Antwerp's Akyazili uses warrior spirit to fight through tough times
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
ANTWERP (Belgium) - Tattoos have a special meaning for those who bare them. And whenever Thomas Akyazili is going through a tough time, the Telenet Giants Antwerp playmaker can just look down at the tattoo of a warrior on his left arm and things are better.
Akyazili has already been through his fair share of difficult moments in his young basketball career. But the 22-year-old has also experienced some major highlights, including helping Antwerp reach the Basketball Champions League Final Four in the club’s first campaign appearing in the Regular Season.
"It feels great. We have been working so hard and to accomplish this with our young group is amazing," said Akyazili, who averaged 2.7 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 10 BCL games this season. "Nobody expected us to be where we are right now and that makes it even better. We all know that once you’re in the Final Four everything is possible, so I am looking forward to finish our European campaign on a high note."
After finishing fourth in a tough Group C, Antwerp downed UCAM Murcia in the Round of 16 and then Nizhny Novgorod in the Quarter-Finals. Then a couple of days after becoming the first Belgian club to reach a European club competition Final Four, Antwerp was named as host city of the May 3-5 spectacle.
"It was kind of crazy because it went so fast. The Final Four is something we were only dreaming of at the beginning of the season and now we are hosting it, it’s really unbelievable," Akyazili said. "I think it’s really good for Belgium to host such an important and big basketball event. Hopefully this will help put Belgian basketball on the map and help bring even more people and attention to our games."
Akyazili has brought attention to his game throughout his youth career in Belgium. He started playing when he was 6 years old and growing up in Antwerp, he was an Antwerp Giants fan.
"When I was younger I used to go to every home game to watch them play," said Akyazili, who joined Antwerp when he was 14 years old and started practicing with the first team after two years.
Tough times with Belgium
The point guard made his debut with the Belgian youth national team ranks in 2013, when he starred at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2013 as the third leading scorer with 19.9 points to go with 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists. But Belgium lost to Latvia in the Classification 13-14 game and were relegated to Division B. That proved to be just the first of many memories Akyazili had wearing the Belgium jersey that he would rather forget - or times when he looked down at his warrior tattoo and said, okay things will be okay.
Another heavy-hearted glance at the tattoo came the following summer when he averaged 15.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2014 but Belgium finished 15th and were once again dropped to Division B. In 2015, Akyazili played two years younger at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2015 and Belgium made the Quarter-Finals before ending up placing eighth.
But relegation came again for Akyazili at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2016, where he averaged 13.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists but Belgium lost to France in the Classification 13-14 and were dropped to Division B.
"Oh man, thank you for reminding me," Akyazili said when asked about relegation three times in four summers with Belgium. "The answer is easy, we just weren’t good enough. I feel like we had a lot of talent but somehow it didn’t really click on the court and sometimes we just came up short against better teams. A lot of times we were just thankful to be in Division A instead of competing to stay in A."
Despite being a country on the rise, Belgium has yet to get back up in Division A in any of those age categories since then.
"It’s too bad, but at the same time I gave it all I had every time I put the Belgian jersey on," Akyazili said. "Hopefully some team succeeds in the future because I really believe Belgium has enough talent."
Akyazili did not only have bad times wearing the Belgium jersey. But there were some mental struggles - and looks down at the warrior on his arm - to come before he got that chance.
Toughness of a warrior
Akyazili left arm is a myriad of tattoos stretching all the way from his shoulder to his wrist and going around his whole arm, with the first one coming in 2016 and the last one a year later.
"I’ve always been a fan of tattoos because I love how people just see a symbol, but for you there’s a whole story and meaning behind it," he said.
Akyazili’s favorite tattoo is the one of a warrior, which was the last one he had done.
"It symbolises the toughness and fighting spirit of my mom," he said.
In 2010, Akyazili was 13 years old when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She never let the disease get her down and remained resilient and made sure her two sons were okay. And after five years of fighting, his mother was declared cancer free.
"She never complained and always kept her head up while still taking care of me and my brother. Every time I see the tattoo it reminds me that whatever rough patch I go through, I just got to keep my head up and keep going. Eventually everything is going to be alright."
In 2015, Akyazili decided to leave Antwerp and head to the United States to enroll at the University of Colorado to play college basketball.
"I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I always loved watching college basketball and when I got the opportunity to experience that, I decided to go,” he said. “One of the things I admired most about the United States was the hype and the love for basketball."
His first season with the Buffaloes was solid as he averaged 3.7 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
"Looking back at my freshman year I had a lot of ups and downs - some really good games and some bad games. Games I will never forget, I played against a lot of guys that are in the NBA right now and the experience of playing in front of 10,000 people every game is crazy," said Akyazili, whose good showings included 10 points against Washington State and 9 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists against Washington.
That freshman season culminated in Colorado reaching the hugely popular NCAA Tournament, where the Buffaloes lost 74-67 in the first round to Connecticut.
