Think you have a tough boss? You’ve got nothing on Alex Owumi. He once played basketball for Al-Nasr Benghazi, a Libyan club bankrolled by the Qaddafi family—as in Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator with a fondness for military uniforms and all-female Amazonian bodyguards. The guy Ronald Reagan once called the “mad dog of the Middle East.” Yeah, him.
In his new memoir, Qaddafi’s Point Guard (available now), Owumi shares a chilling account of what it was like to work for a violent despot with unreasonably high standards for his employees. Losing wasn’t just a blow to the ego; it sometimes resulted in a blow to the kneecaps. Here’s a passage from Owumi’s book, in which he recounts a typical exchange with one of his teammates:
“Moustapha said, ‘If we lose another game, bad things will happen.’ I said, ‘What bad things? You mean the coach will run us hard in practice? You mean some players might get benched?’ ‘No,’ Moustapha said. ‘Worse.'”
The 6-foot-5 Owumi, born in Nigeria to royalty (more on that later), originally hoped to play for the NBA. His family moved to England when he was 12, and then later to the U.S., where he went to high school in Boston and played basketball at Alcorn State in Lorman, Mississippi. His NBA dreams didn’t pan out, and he ended up on the foreign circuit, playing in France and Macedonia before getting a lucrative offer from Libya.
He said yes, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. He moved to his new home in December 2010, and by mid-February Libya was in the middle of a revolution. Owumi was trapped in an apartment—on loan from one of Qaddafi’s sons—for 16 days without food, water, or any connection to the outside world, while he listened and watched unspeakable acts of violence outside. “I can see a group of men pulling the bodies of police officers from the smoke,” he recalls in his book. “I can see children running from the scene with handguns, machetes, rifles.” And that’s before things got really scary.
I called Owumi to talk about his memories of Gaddafi, his frightening escape from a warn-torn Libya, and of course, his royal heritage.
We have so much to talk about, but let’s start with the basics. You’re an actual Nigerian prince?
The real kind? Not the kind who send spam emails?
[Laughs.] Nope, I’m real. I was born a prince. It’s in the blood.
Is it similar to the British monarchy? You and your brothers are all princes but only one of you becomes king?
Everybody in the family becomes a chief, which is our version of a king.
All your siblings are chiefs?
Two of my older brothers, my sister, who’s actually a year younger than me, and my father and mother are all chiefs in our village.
But you’re just a prince?
I haven’t gone through the ceremony yet.
It takes place over seven days. Everybody in the village comes out to greet you, and there’s a big ritual with costumes and dancing. Hopefully I’ll do it soon, sooner than later, because it’s pretty embarrassing when I go to my parent’s house and I see all the jewelry, all the expensive gold, and my name’s not on any of it.
Does the chief have a crown? That’s all I know about royalty, is that the ruler wears a crown.
It’s a small crown. It’s not like the crown in … what’s that show again? Game of Thrones.
There’s no King Joffrey in your village?
Nothing like that. It’s a little crown made of gold and metal.
Anyway, moving on to the real meat and potatoes of your memoir. You played professional basketball in Libya.
What the hell were you thinking?
Well, let me explain. When I was growing up in Africa, there were two major figures that represented the nation. One was Nelson Mandela, and the other was Muammar Gaddafi. He was probably the richest man in the world, at least off the books. And Qaddafi gave a lot of money to Africa. He rebuilt cities, rebuilt countries. As a young kid, that’s what I knew him as. I didn’t pay attention to all the bad stuff, the Lockerbie bombing and whatever. All I paid attention to were the positives.
Qaddafi’s first public execution was at a basketball stadium in Benghazi in the mid-’80s. Did you know about that?
I didn’t, no. I read about it later on.
You also played at a basketball stadium in Benghazi. Is there any chance this was—?
It was actually the same arena where we played.
Wow. But you didn’t know about this until after you’d left?
Yeah. I did some reading. They did some remodeling on the arena, but it’s the same place.
I guess it’s better that you didn’t know. It probably would’ve been impossible to focus on basketball if you realized you were playing in the gallows.
That would have made it much, much worse.
Let’s back up. Before Libya, you played pro ball in France for awhile, and then Macedonia. Why go overseas at all? Was the money just that good, or did it seem like your only option?
Well of course everybody’s dream, at least if you’re in basketball, is to play in the NBA. But when that doesn’t work out, the ball doesn’t stop bouncing. You know what I mean?
You don’t want to give up.
Not at all. And there are lots of opportunities to go play in Europe and all over the world. You can actually make a really good living doing this. The money was a big factor for me, because I was a broke college student. I was eating Raman noodles with hot sauce and living in my parent’s house. But I also said yes to the overseas opportunities because I had so many people saying I couldn’t do it, that I’d never be able to play professional basketball. Those words and those voices, they kept coming into my head. It was like, no, I’m going to do this. I’ll find a way.
