Episode 7: Nigerian Basketball Queen

Nigerian professional basketball player and Northwestern grad, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, joins us for the final episode of this season. She talks about her sporting experience as a child, her time in collegiate athletics, and what it’s like to be a pro baller now. The royal Pallas is a queen, an incredible athlete, and is paying it forward by investing, empowering, and providing skills camps and tournaments for girls in Nigeria.

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Pallas: [00:00:00] Growing up, watching the NBA, like you see guys like Russell Westbrook who aren’t like seven footers dunking on seven footers and you’re like, wow, you know, with such ferocity, I’m like, I want to do that. Why can’t I do that?

Caroline: [00:00:11] For sure.

Pallas: [00:00:12] And it’s always like girls basketball isn’t known for that. So if I can get to a place where I’m doing that comfortably, shoot you don’t know what could happen.

Caroline: [00:00:32] Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Forward Progress, we are on our season finale of Season one and we’ve got a great episode for you. So first, let’s talk about what’s been happening in sports.

Sophia: [00:00:43] Oh, my God, we didn’t say our names, but by now y’all should know.

Caroline: [00:00:46] If you don’t know our names. And this is your first time listening. I’m Caroline.

Sophia: [00:00:50] And I’m Sophia. And you should go back and listen to all the episodes before this for context, period.

Caroline: [00:00:55] They can be listened to out of order and at any time, because the sporting stories that we talk about are relevant at any and all times. It’s good for the history books. All right, Sophia, you want to talk about our first sporting topic?

Sophia: [00:01:09] Sure. Well, last week, Kim Ng was hired as general manager of the Miami Marlins. She’s the first Asian-American general manager in the MLB and also the first woman. Kim Ng has been around for a long time in the league. I love that they told her story. I mean, she was an intern to start. She’s been around the MLB for thirty years. I got a text from so many people because any time a woman is hired in sports, I get a million texts and links like, did you see this? And my dad texted me and he’s like, I guess where Marlins fans and I immediately texted back “Juntos Miami!” And he was laughing, so you love to see it.

Caroline: [00:01:44] Mm hmm.

Sophia: [00:01:46] The New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA have promoted Teresa Weatherspoon, who’s a former WNBA player, to full time assistant coach.

Caroline: [00:01:55] Making moves.

Caroline: [00:01:56] After a three hundred day break, our favorite skier, Mikaela Shiffrin, has won silver at the World Cup Levi in Finland. Killing it. Last week. Tennis player, tennis champion, activist, athlete, Naomi Osaka,

Sophia: [00:02:12] Young goat

Caroline: [00:02:14] A young goat. Naomi Osaka’s clothing line with Nike was released and sold out within hours. Some of the items have been restocked. So keep checking back so you can get your Naomi Osaka apparel with the super dope logo.

Sophia: [00:02:31] Last night in Monday night’s match up between the Bucs and the Rams, the NFL had an all black officiating crew for the first time. You love to see it.

Caroline: [00:02:41] I love seeing all of these things,

Sophia: [00:02:43] I know these stories were really good.

Caroline: [00:02:45] Mm hmm. And we’re bringing back something that we got lost on a little bit, but not really because we are still talking about people to follow when we bring our guests on and we shout out people. But we want to tell you some specific ones that you can follow. All right, Sophia, who’s your person follow?

Sophia: [00:03:00] My person to follow is a OL Reign player and Canadian national team soccer player, Quinn. They’re awesome. Super sick, super inspirational. Love them. All right, Caroline, who’s our guest this week. And how’s your person to follow?

Caroline: [00:03:17] This week, we’re talking with an athlete who had more than one thousand career rebounds during her time playing basketball at Northwestern. And she’s already leaving her mark on the game by hosting camps and tournaments for the local girls in her hometown in Nigeria. She competes with the Nigerian national team and is currently playing basketball in Belgium. She’s a queen with a name to remember. This week’s guest. And my ultimate person to follow is Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah

Pallas: [00:03:48] So my name is Pallas, Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, I’m Nigerian and I grew up in Nigeria and I went to school at Northwestern. I’m playing professional basketball in Belgium.

Caroline: [00:03:59] Thank you so much for joining us today. Pallas, really excited to talk to you and get to know you a little more.