"It was a weird game, we were up 15 at the half and somehow lost that game," said Akyazili, who had 0 points on four missed shots, 1 rebound, 1 assist and 1 steal. "To be completely honest with you, I knew it was a big deal but I didn’t know exactly how big of a deal it was until after I got back on campus and literally everyone had seen that game. I wish we would have won that game but being a part of March Madness is something I will never forget."
Akyazili was unable to build upon that freshman season and he ended up looking down at his warrior tattoo a number of times.
"After my freshman year I had high expectations for my sophomore year and it was mentally tough to not really get the opportunity that I think I deserved."
Akyazili picked up 8 points and 6 assists in the first game of his second season in Boulder. But those wound up being season highs and he did not score more than 2 points in his final 17 games of the season. He struggled shooting in his freshman season, hitting just 32 percent from the field, including 29 percent from three point range. But those numbers dipped his sophomore year, connecting on just 29 percent of his attempts, including a nightmarish 1-of-21 (5 percent) from the outside as he averaged 1.7 points, 1.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 10 minutes a game.
"At first I was thinking about transferring but I didn’t want to sit out a year so I decided to start my professional career in Antwerp," he concluded. "Outside of basketball I think I really grew as a person, being on the other side of the world without your family and experiencing a different culture is something no one can ever take away from me. A lot of people think it was a mistake going to the US but if I could go back in time I would do it again."
Akyazili said he learned about the "mental toughness and experience" that would help him get ready to be a professional - and know that the warrior was always there.
Return to Antwerp
Once Akyazili decided to come back to Europe, his choice for a club was easy - the same Antwerp Giants he grew up following.
"For me it was an opportunity to get my confidence back in an environment that I was familiar with. Being close to my family and friends played a role too," Akyazili said.
Before Thomas Akyazili went to play college basketball in the United States, current Antwerp head coach Roel Moors was still a player for the club - and Akyazili's teammate
One major difference from his last time with the club was his relationship with Roel Moors, who was still a teammate of Akyazili’s in 2015 and is now the head coach.
"Yes, that was kind of weird in the beginning. I remember when we used to play together he would always be joking and now he had become the head coach so our relationship was a little bit different," Akyazili said.
The start of his professional career had a minor hiccup though as he underwent back surgery in July 2017 and could not play until later October - another setback which led to thinking about his warrior tattoo.
"Longest months of my life, an average of 4 hours a day and man I hated every second of it. All worth it after being back on the court with my teammates though! Not taking anything for granted anymore. Time to get some game rhythm and get back to the old me," Akyazili posted on Facebook.
That cost him a chance to play at FIBA EuroBasket 2017 but once he returned to the court he showed his promise as he was named the Belgian league’s Rising Star of the Year.
For the season, he averaged 6.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists, including a game with 19 points against Leuven and another with 10 assists against Leuven.
The 2017-18 season also saw Akyazili make his senior national team debut in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers.
"It meant a lot because I saw it as a reward for the work I put in. We did lose that game but I was happy that coach gave me the opportunity to play," he said of his 1 rebound in 8 minutes against Bosnia and Herzegovina on February 23, 2018.
He even started against Iceland in the February 2019 window and picked up 8 points, 1 rebound, 1 assists and 2 steals in the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifiers contest.
"I enjoyed it a lot and I hope this is just the beginning for what the future holds," he said.
Akyazili could not stay clear of the injury bug as he once again had back surgery after the 2017-18 season. After only about 5 or 6 weeks of playing he then broke a finger and missed about six weeks - sitting out from early November to late December.
There it was again - the warrior tattoo: fight through this and better things will come. And good things have come to Akyazili and the team.
"My mentality was just doing whatever is needed from me. The team was already in a good flow and I just wanted to be a part of it and doing whatever they needed me to do. Play tough defense, get my teammates good shots and bring a lot of energy," Akyazili said.
In March Antwerp knocked off Filou Oostende to win the Belgian Cup for the first time since 2006-07 and end Oostende's six-year run.
"It felt amazing. Last year we came short in the Finals against Oostende so for us to beat them for the cup was some sort of retaliation," he said. "When my career is over I won’t be able to tell you how many points I averaged and how many assists I made but winning a cup is something I will never forget."
Antwerp have been getting attention all season for being a very young team - with no player older than 27 years. But that doesn’t mean Akyazili and his teammates are inexperienced.
"Last year we played in the Belgian finals and lost, we all remember that feeling and we all learned from it. This year we played in the cup final and won so I think we can say we have some experience," he said looking ahead to playing in the Final Four. "We have to play with a lot of poise and a lot of energy, believe in each other and good things will happen."
The home fans have been a major help all season for Telenet Giants Antwerp
Akyazili is convinced that the home crowd at the Sportpaleis arena will help his team.
"I think it can be a huge advantage for us. I hope the gym will be sold out and that we can feed off the energy of the crowd," he said.
The ultimate for Akyazili would be to raise the trophy on May 5 - in just his second year as a professional.
"It would be unbelievable. It’s maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have, playing the Final Four in our city. Raising the trophy would be something I couldn’t even dream of six months ago."
Since then there have been plenty of times of looking down at his warrior tattoo, thinking it will all be okay - just like it has gone thus far.
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