Things weren’t ideal for you even before Libya. The conditions in Macedonia sound downright barbaric.
Yeah, they weren’t great.
The stadiums were really heated with flaming trash cans?
Yeah. And it didn’t help. This was eastern Europe where it’s freezing in October, November. I mean literally freezing. We’d play games where the jerseys were as thin as tanktops. It was ridiculous. The conditions made it hard to play at all, much less play well. During practices, we’d be wearing gloves and hooded sweatshirts, just to try and keep warm. But it didn’t help. Eventually I got accustomed to it.
Because you couldn’t feel your extremities anymore?
No, I just toughened up. I never liked it, but it was something I had to do. I either accepted it or left, and I wasn’t ready to give up.
You wrote about the racism in Macedonia.
It was shocking.
We talked to Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and he told us about the racism he’d encountered in the U.S. in the ’70s. He got attacked outside stadiums and chased in cars by Ku Klux Klan members. How does Macedonia compare? Did you feel physically threatened?
Oh yeah, all the time. There were four Americans on my team, and we went everywhere together. We’d go to the mall and 13-, 14-year-old kids would yell at us,, “What’s up, my n—–?” When we went on the road and played other teams in Macedonia, it would get very bad if we beat a team that was especially popular. People in the crowd would spit on us, throw bottles, call us gorillas. I’m glad I got out of there before something really unfortunate happened.
It’s starting to make more sense why you took the Libya offer.
It was just a really bad situation for a black man. I knew I had to leave, and when the Libya opportunity came about, and they told me how much they wanted me to play for them, I didn’t think twice about it.
Did you meet Qaddafi?
No. I met two of his sons, Mutassim and Al-Saadi.
You were living in Mutassim’s apartment for awhile, right?
Yeah. I was very close to the family. I remember once, I was curious about how they made money with their oil. So they sent me to the oil fields, and showed me the whole process with the barrels. I spent about three hours out there. I was like, this might be something I could get into.
The oil business?
Sure. I was like, “You guys are making a lot of money here. I’d like to get involved.” I believe I would have gotten there, sooner or later.
Yes. The revolution.
That kind of ruined everything.
My oil prospects kind of disappeared with that.
You may not have met Qaddafi, but you made eye contact with him before a game.
That’s right, yeah. Before my first game for Libya.
He was in the audience, dressed in his finest white military outfit. You compared it to playing the Roman Colosseum before Caesar. Just his gaze felt significant?
It was like, you know how your father looks at you when he comes to your first basketball game? You don’t want him to be mad at you for doing bad. You try to do your best. With Qaddafi, it was the same way I felt when my father used to come to my high school basketball games. Okay, I have to score 30-some points today, because otherwise when I get home, I’m going to hear about it.
Hopefully when you lost a game as a teenager, you dad didn’t send thugs up to your room to pound on your kidneys.
No. (Laughs.) No, that wouldn’t happen.
Did you ever feel like you were in any legitimate danger from Qaddafi?
Me personally? No. When I first heard that some of the players were being beaten, I was a little rattled. I thought, whoa, I can’t have anybody putting their hands on me. But then I figured out that it was just the locals getting that type of treatment. I’m not going to say I was relieved.
Obviously, no. It’s still horrific, even if it’s not happening to you.
It almost made it worse, you know what I mean?
These were my teammates. I had to hang out with them, I had to play with them, I had to see their pain in practice, their pain during the game, the fear on their faces. That can mess with your head. Because you’re not just thinking about winning the game. You’re thinking, if we don’t win this, bad things will happen to my friends, my teammates. Not just the beatings.
How else were they punished?
If we lost, they wouldn’t get paid. These were grown men with families who depended on them. If we didn’t win, if I didn’t perform at my best, they wouldn’t be able to feed their families. That’s a big weight to have on your shoulders. But I think I held it well.
When you went to Libya, the Arab Spring hadn’t started yet, right?
Some things were happening in Tunisia. I think it all started like the day or two after I got to Libya. I wasn’t really paying attention to it. What I did hear about didn’t concern me. I never thought it would spread two countries over. It went from Tunisia to Egypt, and kind of skipped us. When it skipped, I was like, “Well, I guess we’re good.” But then it came back to Libya.
You were surprised?
I was shocked. In my mind, there was no way it could happen. The very idea of overthrowing Qaddafi seemed preposterous, A man who’d been in control for 42 years, who was probably the most powerful leader in the world, how could he get overthrown in four, five days? That’s just unbelievable.
Everything about your experience is kind of remarkable. You move to Libya and literally within a few months, you’re in the middle of a civil war.
It was insane.
And not figuratively either. Literally in the middle of it. You were trapped in an apartment in downtown Benghazi, which was like ground zero for the uprising.
What’s crazy to me is that I was just a kid who wanted to be a basketball player. I was 26 at the time. I was a baby!
