Jon Boon jokes about it now, but two years ago he had an exchange with Chinonso Obokoh during one of Boon's 6 a.m. practices that, at the time, didn't sit well with the Bishop Kearney basketball coach.
"The heat wouldn't be cranking in (the gym) yet," Boon recalls, "and Chinonso just stopped and said, 'Coach, too cold.'
"Too cold?" Boon shouted. "I don't want to hear 'too cold.' Now get your butt up and down the floor."
The 6-foot-10, 210-pound forward/center from Nigeria told Boon he'd never get used to New York's frigid temperatures. After all, Nigeria has two seasons -- rainy and dry -- and the coldest it usually gets is in the low 40s. "That's at night," Obokoh says.
So he repeatedly told Boon he'd have to go to a college in a warmer climate. "Now it's comical," Boon says, "because he's going to Syracuse. Now I say, 'Remember when you said it was too cold? Just wait.' "
But birthplace isn't the only thing that makes Obokoh one of the more unique recruits in coach Jim Boeheim's 37 seasons at Syracuse University, where the wind whips off Onondaga Lake. Obokoh didn't just choose SU because it's where he thinks assistant Mike Hopkins, the head-coach-in-waiting for the ninth-ranked Orange, and his teammates can help him reach his potential. He put education ahead of factors such as playing time and contending for a national title. That's not how most big-time recruits think. Then again, Obokoh isn't like most. "He wanted to find a place where he could get a good education and play basketball and it was always in that order," Boon says.
It's not that Obokoh (pronounced Oh-BO-koh) doesn't value what basketball can do for him. But through all the conversations he had with famous coaches such as Villanova's Jay Wright and West Virginia's Bob Huggins, all the nights he researched (on his own) each college, Obokoh kept hearing what his mother, Angela, tells him.
"Knowledge is power. So when you have the knowledge, you have the power and it won't go away," Obokoh says. "Academics is a life."
An 85-average student who wants to major in business/accounting, Obokoh expects to sign his national letter of intent with SU next week. He'll be the first Section V big man to commit to the Orange since John Wallace in 1992. His personality, though, is much different than Wallace when the future NBA player was a star at Greece Athena. Wallace once had "Da Man," shaved into the side of his head. Obokoh is soft spoken and more reserved.
"It's my culture and how my Mom raised me, respecting your elders and talking the right way," he says, adding that he often cringes when he sees American teens talk back to adults, "all the time. It's crazy."
"He seems like a great kid," Fairport High coach Scott Fitch says, "and we've had some come out of our area that don't have the same type of character."
Coming to America
Obokoh goes by the nickname of "Chino" (pronounced Chee-no). He's one of more than two dozen international students at Kearney, a small private school in Irondequoit. He came to the United States in May of 2010 and since then the Kings have won two straight Section V championships. With four returning starters who are Division I recruits, they're favored to win a third. Practice starts Monday. The addition of another Nigerian-born player, 6-10, 260-pound junior Godspower Ogide, whose school near Washington, D.C., closed, could make Kearney one of the most formidable teams in area history.
While Obokoh is ranked by Scout.com as the 26th best center in the 2013 recruiting class, 6-9 Kearney sophomore forward Thomas Bryant is rated the third best overall in the Class of 2015. SU is also recruiting him. The athletic Obokoh, who is quick off his feet and runs the floor well, averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks last winter.
"Defensively he's extremely good. His timing's unbelievable blocking shots," Boon says, describing a knack Obokoh showed immediately. "Offensively, he's still a work in progress. He's gotten a lot better but he has huge upside."
Obokoh lives in the city with Kevan Sheppard III, 33, his wife Annemarie, 34, and their son, Kevan Jr., 3, and baby daughter, Nyah, 18 months. He is, by all accounts, part of the family. "You can't tell either one of (my kids) that's not their big brother," says Kevan Sheppard, a 1997 East High graduate who played in college at Temple and guided Kearney to its first Section V girls basketball title last spring. He works for Monroe County as a Minority and Women Business Enterprise compliance monitor. Annemarie has taught history at Kearney for 11 years.
Obokoh is from the Nigerian town of Enugu and says his family is middle class. His father's name is Godwin and Obokoh has three younger sisters. He grew up playing soccer and started basketball at 13 when urged to go to a camp. He was already 6-foot-7. The first game he ever saw on TV was an NBA game. The only college game he ever watched before leaving home was the 2010 NCAA title game between Duke and Butler about a month before heading to Rochester.
His family thought basketball could take Obokoh places, so he sought to be a part of the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation, which was started in 2007 by a former 6-9 Nigerian star by the same name. Ugboaja was taken in the 2006 NBA Draft by Cleveland. "My goal," he writes on the foundation's website (www.ejikefoundation.org), "is to offer young kids the opportunity I never had but always wanted."
Ogide, the other Kearney player from Nigeria, is also part of the foundation. SU junior Baye Keita, a 6-10 center, came to the U.S. through a similar foundation called SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal).
Leaving home at the age of 15 was "scary," Obokoh admits, but he has family in Houston. That eased some worry. Kevan Sheppard's basketball connections led him to inquire about the foundation, he says. "We've always wanted a large family and we only had little Kevan at the time," Annemarie says.
Those first few days were a feeling out process. Obokoh's English was limited, but they managed. He spoke Igbo, his tribe's version of "broken or pigeon English." Obokoh has picked up a lot just by watching hours and hours of movies. "I stay up late," he says.