Pallas: [00:04:05] Thank you for having me.

Caroline: [00:04:06] Of course. OK, so we want to go back. So what were some of the sports that you played growing up?

Pallas: [00:04:12] That’s a great question. You know, when I was younger, my parents actually, because when I was growing up, the Williams sisters were really popular in Nigeria, like they were blowing up everywhere and everyone wanted to see these two black girls playing tennis. And so my parents actually enrolled me in tennis lessons. Then I started off first sport I seriously played and practiced for was tennis. I think after a while you know kind of fell out of that. But also did track, did volleyball. What else did I do; track, volleyball, basketball, tennis, yea pretty much. That’s it.

Caroline: [00:04:45] Wow. That’s really cool to hear that. The Williams sisters obviously were and still are so big here in the US. But just to see that their impact was kind of worldwide is really cool. And I’m always amazed. We’ve had a few guests that have said that they played tennis growing up too, and that was my sport in college.

Pallas: [00:05:01] Nice!

Caroline: [00:05:01] So it’s cool to see that people played it growing up. So when did you really start to get into basketball?

Pallas: [00:05:07] When I was about 14. You know, I started playing basketball more like for fun and then figured out that I could go play in the States and go to school and everything. So I started taking it a little bit more seriously. But I’d always been told that people always told me, you know, basketball is like a good sport for tall people.

Caroline: [00:05:26] I feel bad because that’s kind of the default sport that people think tall people play like, oh, you’re tall, you should play basketball.

Pallas: [00:05:36] I know it’s crazy.

Sophia: [00:05:37] So you played basketball instead of volleyball?

Pallas: [00:05:41] hahaha Yes, I know,

Caroline: [00:05:44] Because you need to be tall in volleyball too.

Pallas: [00:05:46] Not only the like. So like unless you’re like.

Caroline: [00:05:48] I mean some, some people are, but you can be small. You mentioned you knew that you could come over to the states and play. So when did you. Well, I read an ESPN article about you when you were in high school playing. And so when did you decide to come over to the US and how was that process?

Pallas: [00:06:06] So I was 14 and there is this NGO in Nigeria founded by a former basketball player and she’s Nigerian. So she has an NGO called Hope for Girls. And what she does is she takes young girls from the ages of 12 to 18 and finds opportunities for them in the States. So she’s Nigerian American. So that’s how I was blessed with the opportunity to go to school in the States and play basketball. And I didn’t leave until I was 15. When I was 14 was when she told me that she could do this for me. And when I turned 15, it actually became a reality. That’s where the whole thing started honestly.

Caroline: [00:06:45] It said in the article you had a 3.9 GPA in high school, which is very, very impressive. And so then you went on to play at Northwestern. How did you decide? How did you choose Northwestern?

Pallas: [00:06:59] I mean, it’s such a good school. The athletics and the academics are top notch and that campus is beautiful. But I think the big selling point for me was going on my official visit and meeting the girls and the coaches, and they’re all just such lovely people and Coach McKeown, who’s been there for a bit now. He’s a legendary coach and I really wanted to be coached by him.

Sophia: [00:07:18] Were you the only international player?

Pallas: [00:07:20] No, it was me. There was a girl from Canada, which I don’t think really counts (laughter). Me, a Canadian girl, and I think it was just the two of us. So I think basically only me.

Sophia: [00:07:34] So, yeah, you were the only international player.

Caroline: [00:07:35] Canada doesn’t count.

Sophia: [00:07:40] You had an illustrious career at Northwestern. When you think back on that time, which wasn’t too long ago. But what was maybe your favorite memory from playing at Northwestern?

Pallas: [00:07:51] Oof so many good memories, it feels like so long ago. But honestly, it was just last year that I left. I would say my senior year we went to the WNIT tournament, which isn’t like there’s the NCAA and then there’s NIT, which is like a step down from the NCAA. If you don’t make it to the NCAA and you still have like a pretty good record, then you go to the NIT. And a lot of people don’t see the NIT as like a big deal, but I was so excited to be there and we actually made a really great run. We made it to the finals, to the last game, and we lost Arizona, unfortunately. But it was so much fun just having that like almost record breaking season. We had, like most games played in a season. So that was a lot of fun.

