Tonye Jekiris unlikely journey from Nigeria to Hialeah to starting center on the University of Miami basketball team reads like a Disney movie script. It all began with a free meal and a Fort Lauderdale cable guy.
Jekiri, like most kids in Nigeria, grew up playing soccer and following the European soccer leagues. Though he had grown to 6-foot-10 by age 16, basketball never crossed his mind. He played defensive midfield for his school in Port Harcourt, and in his free time, watched Real Madrid on TV.
Then, one day in the summer of 2010, a buddy told him about a basketball camp being run by Ejike Ugboaja, a 6-9 Nigerian power forward who had been drafted in 2006 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ugboaja never made the Cavs squad, but was a Nigerian national team hero and made a good living playing in the European leagues.
Ugboaja started a charitable foundation to help future generations of Nigerians pursue their academic and athletic dreams in Africa and abroad. He holds camps for hundreds of Nigerian athletes every summer, and with the help of donors, provides free meals, lodging and a chance to be discovered.
Among the many promising athletes who wound up in America through his camp recent UM football signee Sonny Odogwu, a 6-8, 311-pound lineman who switched from basketball to football.
Jekiri, who had never played a minute of organized basketball, was reluctant to attend the camp. A friend convinced him it would be fun, and the free meals were enticing. His basketball skills were lacking compared with the other teens, but his footwork, speed and energy (and, of course, his height) caught the attention of Greg Brown, a Fort Lauderdale Comcast technician who played high school ball in Brooklyn, played at a Canadian college, and moonlights as a part-time coach for Ugboajas foundation.
Brown met Ugboaja through a mutual friend, and worked his first camp in 2008. A self-described basketball junkie and frustrated coach, Brown returned from his first camp and started calling area private schools to see if anyone would be willing to take a chance on a few Nigerian kids. The school would have to file for an I-20 student visa, and roll the dice on a player sight unseen.
Most schools were wary, but Brown was able to place Ismaila Douda at Grandview Prep, and Douda went on to sign with Cleveland State. Brown brought a couple of other players over, and they all lived with him and his wife in their Fort Lauderdale house until school families agreed to take them in.
Brown says he is on nobodys payroll for his Nigerian scouting pipeline. On the contrary. He loses money paying for barber shop visits, clothing and food. He does it because he is a gym rat who finds joy in spotting talent.
Im just a crazy cable guy, and my wife wasnt too thrilled when I told her five Nigerian kids would be moving in, but this is very fulfilling for me, Brown said. I like watching the kids develop, and helping them find a better life. Some of these kids grew up in shacks, in really poor areas, the kind of place where youd find Sally Struthers around the corner filming a commercial.
Brown had trouble finding a school for Jekiri, especially when coaches heard he was so new to the sport.
High schools want a polished guy, and Tonye was really raw, Brown said. Coaches would ask me, Do you have video of the kid? To be honest, I didnt want them to see video, because if they saw him at that point, theyd say, Hell, no. But I knew with good coaching Tonye had a chance to make it to college.
Champagnat, a small Catholic school in Hialeah, gave Jekiri a chance. Athletic director/football coach Mike Tunsil was receptive to the idea, Brown said, and applied for the student visa. Jekiri packed his bags, kissed parents Emilina and Frank goodbye, and boarded a flight to Miami. He showed up in flip flops, but ready to work.
He was not very impressive at the start, but hed have flashes, Brown said. Its not natural for a guy 7 feet tall to move around the floor like that. He ran like a soccer player. He even ran the 100 meters for the Champagnat track team.
Jekiri learned the game his junior year, and by his senior year, when coach Danny Serrano took over the high school team, Jekiri was a bona-fide Division I prospect. He averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks as a senior and led the team to the 2A state championship game.
ESPN.com named him the nations 17th best recruit at the center position. He shined for AAU Team Breakdown and was recruited by UM, Clemson, Virginia Tech, George Mason, Alabama, Vanderbilt and FSU.
He is a rare kid who came here with a purpose and is relentless in his effort to be the best he can be, said Serrano. His motor never gets tired. He runs the floor like a guard, covers the court end to end in seven or eight strides. How many 7-footers can run like that? Its a coachs dream to find a guy like that, and his learning curve is monstrous.
UM coach Jim Larrañaga and his staff got a few calls about Jekiri shortly after they were hired in April 2011.
We kept hearing, Hey, theres this kid at Champagnat you should see, assistant Eric Konkol said. Hes almost 7 feet and he can really run.
Konkol went to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for an AAU tournament in early July 2011 and got his first look.
First thing I thought was, `Man, can he run, and he has a good sense of the game, Konkol said. Second thought was, I gotta get Coach L to see him. He loved him. Tonye was a very willing passer, could feel where the point guard was, didnt try to force a lot. He played within himself. Very impressive.
The AAU program listed Jekiri as an incoming junior, so many coaches figured hed be a prospect for the next year. But Konkol found out he was, in fact, an incoming senior. He was listed as a junior because he had been told hed benefit from a year of prep school after high school graduation. Konkol told him hed be ready for college the next season.
He arrived on campus weighing 215 pounds and got knocked around at practice by senior big men Reggie Johnson, Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble. He played sparingly, averaging 1.4 points and 1.6 rebounds in 6.9 minutes per game. His biggest game came against Pacific during the NCAA Tournament, when he had six points, five rebounds and a pair of blocks in 16 minutes.
Johnson, Kadji and Gamble graduated, leaving Jekiri now 7 feet as the tallest man on the team. He beefed up to 240 pounds over the summer with the help of protein shakes, chicken, pasta and many hours in the gym.
I see myself as a major key this year and really want to make my presence known on the court, Jekiri said. I want to make sure I contribute and give them what we had last year so we dont feel like, Oh, we dont have those guys anymore so we dont have those weapons anymore. Thats why I stepped it up.
Larrañaga has high hopes for Jekiri but cautioned that he remains a work in progress.
Hes more experienced than a year ago, his ball skills have improved, but there is still has a lot of room for improvement, the coach said. Hes only played three full seasons. Hes a very, very good defensive player and should have a very solid sophomore season.
Jekiri credits his soccer background for his speed, endurance, and footwork. He still kicks the ball around with the UM womens soccer team whenever he can, and admits soccer remains his true love. But for now, his meal ticket is basketball.