ROBINSON TWP, Pa. — Classes had just let out at Radiance High School in Lagos, Nigeria when Olisa Ngonadi grabbed his gym bag and hurried to a van waiting outside in the dry and humid summer heat.
He and several others piled in like sardines, forced to lap-up for the 40-minute drive to National Stadium – the largest multi-purpose arena in the area – where they were eager to participate in a basketball camp held by the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation.
In 2006, Ejike Ugboaja was the first player to ever be drafted to the NBA directly from Africa, and he now runs a non-profit program in Nigeria providing educational opportunities for young athletes by securing high school and college scholarships in the United States for those selected from its annual camps.
Ngonadi didn’t think much of basketball when he was invited to attend the camp as a 15 year-old. Because in Africa, soccer trumped any and all sports. It was his first love growing up, while basketball was just a game encountered by messing around in the streets with friends. He didn’t love hoops, but opportunities presented by the Ejike Foundation certainly didn’t come around every day.
Plus, Ngonadi was taller than most of his friends. So really, there was nothing to lose. At the very least, he could say he tried. And at the very best, maybe – just maybe – the camp would pave a lane out of Africa to chase the American Dream of one day giving his family a better life.
“I was just trying to make it out,” he said. “It was a chance I decided to take.”
Ngonadi didn’t grow up poor. His parents always made sure he and his siblings were provided for, raising their three boys and two girls away from the rough parts of Lagos where they could be influenced by the wrong people. He had a comfortable upbringing, but financial stability is scarce in Nigeria and well-paying jobs are hard to come by. With an exceedingly high poverty rate, people go by any means necessary to feed their families. So if the opportunity to earn money playing professional sports overseas presents itself, best believe they’ll pursue it, even if it means potentially leaving their loved ones behind.
For Ngonadi, it was a no-brainer. Except there was one obstacle. Transportation wasn’t cheap, so for a week straight, the rides to National Stadium meant he would need to sacrifice school lunch.
He went hungry, but it was well worth it, though.
“I used my lunch money to go meet the white dudes and the coaches, making sure I was there and early and everything,” Ngonadi said. “I’d usually get 150 nairas (Nigerian currency) for feeding money. For lunch, I’d only spend 50, and the other 100 would go toward transport back and forth. Sometimes, when I knew I wasn’t getting money the next day, I’d save my nairas and use it for the rest of the week.”
In Nigeria, the Ejike showcase tournaments are attended by the thousands, many of whom are never selected even after two, three or four years trying out. But in Ngonadi’s case, despite being a rail-thin teenager without any legitimate basketball knowledge, it didn’t take very long for him to draw attention.
“I didn’t even know the coaches’ names,” Ngonadi said. “People were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ That’s why I think I’m destined for this. That’s why I think I’m here for a reason. It’s God’s grace and it’s luck. If you play hard and play with heart, they’re going to like you.”
Next thing he knew, Ngonadi was on his way to the United States on his 16th birthday with an opportunity to play for Hillcrest Prep Academy, an upstart basketball prep school in Pheonix, Arizona where former 2018 first-overall pick DeAndre Ayton spent his final two high school seasons. But Ngonadi didn’t last very long, cut from the team after a month, which placed his future in basketball – and America – in jeopardy.
After all, Ngonadi only had less than a year of competitive basketball under his belt and was completely immersed into a foreign country on the opposite end of the spectrum from where he was raised. The transition was difficult, but he persevered through the adversity and eventually received a tryout with the National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Maryland. NCA head coach Trevor Brown offered him a spot at the school, the first benchmark in the African product’s developmental journey into the player he is today – an athletic, 6-foot-9, rim-protecting forward with a gritty attitude, comedic personality, high vertical and even higher ceiling slated to play basketball at Robert Morris next fall.
“He was extremely raw without much basketball skills at all when we first got him,” recalls National Christian Academy assistant coach Maynard Curry. “He was always determined, though. One of the things we noticed was how well he ran the floor and how hard he worked.”
Ngonadi was a project. He practiced with the varsity team as a sophomore, albeit only suiting up for JV games, where he wasn’t much of a factor at all. He fouled out a lot, and could hardly catch the ball in the post, let alone put home layups or occasional dunk attempts.
