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.