Sophia: [00:08:31] Yeah, winning is a lot of fun.

Caroline: [00:08:32] So you mentioned the Williams sisters growing up just being an influence to you and to other young girls around the world. But who are some mentors that you have looked up to throughout your basketball career and just kind of your life.

Pallas: [00:08:45] Shoot! That’s a great question. I look up to my parents a lot. My mom and dad are huge. They inspire me so much, and Serena Williams obviously has always been an inspiration to me as a female athlete. LeBron James is an inspiration in basketball because of how hard he works and how much she’s been able to overcome being from a family with a single parent. And, yeah, those are the main people that really inspired me. Just the athletes that I feel I could be like them.

Caroline: [00:09:13] I think you have already given back to your community in ways that those athletes that you look up to have also done.

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Caroline: [00:10:03] So I really want to talk about the camps and the tournament that you have created in Nigeria. First, if you could give us a structure a little bit of the camps and the tournaments. Are they a week? Are they a day? What’s the structure of them?

Pallas: [00:10:18] So the first time I did it was last year. I called it the Vision camp because I felt like I had a vision. I wanted to do something for my hometown and give back to the court that I first started playing on. And I called it the Vision camp. It was just 20 girls. I only even up to 20 tee shirts. You put them through like some drills. I feel like one of those important things to teach people from a young age when you first are playing any sport is just how to warm up right. Because you start like you go into the sport or you go into the activity and your body isn’t ready for that jolt of energy and high intensity. So just showing them how to warm up, how to stretch different drills to do to improve their ball handling or shooting, things that I learned in college that I was just trying to share that knowledge because people underestimate how important or how much detail goes into structuring a Division one college team routine. So I’m like, I’ve been in this place and these girls are trying to get here. Let me give them what I was blessed to be able to learn and experience. Just trying to share that knowledge. So first time I did was three days. It wasn’t planned, honestly. It came right before I have to go to Italy for my first season. So I just thought I want to do something before I leave. So my mom actually helped me a lot and we put together the camp and within three days it was the total camp. Thankfully, we had some people come in to give us some like news coverage and trying to help publicize female basketball in Nigeria because women are still like a step down when it comes to sports and athletics. And then the second camp I did was this year in September, we did the Royal Pallas Queen’s camp. I don’t know why I called it that, but

Caroline: [00:11:56] Amazing. It’s such a great name.

Pallas: [00:11:58] So this was more of does you have more girls show up. We had more of a turn out and we have more facilities, more resources. So this was much better. Obviously, the first time wasn’t going to be the best because you just starting out. But knowing how I wanted to do it, I want to see do a camp first and I wanted to do a tournament. So the camp was the same thing three days and then the tournament was three days as well I think. So it was like a training camp. So the training camp, the girls the same thing, teach them drills and ways to warm up right, stretch right, workout. Then for a tournament, we picked the girls who really impressed during the camp. They get to play in the tournament and then they get jerseys, they get trophies, some cash prizes from our sponsors. I think the girl who won, they got a computer. So trying to help with education as well. And I just really I feel like with these camps, if you have the opportunity to leave a legacy or even touch people in different ways that can change their lives, you have to do it. It was really fulfilling. And I’m really happy that we got to do that. And I hope we can keep doing it annually moving forward.

Sophia: [00:13:03] That’s so amazing, Pallas. Especially, you’re so young, too. So to think you don’t have to have the platform that the Williams sisters or LeBron James have, you just have to have proximity to the people who you can help most. And you certainly have that. How do you see it moving forward? Clearly, you made a leap in just one year, the vision, the resources and being able to plan something that’s truly developmental for them and for everyone involved. So how do you see the camps in the tournaments for girls basketball moving forward in Nigeria?

Pallas: [00:13:34] Well, thank you, Sophia. I see it becoming more of a nationwide thing. I see it becoming more of a thing where we have a league in Nigeria, similar or comparable to NBA or WNBA, like a league that we can call our own so that girls who want to play basketball don’t have to be the one in a million chance of getting that opportunity to go overseas or get sponsored. You can aspire to be great and still stay in your country, still stay with your family and still make income to support yourself and support your family. I see it getting there. I really do see a league forming in Nigeria for girls who want to play professional basketball and don’t have the opportunity to go overseas.