While his diet still includes Nigerian staples such as rice, egusi soup and plantains, Obokoh's favorite meal here is lasagna. He's also a big fan of cake. "If I like it," he says, before Annemarie interrupts and says, "He destroys it."
The room fills with laughter.
The change of diet and hitting the weights has helped Obokoh bulk up from 165 pounds to 210 with thick biceps. "He was as thin as that lamp when he got here," Kevan Sheppard says.
By his nature, Obokoh is quiet. But not all the time. Once, the Sheppards went to a birthday party where people were rollerskating. "Absolutely not!" Obokoh said about trying it. "That was the first time he said something that firmly to us," Annemarie recalls.
However, at that same party there was a rock-climbing wall. While getting their safety harnesses on and listening to instructions, the Sheppards looked up. There was Obokoh, already at the top. "No harness. No shoes," Kevan says, shaking his head.
"I'm used to that," Obokoh says matter-of-factly. He scaled trees regularly in Nigeria, climbing 40 feet just to snag a mango. "You get your fruit and just chill," he says, smiling.
"This will sound corny," Annemarie says of their family dynamic, "it just works."
The age thing
Annemarie's presence at Kearney has helped Obokoh, especially when a new language slowed him down. If he was struggling, he'd be able to say something to me and then I could talk to (his teacher)," Annemarie says. "They also could come to me and say, 'We're struggling in this area.' "
When Obokoh had trouble with biology terminology two years ago, he'd go see his teacher, Stacey Greanier, before and after school for extra help. "He just was so determined and so dedicated," Greanier remembers.
In that respect, Obokoh is the anti-Melo, as in Fab Melo. The 7-foot Brazilian struggled to stay academically eligible last year for SU and missed the NCAA Tournament. Without him, the Orange still nearly made the Final Four. Melo gave up his final two years at SU and now plays for the Boston Celtics.
Obokoh isn't an exchange student. He's an international student and has a student visa. Similar to Kearney, Aquinas has more than 20. Enrolling more international students, who pay more for tuition, is on the rise. In a tough economy, it's another outlet for private schools, which have more enrollment freedom than public schools. Internationals follow the same guidelines as transfer students under New York State Public High School Athletic Association rules. There can't be any evidence that athletics are why a student enrolls at a school and no member of the team's coaching staff or its athletic director can serve as host family.
Don't think Kevan Sheppard's old buddies from East haven't needled him about how good Obokoh would have looked in his alma mater's colors. As part of their foundation agreement, the Sheppards are responsible for Obokoh and last February became his legal guardians. That decision was, in part, for financial reasons. Prior to the guardianship, Obokoh needed his wisdom teeth removed. "The pain was so bad he couldn't sleep," Kevan recalls. Without Obokoh under their health care, it was a major expense.
That memory also makes Sheppard laugh, because some Kearney opponents have questioned if Obokoh's birth certificate is accurate. They've claimed he's older and shouldn't be playing in high school. "Try getting healthcare without being (an American) citizen and without a birth certificate," Sheppard says, recalling the large amount of documentation involved.
When asked his birthday, Obokoh promptly rattled off, "December 23, 1993."
His fit at SU
NCAA rules forbid Syracuse coaches from commenting on recruits until they've signed, but Obokoh's immediate value to the Orange next season, their first in the Atlantic Coast Conference, would appear to be on defense. He could be an important substitute.Kearney regularly plays a 2-3 zone, like SU, so that should help Obokoh's transition, as will his ability to cover ground quickly. He was an AAU teammate of the 6-9, 288-pound SU super freshman DaJuan Coleman, who grew up near Syracuse in Jamesville. Some people think Coleman could head to the NBA after this season.
"He's the nicest dude ever. He's down to earth, respectful. My parents love him," says Aquinas graduate Christian White, a freshman point guard at Monmouth who despite the rivalry between his school and Kearney became close with Obokoh after playing AAU together. "He's just an all-around nice kid, but he changes when you're on the court."
Don't let Obokoh's good-kid persona fool you: He's a competitor. "He's very soft spoken but when he gets on the court it's all business. He never backs down," Boon says.
As a sophomore, Obokoh often got into foul trouble, but it wasn't because he was awkward. At times, he was too rough. That comes from playing in Nigeria, where the game is "like football but you're dribbling," Kevan Sheppard says. The scars on Obokoh's face, he says, are from being scratched while playing. "Syracuse is getting," Sheppard says, "a warrior."
The term suits Obokoh just fine because his favorite player is Celtics star, Kevin Garnett. "He plays with intensity and heart. He doesn't back down," Obokoh says. "He knows this is business, what I call a war."
Obokoh's good footwork is God-given but also polished from playing every position in soccer. That's similar to former Nigerian NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon, a goalie-turned-center. Obokoh had heard of him back home, but never followed his career. To be successful at SU, he'll need to improve his dribbling ability. Obokoh is more of a face-up player than a true back-to-the-basket big man.
"I've seen such huge growth just in the time we've been able to work with him. I can't imagine (the rate of improvement) once (SU) has him all the time," Boon says. "Offensively, he hasn't come close to what he can be."
And if he does, if Obokoh can someday make millions -- an NBA contract would be tough to pass up, he says -- it probably won't change him. "None of the hype gets to him," says Kearney history teacher and soccer coach, Bill McKee, 63. "It's so good for our kids to see a Division I recruit who is so grounded."
A Christian who prays every day, Obokoh feels fortunate. "I don't know where I would have been if (I stayed) in Nigeria," says Obokoh, who talks with his family weekly. "All these thing that have happened is not by my power. I think that's God's plan to keep me going up. I feel very, very lucky."