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Ilyas Hussein

Pavement to Politics: Uzoma Asagwara’s journey to Canada Basketball and beyond

Uzoma Asagwara grew up in St. Norbert — a small neighbourhood in Winnipeg — playing basketball at the court across the street from their home.

They repeatedly practiced their craft, putting up shots on the double-rimmed nets and the shiny white backboards to hear the sweet sounds of mesh ring in their ears. The evenly paved court resulted in some scrapes across their knees — as it did for any hooper — but that did not stop Asagwara. They continuously made the short walk up the road and despite never owning a basketball, they admit, they were always able to find their hands on one.

That was the case one summer afternoon. 

Ball in hand, an older girl from around the area, Jodi, approaches the soon-to-be ninth grader. She attends St. Norbert Collegiate— the high school Asagwara will be at in the coming fall.

“I see you out here playing basketball all the time,” says Jodi. “I think you’re really good. You should come play varsity basketball with us at high school.”

Asagwara, nervous that the high school student was even talking to them, tells Jodi they will try out and thanks her for the compliment — thinking not much of it. 

In the fall, Jodi approaches Asagwara once again. This time in the narrow, white hallways of St. Norbert Collegiate. 

“I didn’t forget about you. You’re trying out for varsity this year. Don’t forget that,” she says to Asagwara — leaving them with no options.  

Asagwara goes to the tryout, impresses the head coach — Dennis Marinelli — and makes the team as a freshman. 

In the years to come, Asagwara would continue to play varsity basketball as the once pastime became a passion.  

This is a small moment in the now politician’s lengthy basketball career, which sparked when they were young. “I think back to watching the NBA as a kid and being absolutely obsessed,” said Asagwara. “I found a lot of beauty and excitement in the game.” 

The second oldest of five children, Asagwara's family — a first-generation Nigerian family — was one of the very few Black families in the community at the time. They described it as a ‘very busy, small house,’ and a ‘little house on the Prairie,’ as their parents would be running around with each kid being involved in sports and the community. With that, Asagwara’s upbringing instilled in them a strong sense of identity as a Black person and as a Nigerian.

"There were challenges that we navigated and that I navigated as a young person that were tough. But sports were a place I could shine," said Asagwara.

Asagwara's time playing basketball at St. Norbert ultimately led to a full-ride scholarship offer from the University of Winnipeg Wesmen — an opportunity to represent their hometown and community.

“It was incredible and kind of surreal,” said Asagwara on receiving the offer. “I felt proud that all of the hard work over many years. All of the moments of me reassuring my parents that everything I was doing would pay off were worth it.” 

“The moment I [first] walked into that team room, I felt an incredible sense of pride. I felt a ton of excitement matched by nervousness,” added Asagwara.

Over a five-year tenure with the Winnipeg Wesmen, Asagwara became one of the most dominant scorers in Canadian university basketball. They were a two-time Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) scoring leader — with 28.0 points per game in 2005-06, an improvement from their leading 24.5 points per game from the season prior — and a two-time All-Canadian. 

“It was important that all communities could see this first-generation Nigerian athlete performing well athletically on the court and setting records, but also representing the program beyond the court in a really positive way,” said Asagwara. “At the time, I don't think I appreciated how meaningful that level of representation was.”

The success led to Asagwara being contacted by the Canadian Senior Women’s National Team for a tryout in the summer before their final year with the Wesmen. However, they did not end up making it past the first try-out — which turned out to be a moment used as motivation for Asagwara. 

“It lit a fire in me. I decided I needed to train differently, I had to train harder, I had to be more focused [and] I had to start thinking about what it would take to be at the next level,” said Asagwara.

During the Canada West playoffs in their final year, the national team coaches were in the stands watching. Following one of Wesmen’s games, they approach Asagwara once again.

“We would really like for you to come to try out for the national team this year. We see a lot of talent in you,” the coaches say to the Winnipeg product. Asagwara immediately accepts.

In Asagwara’s second tryout in the ensuing summer, they were sure to make the most of their opportunity and made the roster. Thus, beginning a career with the Senior Women’s National Team. 

“My journey was not like most of the other people who were on that team. Most of the other athletes came from cities where they had these pretty well-established national team development programs. They had some sort of contact with the national team development programs, I had none,” said Asagwara. 

Asagwara represented Canada at the 2007 Pan Am Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Although the team did not achieve their desired result with a fourth-place finish, putting on the Canada jersey was unlike any other experience for the Winnipeg product. 

“There is nothing else like it,” said Asagwara. “It’s one of the best moments and periods of my life.”  

However, following a few seasons with the national team, Asagwara decided it was time to hang up their sneakers and retire from basketball. 

Shortly after, Asagwara began working as a psychiatric nurse, where they found a dedication to the healthcare system — stepping aside from the court they grew up on and into the medical field.

“I think that being an elite athlete for most of my life actually really prepared me and gave me the tools to be a consistent activist and advocate for healthcare,” said Asagwara. 

“I wanted to be the best nurse I could be. It was like ‘Okay. Alright. I’m done hooping, now let me put that energy into being the best nurse I could be,’” they added with a chuckle. 

Asagwara saw healthcare as a place where many people who shared similar lived experiences as them were not receiving the quality they deserved. Wanting to be a part of the solution, they have spent the last handful of years working towards achieving that quality.

Their work and involvement in the healthcare system resulted in a venture into the political realm. Marinelli, their old basketball coach, was the one to announce their intention to run as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the Manitoba provincial government — making the moment even more special than it already was. 

“I look back on my journey on becoming a member of the national team. . . it’s similar to my journey to politics. I didn’t grow up being a part of a political family or understanding how one can be a politician and get involved in a political party, but it was the result of doing a lot of hard work,” said Asagwara.  

Asagwara was elected as an MLA for the Union Station electoral district of Manitoba’s government in 2019, representing the New Democratic Party (NDP). They were one of the first three Black Canadian MLAs elected in Manitoba and the first queer Black person to win a seat.

“I would say being on the national team was one of the greatest honours of my life, [but] being elected is the highest honour of my life,” added Asagwara. 

Now, as Asagwara takes their talents to the legislature and holds their seat as an MLA, they reflect on the pivotal moments along their journey as they write a new chapter in their life away from the court. Within each step, they can always think back to playing on the court across the street from their childhood home in St. Norbert and their knack to find a basketball every chance they could.