Sophia: [00:14:14] You’re going to lead the way. You’re going to be the commissioner of that league.

Pallas: [00:14:17] Absolutely.

Caroline: [00:14:20] So if any of our listeners do want to get involved and help you with your program and your camps, how can they reach out to you? Do you have a website that they can go to to learn more and contribute?

Pallas: [00:14:33] We don’t have much of an online presence. When did the Queen’s camp, we put all the video and all the footage on my Instagram page, and that was we showcase the whole thing. But after a while, I have take that because it was like I kind of want to make it its own separate entity from my personal page. I want it to be its own thing. So if people want to support, they can reach out to me on Instagram or something, like I always look at the messages and respond. Or email me, we’re still trying to come up with a structure for how we can create that online presence and make it more accessible to sponsors or even girls who want to participate.

Caroline: [00:15:06] You talked about the progress from the first year to the second year, but even the first year, having only thought about the idea a couple of weeks or a week ahead of time and then putting it together, that’s 20 girls that you impacted in such a short period of time. I think it can grow exponentially from here. And you talked about hopefully the future formation of a league in Nigeria. So let’s get into your experience playing on the women’s Nigerian basketball team. Have you played with some of those team members on club teams before?

Pallas: [00:15:39] That’s a good question. Usually how it works is when you play on the national team with other professional players, you’re going to like cross paths in the European leagues. So in my first year, last year in Italy, I played against Ify Ibekwe, who is also a Nigerian national team player, and she was also playing in Italy. So we actually play each other a few times. And that was fun. I think this year I was supposed to cross paths with our team Captain Adaora, but with the whole covid lockdown thing, I’m not sure. I think once everything opens up again, I’m probably going to see her in the Euro Cup tournament. So it’s always fun to see someone you play with the national team and you play against them on the European league. That’s always fun.

Sophia: [00:16:22] Is there more of a motivation to beat them when you’re playing a teammate, your national team teammate?

Pallas: [00:16:27] Yeah, definitely. This is for bragging rights. So you go back and you’re like, yeah, well, I do. So whatever, you know.

Caroline: [00:16:34] So how often do you train with the national team?

Pallas: [00:16:37] You know, we have our national team breaks, so I think we’re supposed be having one right now, actually. But with the covid lockdown, travel is really difficult for everyone. So we’re not able to do it right now. But usually I think when I first joined the team last year, three times we all met up. So for the tournament, for the Olympic pre-qualifiers and then for the training camp in Lagos, Nigeria. Usually like three to four times a year, I would say I’ve only been with them for up to a year. So experiences haven’t been more than three times we’ve met.

Caroline: [00:17:10] That’s really cool, though, and we love the Olympics and Paralympic Games. So we’re so excited for Tokyo next year. And we’ll definitely be watching your Nigerian team.

Pallas: [00:17:18] Super excited. Yeah.

Caroline: [00:17:20] What’s your ultimate goal within basketball?

Pallas: [00:17:23] That’s a great question, Caroline, you know, I haven’t really thought about the ultimate goal, but I do know that I want to become a household name. Like anyone mentions Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or even Candace Parker. Like, you know, even if you don’t watch basketball, you know, these people, you know, and I think I have what it takes. And I know with the support system around me, my family, my close friends, people that support what I’m trying to do, not just with my personal performance, but also giving back to the community that I came from. I think that’s my goal, is to leave that legacy and make an impact on girls all over the world.

Sophia: [00:18:07] What I love about your story is that you took sport and you used it to push you forward to give you opportunities, and you haven’t wasted time reaching back at all. Most people think they have to reach a certain level of fame or success in order to send the elevator back down or the ladder, all other things. But truly, it just comes from what you call the vision and this passion and the desire, because you are not far from who they are as girls. And what’s so powerful is they get to look up to you and you’re not so far away. Like Candace Parker might be where they don’t know her and they can’t reach her. But they get to see you at these camps in Nigeria and then you get to look up to you and you’re a professional women’s basketball player. It’s so cool what you’re doing already at a young age. And Nigerian women basketball players are kick ass.

Pallas: [00:19:04] Oh yeah. Hell yeah. If you see my teammates!

