Using sport to change lives

  • Brandon Okpalobi, founder of Dibia Athletic Development (Photograph supplied)
  • Bermuda students at a Dibia Skills Camp (Photograph supplied)
  • On court: Brandon Okpalobi and students at a Dibia Skills Camp in Bermuda

In Asaba, Nigeria, Brandon Okpalobi learnt about giving back. He was there in 2007 as his father, Chief Chuka Okpalobi, built a community centre for the village that shaped him.

Then 25, living in relative privilege in the United States, he took what he was witnessing to heart.

“I just appreciate everything now — small things like having grass, having running water,” the 36-year-old said.

“I think we as people in other places, we really take things for granted. We’re very wasteful and we don’t appreciate how easy our life is compared to other people. All of that really taught me a great life lesson. It helped me understand that I’m very blessed; that opportunity, for me, is much easier than for people in other parts of the world and that if you work hard in any situation you can come out positive on the other side.”

It is a message he regularly shares through Dibia Athletic Development, the company he founded in 2011. Based in Miami, it prepares athletes “for the most advanced level of play on the court, field, and in life”. Dibia Skills Camps are held in Miami, Dallas, New Orleans and, since 2012, Bermuda.

The opportunity came through his “college roommate and best friend” Steven Simons, a former player with the national basketball team.

Mr Okpalobi comes twice a year to motivate and teach basketball to students aged 7 to 16. Helping coach at the session now on at the Berkeley Institute are “kids doing college basketball who partnered with us in 2012”.

“That first camp went really well,” he said. “We did a spring clinic the following year, in 2013, and had a really good turnout so we said we’ll continue to do this each year.”

Part of what Dibia does is help athletes understand that they need “a Plan B”. The idea came through his own experience. The computer information systems major “walked-on” to the University of Miami basketball team; by his senior year he was captain.

“I didn’t get any major division one basketball scholarship offers. I got a one-day try out as my only way to play basketball. The funny thing is I had my appendix removed on the day of tryouts. They gave me two weeks to recover. I tried out and made the team.

“Whatever sport you’re playing in college, you believe, at some level, you’re going to make it to the pros. In my junior year I realised I was not, so I realised I had to take my major more seriously and network with [people who could] potentially give me a job once I graduated. I look back now and notice a lot of guys did not take that approach. I know guys now who are still trying to figure out what they’re going to do; they didn’t have a Plan B, they weren’t prepared for life after sport.

“We wanted to change that so when we started our organisation our main focus was mentorship and using sports as a tool; our mission is to promote excellence through athletics.

“And then we decided the best way to impact more kids would be to do a camp. That way we can see a large number of kids for a week and hopefully create some change. We work with them to focus on discipline. With discipline we get them to believe they can do anything they want to do.

“Dibia Skills Camps are designed to push players to their limits, motivate them towards their dreams, and leave them with the confidence to excel in every area of life. Each year, hundreds of children enjoy the opportunity to expand their talents and interests, build self-confidence and create lasting memories and friendships.”

About 100 Bermuda youngsters attend the camps each year. Mr Okpalobi is now hoping to introduce Dibia’s charity arm, and take his work here a step further.

“With Dream, we help youth through education. We started doing after-school programming, then moved on to weekend stem enrichment. We offer scholarships to college, we fight childhood hunger and we do a summer of dreams. We recently met with Premier David Burt and sports minister Michael Weeks, to see how we bring our non-profit to Bermuda. It’s great to help kids on the sport side but education is a struggle everywhere.”

In Miami, the charity has worked to reduce gun crime, something he has seen rise since his first visit here.

“Bermuda is near and dear to my heart. People here have opened their arms to my organisation and myself so anything we can do to better the island, we’re trying to accomplish.”

Students at this week’s camp will learn “the fundamentals of basketball” and hear from “local authors and business people” how the sports discipline helped them succeed in their various careers.

“We provide kids with lunch, life skills and expertise in high-level coaching,” Mr Okpalobi said.

“I’m looking forward to it and also going to Snowy’s every day and getting a nice fish sandwich at Art Mel’s, although people are trying to get me to join the Woody’s bandwagon.”

The Dibia Skills Camp runs until Friday, from 9am until 3pm, at the Berkeley Institute. For more information e-mail or call 786-543-8826