Obviously all the violence outside didn’t make you especially optimistic. But was there a specific moment when you lost hope, and realized you might not make it out of there?
There was a girl who lived in the building, my neighbor’s daughter. When I used to come home from practice, I would sit on the floor with her outside my door and speak English with her. She was trying to learn the language, and I wanted to help her. We had a bond. But during the uprising, I looked outside my door and saw her being physically assaulted and raped.
Yeah. That was the lowest point. That’s when I was like, this is bad. I could potentially not get out of here. When it started and I saw the people getting gunned down on the street outside, I knew it was bad, but I was like, “The army will stop this. There’ll be a couple of days of this, and then it’ll die down.” But when I saw the horrible things they did to that girl… [Long pause.]
I can’t imagine the feelings of helplessness.
That’s it exactly. I talk in the book about the physical pain, the starvation, eating cockroaches to survive. But the mental and emotional outweighed the physical hurt a million times over. You see things you can’t imagine, and you get delusional. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
You eventually got on a bus to Cairo, and on your way there you get a call from your former coach, Sherif Azmy. He’s escaped to Egypt, and he wants you to come play for his team, El-Olympi.
That’s seems insane. Egypt was in the midst of its own revolution. That’s like leaving one bad situation and walking right into another.
This was in Alexandria, which is like a hundred miles from Cairo, where the uprising was happening. But that wasn’t the reason I didn’t immediately say yes. I figured I was basically done with basketball. I needed to focus on myself. I was physically messed up, emotionally messed up.
What convinced you to stay?
Azmy, who is Egyptian and also coached me in Libya, he said, “Listen, if I send you home now, it won’t be good.” He knew what was going to happen. He’d seen this before.
He recognized that you probably had post-traumatic stress?
Yeah. He was like, “If you go home now, I’m afraid about what will happen.” Because I was really jumpy. I was always cross, I was always cold. He said, “You should stay here for a little while, get your mind right, get your body right.” I agreed to try it out. I said, “I’ll go through practice. I’ll see what’s going on.” And once that ball started dribbling, it was like… [Long pause.] With every dribble, the pain was going away.
There was something healing about playing basketball again?
There really was. But at the same time, there’s anxiety. Even today, when I pick up a basketball, my hands shake. Before a game, my palms get sweaty. Sometimes I can’t even walk out to the court with my team. I just have to sit in the locker room and get my nerves back right before I walk out.
Gaddafi’s shadow still looms over you?
But it’s not just him. My father got really sick when I was in Libya. He went into a diabetic coma. But I decided to stay and play basketball. It was easy to stay, and that kind of disturbed me. This is a sport that I love, that I’ve put my entire life into it. But how did it become more important than my family? You know what I’m saying?
Your priorities got out of whack.
They totally did. Or it felt like they did. Was basketball more important than my father’s health? Do I even care about my family? That’s the anxiety that comes with it.
While you were in Egypt, you helped your new team win a championship, and you were named most valuable player. How do you perform at that level when you’re so physically and emotionally depleted?
In some ways, it felt like…. this could be my last time playing. Every moment I was out there on the court, I thought to myself, this could be my last game, my last playoff, my last championship. Everything could end in an instant. So I gave it my all. I gave it everything I had. Literally everything I had. They had to carry me off the court.
But it wasn’t the end. You’re still playing basketball today. You’re with the Worcester Wolves?
That’s right. In England. Worcester is like an hour from London. This is my second year here.
After everything that happened in the Middle East, were you able to jump right back into pro basketball? Or did you need some time to make sense of what had happened?
When I came back from Egypt, I basically did retire from basketball. The same team wanted me back in Egypt and they doubled my salary. I was going to be the highest-paid player in the Middle East ever.
You turned them down?
I didn’t. I got the contract and signed it, and then I remember driving to the airport in Atlanta with my girlfriend. I just sat in the car with her and cried. I said, “Take me home.” I just couldn’t do it. I was done. I didn’t want to be a basketball player. I just wanted to be normal again. I wanted to be normal and live a normal life.
I associate normal with my parents. Growing up, I’d see my parents get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and go to work. So that seemed like a normal thing to do, to get job.
And you did that?
I absolutely did. I was working at a job making $9.25 an hour. A regular job. I was working at a community center in Atlanta. I remember going to work and people looking at me like, “Why are you here?” They knew I’d been playing pro basketball, and had been playing overseas, but they didn’t know all the details. To them, it seemed weird that I’d be doing this, living this seemingly mundane life. How exciting could it be after playing basketball in all these exotic places? But I was happy.
How long did that last?
Seven months. It was probably the happiest I’ve ever been. People look at basketball players and think, “Oh they have money, they have fame, they have adoration. They must be happy.” But that’s not happiness. Happiness is about being comfortable and safe and normal.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MensHealth.com.)