Born in Nigeria, Alex Owumi moved to the United States at age 11 and grew up in Boston dreaming of becoming a pro basketball player. His dream came true — then got very, very weird. After a college basketball career at Alcorn State, he headed overseas to play for teams in France, Macedonia, and Libya. In Libya, Owumi found himself playing in Benghazi on a team funded by the Qaddafi family, living in an apartment owned by the Qaddafi family — and then, shortly, in the middle of the 2011 revolution to overthrow the Qaddafi family. After being stranded in his apartment without food or water for weeks, he was able to escape to Egypt...where, instead of immediately flying home, he joined another basketball team and led them to a league championship, winning postseason MVP honors. Owumi covers all this and more in his book Qaddafi's Point Guard, which came out this week.
Can you take us through your arrival in Libya, and how you realized who you were playing for?
Alex Owumi: When I first got to Libya, when I got off the plane, it was a warm welcome with a whole bunch of fans. I didn't realize until I got into the apartment and I saw pictures of Muammar Qaddafi and family pictures of Qaddafi and his kids and grandkids, and that's when I asked the question, "Whose apartment is this?" And [my host] was like, "You're playing for the Qaddafi family, you're playing for the leader of the country." And that's when it hit me, I was kind of like, "Wow." It was kind of a flashback to when I was a kid [in Nigeria], seeing all this stuff on the news about the good he was doing, but I wasn't really worried or scared, I was kind of like, "This is a good adventure I'm about to go on." And I was just happy to be out of Macedonia.
At what point did things start to turn?
AO: I used to walk through the city and I used to talk to a lot of the fans of my club, who are older gentlemen, probably like maybe mid-thirties, early forties, and they had nothing good to say about the Qaddafi family at all. And I kind of took a note of that. I used to hang out in the real dark parts of Libya, kind of like what you say in America as "the projects," and I used to hang out there because my teammates were from there, and I used to see these teammates getting guns and ammunition, telling me there's a revolution coming. And I was thinking, Man, y'all are not about to beat the army. Like, there is no way that is going to happen. And it ended up that they took over the second-biggest city in Libya.
[When fighting began] I basically ran out of food, water, and electricity. After two or three days I was saying to myself, "OK, the Libya army is going to shut this shit down and these people are going to clear the streets. This little baby revolution, this mini-revolution will be over." But I witnessed my next door neighbor being physically assaulted, being raped. It kicked in that I might not get out of here.
So you have no running water — you describe surviving on worms and cockroaches for two weeks — and your phone rings and it's your teammate Moustapha with an opportunity to leave the country. You eventually meet up with him and escape to Egypt after a 12-hour ride. When were you finally able to take a breath and go, "OK, it's over with now"?
AO: When I got to Egypt and I was on the bus with the men and they took care of me, feeding me, talking to me, I was thinking, Man, this is unreal for these Muslim men to be taking care of this boy. I was 27, but I was still young. And for some reason, I thought of Egypt as a safe haven. The pictures I have in Egypt are just me being happy. I never would have thought that staying in the Middle East would bring me some happiness, kind of give me some mental rehab, but it did.
As soon as I won the championship that year in Egypt, I got [offered] my next contract to go back, and it was double what I was making, my biggest contract ever. And in about November, I was supposed to leave [the United States] to sign my contract, and I didn't get on the plane. So nobody knows that. That next year, I didn't even play basketball. I took the year off.
The whole year?
AO: To me it was most important to get back to being a normal person again. So I was actually working a job. I worked a real job, you know? I was making $10 an hour and I was normal. And I did this for seven months. I was normal and I was happy. And that was one of the happiest times of my life. I didn't even play basketball. I was in retirement. I was done. After what happened to me, I just needed some type of rehab. [Ed. note: Owumi worked at a community center in Atlanta; he's now back to playing for the Worcester Wolves in the British Basketball League.]
I thought about committing suicide, many times. Even when I came home to America, I thought about committing suicide many times. Those were some of the darkest days, not sleeping, cold sweats. There were many times where I thought, There is no way I can live and recover from this. There were times when I did question God. There was a lot of doubt. That's just the way it is.
But you view this as an inspirational story?
AO: All inspiration. All inspirational. Especially here when I'm in England. I can't walk down the street without people coming up to shake my hand. Because this book isn't really for me; it's just for the world to see that there are good people out there. It doesn't matter what religion, what race, there are good people out there who are doing good.
It really is incredible how all these people helped you. Especially your teammate Moustapha. Are you still in touch with him?
AO: Moustapha actually got married. He got married this summer. We talk all the time through Skype and FaceTime just to check on each other. Because we almost weren't here. It's kind of like, we have a duty to check up on each other.