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Flames Feature: For The Love Of The Game
Fifteen seems so young, but for some it is time to strike out on their own. Such was the case for Roli-Ann Andarina Edward Ogharanemeye Nikagbatse, better known as "Roll" to her teammates and "Roli" to Liberty's fans. Roli-Ann means "Peace arrived home" in a tribal language.
"I started playing basketball when I was 11 years old," said the native of Berlin, Germany. "When I was 15, I left home and moved to the southern part of Germany in order to play with a team that offered a bigger competitive challenge so that I could get better."
The European system for education and athletics are not intertwined as is the case in America. To compete athletically in Germany, you belong to a club or a team and compete for them. Education is a totally separate entity which does not always respect a young person's desire to excel at sports.
"I had a few problems with the system and the conflicts between athletics and education, but it really was not too bad for me," said the Liberty junior. "I actually tried a lot of sports before I settled on basketball as my favorite, but I like a lot of different sports. I played field hockey, table tennis, soccer, ran track and cross country and even swam for a while. I equally good at soccer and basketball, but I chose to concentrate on basketball.
"We have a pretty athletic family. My father made the decision to stay at home with the kids when my parents began their family and my mom kept her position as a secretary at the German Institute of Economics. He took us to the park every day after school and my mom was with us on the weekends. I guess the result was that we were pretty active and involved."
Both parents speak five languages, but not all the same ones. Ann-Kristin is a native of Finland and Edward is from Nigeria. They met in Berlin, married and decided to stay in Germany to raise their family. Roli is fluent in German and English and can understand Swedish. Languages come natural to all the siblings. Her brother is fluent in three languages and likes to remind her of that when they are together.
Misan is two years older and has played professional basketball in Italy, Germany and Greece for the past six years. He has been to the states twice to participate in NBA pre-draft evaluation camps as a potential draft pick. He learned Italian during his playing time and likes to pick on Roli for knowing something she does not, a third language. It's a brother thing.
"My brother is a very good player," said his proud sister. "His real claim to fame came during the World Championships when Germany was playing China. He dunked right over Yao Ming and he is only six-four."
Roli's interest in the American collegiate system is a direct result of the basketball skill possessed by her brother. During his recruitment by Rutgers prior to his pro days, Roli learned a lot about how things were done differently in America. In addition, Rutgers became aware that he had a sister who was playing on age-group national teams and they began recruiting her also.
To increase her competitive level again and to gain attention from other American colleges, Roli and her parents decided it would be best for her to spend her final prep year in America. She came to Patterson High School in the Western mountains of North Carolina, as an exchange student for one of the top prep girls programs in the nation. Eleven players from her prep team signed to play basketball at Division I schools.
A number of schools did come calling and the competitive intensity helped her raise the level of her game so the basic goals were reached. But as is often the case with international student-athletes, visa problems were making it impossible to pursue her dream to play collegiately.
Liberty had begun showing interest in the talented athlete through various recruiting channels and when visa issues presented a roadblock, the response was "We can make this work." This was still before the Flames were at the top of her list and was prior to Nikagbatse's first visit to campus.
"I was denied six times before Liberty entered the picture," says Nikagbatse. "I certainly hoped they could help and they did. Liberty has a special department that works with international students and knew exactly how to get through all the issues and provide what was needed to get the job done. After they had done that, I felt obligated to make a commitment with them. I actually signed before I ever visited to see where I was going."
Roli has been at Liberty for three years now and has certainly made her impression on the program. Last season, she was selected as the inaugural winner of the Big South Conference Defensive Player of the Year award and is still considered the preeminent stopper in the league.
"I love to play and defense is part of the game," said Roli. "Defense wins games, offense sells tickets. I know that is a cliché, but it is true. A player can have six steals, take three charges and add five assists, but the notice will still go to the player who scores 30. I can accept that, but those of us who play understand that teams do not win without defense and offense. And we all want to win on this team!"
Roli's little sister, Ogbemi, is 19 and a model in Australia. She was an excellent basketball player until she decided to create her own identity apart from sports. Certainly this qualifies as a family that has experienced the world. But they did get to gather back together for Christmas for the first time in several years.
"I just returned from a whirlwind trip home," said Roli. "It is the first time since I came over four years ago that I have been able to go home at Christmas and it was great to see everyone. I have been home a couple of times during the summer. My mom and dad have not been over here yet, nor has my sister. My brother has been in America a couple of times for NBA tryouts. It is tough to be away all the time, but it's not really homesickness. I got over that way back when I moved away to play basketball in high school."
The plan is to return to Germany this summer to play on the national team at the European Championships. She has already played on Germany's under 16, 18 and 20-year-old national teams so it is not unreasonable to think that this goal will be reached also.
"International basketball has been a great way for me to see the world," said Roli. "But before we get there, we have a lot of work to do with this team. We have been challenged by our schedule this season, but hopefully that has prepared us for our conference season. There is no doubt that we want to make it 11-straight championships. That is why I wanted to come here."
By Kevin Keys
Assistant Athletics Director for External Operations