Sophia: [00:19:04] Nneka Ogumike, Chiney Ogumike, the list goes on and you’re a part of that list. You’re going to be a household name not just because you’re an amazing basketball player, but all the things that you’re already doing at such a young age.

Caroline: [00:19:14] So, yeah, I mean, we’ve seen your Instagram stories lately. You know, you’re perfecting her dunks. Here we go.

Sophia: [00:19:21] She’s dunking. So all the guys who only care about dunking in basketball.

Pallas: [00:19:25] I know. I know. I know.

Caroline: [00:19:29] What is the dunk that you’re working on?

Pallas: [00:19:31] Well, today I was working on my 360, which is weird because I haven’t even perfected my regular dunk. But I feel like I feel like, if you go to a higher level, then the more fundamental ones become like just muscle memory. Pretty much, but. Yeah, I’m working on my windmill and my three I got interested in dunking, you know, growing up watching the NBA, like you see guys like Russell Westbrook who aren’t like seven footers dunking on seven footers. And you’re like, wow, you know, with such ferocity. I’m like, I want to do that. You know, why can’t I do that? And it’s always like girls basketball isn’t known for that. So if I can get to a place where I’m doing that comfortably, shoot you don’t know what could happen. That would be insane. But I just feel like I could inspire like the next generation of girls. There are a lot of girls who are actually dunking now, but like it’s not as hyped because they’re not doing all the fancy stuff. But if you can show me I’m a girl and I’m doing the friggin windmill dunk, then yes, this other girl who wants to do that can do that. There is no can’t’s. You know, I thought I was always like biologically girls on as fast or as strong as the men, but not even in the whole feminist debate right now. But just as a human being, anything you think you can do, you can do it.

Sophia: [00:20:45] Although you are gifted with height and Caroline cannot dunk even if she wanted to.

Pallas: [00:20:51] Caroline would destroy me on the tennis court, though, like that.

Sophia: [00:20:54] She would. she would

Caroline: [00:20:55] I don’t know.

Sophia: [00:20:56] When we all get together, you and I Pallas, we are going to play Caroline in tennis.

Caroline: [00:21:01] Yeah, Canadian doubles.

Pallas: [00:21:03] One thing that I in tennis that I would say I have on you is my slice. My slice is really good, like this. And then it goes like,(laughter) just watch out for that.

Caroline: [00:21:15] OK, I’ll be ready (laughter). So we want to get into our final couple of questions here. These are recurring questions that we like to ask all of our guests. So what was a sport that you wish you knew more about or saw growing up?

Pallas: [00:21:30] A sport I wish I knew more about growing up. I would say American football. Yeah, the NFL. I think it’s just a really aggressive and ferocious sport that is super appreciated only in America, you know. So before I came to America, I had never heard of it and then come to America and it’s like everyone’s talking about this Super Bowl and I’m like, what is this? You know? And then I go to the Super Bowl like, watch party, when I was in high school. So I go there with my plate because I think they’re going to give out soup. So I go there with my bowl. (laughter) There isn’t any soup. Oh, I wish I had known what all that was before I came.

Caroline: [00:22:11] They really told you nothing.

Pallas: [00:22:13] I wouldn’t have been so.. I wouldn’t look so dumb. On that day, but yeah I wish.

Sophia: [00:22:17] That’s amazing.

Caroline: [00:22:21] As soon as you said American football, Sophia was so happy because she’s a football coach.

Pallas: [00:22:26] Oh! Incredible. So you coach American football. Wow that’s really cool. I’ve never seen a female coach that before. That’s really cool.

Sophia: [00:22:35] There are not many of us. But in the same way that there are not many of us dunking in basketball, you could do it. It’s possible. It’s not mind blowing.

Pallas: [00:22:46] It’s possible

Caroline: [00:22:48] And then our final question, we’re really big ice cream fans. And so we want to know what is your ideal ice cream sandwich?

Pallas: [00:22:58] When I was in the States and I was in Chicago, there is this place, ice cream place called Culver’s. I don’t know if you know what Culver’s is, it’s not ice cream, it’s custard. So I really love their mint chocolate chip with cookie dough. And if I can make that into like a sandwich in the bread or the cookie or whatever, just the ice cream sandwich with itself, I would say.

