Isabel Alonso vividly remembers the day a 6-9, gangling, shy kid named Tonye Jekiri walked into her office at Champagnat Catholic School in Hialeah. It was September 2010, and Jekiri had just arrived from Nigeria without his parents to get an American education and pursue a basketball career.
Alonso was the principal at the school, and over the next few years became like a surrogate mother to Jekiri, helping him with everything from learning how to cook to tying a necktie.
She has been there for the University of Miami senior center every step of the way. Thursday morning, Alonso flew here to be at the Verizon Center for the late-night Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinal between the 11th-ranked Hurricanes and Virginia Tech. She attends almost every UM home game, and traveled with the team during the 2013 Sweet 16 run.
Jekiri honored her by inviting her to join him on center court at the Senior Day celebration on Feb. 27 at BankUnited Center.
“Tonye was impressed by the even the smallest of things when he first got here,” said Alonso, who traveled to Washington with the school’s current principal Nuria Sanchez, a former teacher of Jekiri’s. “Our school is in a very humble community. Our families are relatively low income. But he walked outside to our patio, we have an asphalt basketball court, and that, to him, was impressive. Wearing high tops, that was a new thing for him.
“He was so grateful eating rice and beans at El Tropical, a little Cuban restaurant in Hialeah. I think it’s still among his top five restaurants in Miami. The smallest, simplest things we take for granted were like a ‘wow’ factor for Tonye.”
Her heart is filled with pride these days, as Jekiri, now 7 feet tall and 248 pounds, has developed into one of the league’s premier centers and an NBA prospect. He led the ACC with 10.9 rebounds per game and was named to the ACC All-Defensive Team. Jekiri is scheduled to graduate in May with a B.S. Ed. in Sports Administration.
“He came into our lives the same year my mother passed away, and he started filling a little bit of a void, gave me someone to take care of,” Alonso said. “Not having had children of my own, I never understood what unconditional love was. Now I know, without going through 25 hours of labor.”
Jekiri’s rise is remarkable considering that six years ago he had never played organized basketball. He was a 6-9 soccer player living in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and dreaming of playing midfield for Real Madrid.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2010, when he attended a basketball camp at the urging of a friend (and lured by the free meals), that Jekiri first entertained the thought of taking advantage of his height on a basketball court. He had unusual speed for a kid his size, excellent footwork and boundless energy.
Jekiri caught the eye of Greg Brown, a Fort Lauderdale-based Comcast technician who was a part-time scout for the Nigerian camp. Brown helped place Jekiri at Champagnat, a small Catholic school in Hialeah. By his senior year, he was rated the 17th-best center in the nation by ESPN.com and his list of suitors included Miami, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt.
“I don’t know where we would even be without him,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said. “He has such a big impact on the defensive end. There are plays he makes that there is no statistical category for.”
Added UM point guard Angel Rodriguez: “Tonye does so many little things, only people who truly understand the game would appreciate it. I fully expect him to play in the NBA.”