Finally on varsity, Ngonadi took a step in the right direction in his junior season while heavily involved in the AAU circuits. And then came his senior year, where he flourished with averages of 12 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game to lead the DMV region in both blocks (143) and rebounds (342), and rank 11th in two-point field goals (156).
Fundamentals were difficult to grasp, so Ngonadi would spend his nights looking up basketball tutorials on Youtube, in addition to studying the games of NBA players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Wallace and – most of all – Dennis Rodman.
“I love that dude,” Ngonadi said. “He’s like me. When I got my scholarship offers, I didn’t score more than 10 points per game in the AAU circuit, but you’d see crazy numbers like 15 rebounds and four blocks. Rodman said that was his only way to contribute to the team. So, I asked myself, ‘What’s my only way to contribute?’
“I knew I wasn’t a scorer. I’m the one who does all the dirty work; the one who rebounds, blocks shots, takes elbows for offensive boards and sprints the floor.”
By doing the dirty work, Ngonadi garnered the attention of Robert Morris coach Andy Toole, well-known for his keen eye for raw talent and tendency to identify diamond-in-the-rough prospects on the recruiting trail. After his staff watched Ngonadi play a few times, Toole gave him a call to gain as much information as possible about an intriguing player who seemingly went under the radar.
During the course of the conversation, Ngonadi revealed he had only been playing basketball for three years. Usually, coaches didn’t tend to believe it.
“I was like, ‘Wait, what did you just say?’” recalled Toole. “It blew me away. Some of the things he does on the floor, we work on them every day with our guys. He was doing that off pure instinct, really.”
But there was more to it than just that.
“When Andy watched me play, he said he saw something in me that he didn’t see in anybody else,” said Ngonadi. “He saw the heart, the hustle, the grit in me that he wanted. He said most athletes in America don’t have that.”
In the July 2018 recruiting period, Ngonadi’s performance at the Adidas Fab-48 tournament in Las Vegas was the culminating factor in Toole extending him a scholarship offer. After an official visit a few months later, Ngonadi gave a verbal commitment to Robert Morris on October 27.
On April 27, Ngonadi took home MVP honors for Team USA at the PBC Roundball All-Star Game after leading all scorers with 20 points and nine rebounds and an appearance in the final round of the slam dunk contest. Among prospects headed to Louisville, Pitt, Duquesne, Mount Saint Mary’s and Wagner, the one with the least basketball experience on the floor stood out above the rest.
Ngonadi, who makes up one-third of a talented 2019 Robert Morris recruiting class alongside DJ Russell and AJ Bramah, will spend the summer in Moon Township working with Toole’s staff in hopes of making an immediate impact in the 2019-20 season. It may not come by way of scoring, at first, but his activity on the glass, defensive presence and ability to create second-chance opportunities can surely aid the Colonials in the short term.
In the beginning, they’ll keep it simple with him offensively, but with the right approach, Toole can envision Ngonadi developing into a dynamic two-way player with the ability to impact the offensive end as a slashing forward cutting off ball-screens and finishing at the rim – if, and only if, he approaches the process with the proper mindset.
“I don’t think many people knew about him, but we were able to get eyes on him early and see his potential,” said Toole. “Now, it all comes down to how willing he’ll be to work because having potential is great, but some people have had potential and it wasn’t always positive. If he’s willing to work and willing to be coachable, which we feel he is, he’s going to be a guy in a couple of years where people ask where he came from.”
The answer to that question serves as the driving force behind Ngonadi’s deep-rooted desire to grow into the best version of himself, possibly reaching the NBA one day from Nigeria like Ugboaja once did. The harsh reality of being thousands of miles away from his loved ones and life back Africa is an immense challenge he faces every day.
But, in his eyes, it’s both a blessing and a curse.
Why? Because all that Ngonadi comes from, and all that he’s left behind, are the sole reasons why he’s in America devoting his life to the game of basketball.
“I wake up knowing I’m here hustling to help my family,” he said. “Providing for them is one of the things pushing me. Basketball is the means right now. I’m trying to take advantage of it.
“I’m trying to go to the league. I want to go to the league. I’m striving to go to the league. Every time I wake up and I’m working, it’s because of the league. Every time I’m in the gym shooting, it’s because I want to go to the league. Every time I run a damn sprint, it’s because of the league.
“Right now, I love basketball more than when I first met it.”