Will Voigt grew up in Vermont, played college soccer in California and moved to Idaho earlier this summer. But he hasn’t been home much since then, and he won’t be until after the Olympics. He’s been too busy working: Will Voigt is the coach of the Nigerian men’s national basketball team. This is more than the most unexpected job of Voigt’s career. It may be the most unusual marriage of any coach and any country in the entire Olympic Games. “What are the odds,” said Fran Voigt, his father, “that a little white guy from a little town in Vermont who never played college or professional ball would be selected to coach the Nigerian team?”
Still, people in Cabot sensed that Voigt would do something interesting with his life in part because of who his parents are. His father, Fran Voigt, founded the New England Culinary Institute. His mother, Ellen Bryant Voigt, was Vermont’s poet laureate and won a MacArthur genius fellowship last year for her poetry. “The gene pool,” said his father, “would not have anticipated this.”
Voigt’s surprising career in professional basketball began with an internship with the Los Angeles Clippers. It stalled during the 1999 NBA lockout, so he worked for a data-warehousing company. It continued with the Clippers when the lockout ended—but he still kept the job with the data-warehousing company. Then he moved to San Antonio to be video coordinator for the Spurs. At the time, the Spurs’ front office was stocked with future coaches and general managers, and many of them had peculiar backgrounds. Voigt’s was the most unexpected of them all.
Voigt soaked up Popovich’s wisdom—but not only at work. They were roommates, too. Voigt found himself in need of a place to stay in the middle of the NBA season, and Popovich let him crash in his guest room for a month.
But even before then, Voigt became friends with Masai Ujiri, the Nigerian-born general manager of the Toronto Raptors. When Ujiri began setting up basketball camps in his native country, Voigt was one of the first volunteers. He worked camps in Xaria, Abuja and Lagos and impressed Ujiri by venturing to smaller cities hours away on his off days. “A lot of people ask a hundred questions,” Ujiri said, “which you’re supposed to do.” Voigt didn’t. “Will was just, like, ‘Let’s go,’” he said. “He’s one of those explorer types.”
He’s also working for a spot on the Pistons permanent roster in the fall and a spot on the Nigerian National Team at the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio. “My first responsibility is to the Pistons, but if it happens that would be wonderful,” he said. “Definitely looking forward to it; right now it’s not 100% if I’m going to do it or not, but I want to do it. I have to qualify and who doesn’t want to play in the Olympics?”