Caroline: [00:23:23] So basically just three scoops of ice cream. Yeah, I love that. It’s crazy. We’ve had some really good ice cream answers. And I think I think sports is such a universal thing. It makes the world smaller. But clearly ice cream does the same thing. I mean, everyone loves ice.

Pallas: [00:23:43] Yeah, you can love ice cream even if you’re like even if you’re lactose intolerant or you’re vegan. I mean, there’s some options out there for everybody.

Pallas: [00:23:52] Exactly.

Sophia: [00:23:53] I also appreciate all the people sending us places. Caroline and I have to plan a cross country trip.

Caroline: [00:24:00] Yes. Everybody names an ice cream place. It’s great.

Pallas: [00:24:02] You got to go Culver’s. If you go to the Midwest, you you have to you have to go to Culver’s. If you go to Chicago or like Wisconsin, you got to go to Culver’s.

Sophia: [00:24:12] Thank you so much.

Caroline: [00:24:13] Yeah. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Sophia: [00:24:16] You’re incredible.

Pallas: [00:24:17] You guys are incredible, too.

Caroline: [00:24:18] Oh, that’s so nice.

Sophia: [00:24:20] We’re going to make sure everyone who’s listening please go follow Pallas on Instagram.

Caroline: [00:24:25] We’ll also list her email in case you want to reach out and inquire about supporting her camps. Pallaswest@gmail.com

Pallas: [00:24:32] Oh yeah I’ll send you all the information.

Sophia: [00:24:32] And you’ll definitely be hearing from Caroline and I soon because we definitely want to help and get involved in any way we can do. The next camp is going to be really good.

Caroline: [00:24:40] But for now, you’ve got to focus on your season in Belgium.

Pallas: [00:24:44] On my season, on my goals. Right.

Sophia: [00:24:47] We are super excited to watch you.

Caroline: [00:24:48] Got to get the 360 and the windmill dunk down. Can’t wait to see those Instagram stories on that progress.

Pallas: [00:24:54] Coming soon! It’s not going to be long. It’s not going to take long. Trust me.

Sophia: [00:25:01] So that was our incredible conversation with Pallas, I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as we did. One of my favorite parts of this interview is when she mentioned football. And her experience of her first Super Bowl is the best story ever.

Caroline: [00:25:15] Oh, my gosh. This poor girl brought a bowl with her. It was so great to listen to Pallas. I’m really excited to watch Team Nigeria and upcoming Olympics. And hopefully someday there’s a women’s basketball league in Nigeria and she’s definitely going to be at the forefront.

Sophia: [00:25:34] Heck yeah. Pallas being one of those people that has that forward thinking of I can make a difference in my country and I can do it right now. I can make a difference in women’s basketball, in the lives of Nigerian girls. And I want to do it right now. You don’t have to wait for forward progress to happen, for progress to happen. You can go and attack it every single day and include everybody around you in that progression. That’s how you’re able to create progress. Get as many people around you involved, be super energetic and positive with it, and just keep taking those steps every single day, no matter how hard it gets and no matter what’s going on.

Sophia: [00:26:16] Well, yeah, as you mentioned, this is our finale, our last episode.

Caroline: [00:26:19] Yeah, this is our last episode for our first season of Forward Progress.

Sophia: [00:26:23] I think Pallas is an incredible person and the first season on. And I’m super fired up to keep creating forward progress with you, Caroline, and with all of our guests and with all of our future guests, because we got some lined up, no teasers.

Caroline: [00:26:38] Again, no teasers because we don’t have the lineup.

Sophia: [00:26:41] I mean, I have some people, but.

Caroline: [00:26:42] I know I know you’ve got the connects.

Sophia: [00:26:45] Surround yourself with great people.

Caroline: [00:26:48] Forward progress is produced by Caroline Mattise with a little help from Sophia Lewin.

Sophia: [00:26:48] True.

Caroline: [00:26:48] And is brought to you by best available player. Find more podcasts, articles and video content related to sports and entertainment on bestavailableplayer.com. All the music in this podcast is by James Barrett, a good friend and an even better musician. Be sure to check him out on your favorite music streaming platform. And because we’re all about inclusivity and accessibility, each podcast of Forward Progress will be transcribed and available on bestavailableplayer.com.

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