagious energy and everyday and was a major part of why we thrived,” former Manhattan guard Emily LaPointe told The Riverdale Press.

The grind of coaching is hard, and it may be even harder to rise up as Division I head coach. Only 360 people in the world qualify in the women’s game, including Sahar Nusseibeh, a former Manhattan assistant under Vulin who became the women’s head coach at Canisius University in 2021.

Nusseibeh includes herself in the fast growing fan club of Wakama. In fact, she was all in from the day they started working together in six years ago.

“It is obvious and pretty quick to realize that Rena is special,” Nusseibeh said. “You can pick her out of a lineup quick.”

Just watching the interviews with Wakama alone stood, according to Nusseibeh. It was hard not to draw parallels between Wakama and Vulin, who enters her eighth season as the Jaspers’ head coach. They both have what Nusseibeh calls the “It Factor.”

“Coach Vulin has always been a champion for women coaches, especially her own staff,” Nuesseibeh said. “She gives a lot of ownership to her staff to let them grow.”

The dream of becoming a D-I hoops coach remains in the works for Wakama. She will serve as an assistant coach at Stony Brook University next season.

“She has what it takes,” LaPointe said of Wakama’s head coaching prospects.

In Rwanda, Wakama owned the scene and directly influenced a Nigeria team who plays the game with a passion and youthful energy. The post-Championship festivities included a team visit on Aug. 7 to First Lady Oluremi Tinub, the wife of Nigeria president Bola Tinubu.

All they do is win and then win more.

“She was announced head coach and within a couple weeks she was out there,” Nusseibeh says of Wakama. “The fact that she is taking home a championship is remarkable.”

women's basketball, Rena Wakama, Nigeria, AfroBasket tournament, Manhattan College, Jaspers, coach