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ON Safari FOR 7-FOOTERS
Grant Wahl
June 28, 2004
With the NBA hunting for talent in Africa, a top prospect there must come to grips with a wild, new world of opportunity
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June 28, 2004

On Safari For 7-footers

With the NBA hunting for talent in Africa, a top prospect there must come to grips with a wild, new world of opportunity

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Kene smiles sheepishly. "People are always making fun of me because I'm too tall."

"But you've been blessed," his father says. "People have come from all over the world to nowhere to see you. Use it proudly!"

Kene, the oldest of Godwin's five children with his second wife, Catherine, inherited his height not from his father and mother—who stand 5'10" and 5'8", respectively—but from his maternal grandfather, Okomkwo Ngwu, a 7-footer. Like many Nigerian kids, Kene is a fan of R. Kelly and Kevin Garnett, and he likes studying economics, the subject his dad once taught. He is also meticulous to an extreme, using his schoolmarm penmanship to log the address of everyone he meets and hand washing his white NBA socks, AFRICA 100 T-shirt and ATLANTA HAWKS sweatpants after every use. (He hangs them to dry only in places where he knows they wont be stolen.)

It's hard to say how Kene will handle the shock of moving abroad; the big-man camp in Zaria was his first trip to northern Nigeria. He can be too gentle, too trusting, and his confidence wavers. In one breath Kene embraces the chance to leave Nigeria ("I know it will be hard, but basketball is my future"), while in the next he disses his game ("To me I'm not good. But they say I'm good"). Shy with strangers, he flashes a sly sense of humor around those who've spent time with him. Asked one day if there are any fat people in Nigeria, he says, "No. Ugo is the only one."

Ugo Udezue, an affable 26-year-old Nigerian who played at Wyoming, is the African basketball director for Duffy's BDA Sports and Kene's informal adviser. When their relationship began, Udezue knew that college basketball would be an option for Kene only if he did not sign with an agent. "I could have Kene under contract right now, and I don't," Udezue says. Still, he's performing agentlike tasks, keeping tabs on Kene from his Laurel, Md., base, seeking to place him in the right situation abroad and steering him clear of crooked Nigerian suitors: There's a reason, after all, why Colin Powell once called Nigeria "a nation of scammers." Last year Udezue warned Kene not to play at the National Stadium courts in Lagos after one street agent there offered him a plane ticket, a fake visa and a contract with a team in Lithuania—but only if Kene left for the airport that moment without telling his parents.

Udezue could arrange an eight-year deal for Kene with a European pro team tomorrow, or he could place him in a forward-thinking basketball academy in Spain's Canary Islands (below). Primarily though, Udezue has been seeking a mid-level European club willing to exchange the publicity Kene would bring for a year or two of free instruction while he finishes high school. Clearly, such thinking flies in the face of the European system: What incentive does a team have to develop a player if it can't sign him and profit from a buyout if he eventually reaches the NBA?

It certainly would have been easier had Kene been granted a U.S. visa last year. Though the State Department refuses to comment, South Kent Prep coach Raphael Chillious says a consulate official told him it believed Kene was older than his stated age. Indeed, fraud is so pervasive in Nigeria that deceit is often assumed. "If a player goes to the Embassy with a fake birth certificate and gets found out, the interviewer is going to have a grudge against any player who comes in," says Udezue. "We have to find a way to make them trust us, because a lot of kids are being left behind."

Toyin Sonoiki leans forward, eyes wide, and jabs his index finger into the table. "Ugo is living in a dream world!" he bellows. A former national-team coach, lawyer and owner-coach of the Lagos Islanders semipro team, the 45-year-old Sonoiki—everyone calls him Noik—is the prime mover in Nigerian basketball. With his round face and abbreviated mustache, he looks like a cross between Nolan Richardson and der F�hrer. "Ugo is looking for a situation where Kenechukwu goes to Europe without a contract? And somebody should want to develop him?" Sonoiki asks. "Ugo should jump in a coffin! It won't happen. Kenechukwu is a late starter. On an athletic scholarship in America, kids can play only 20 hours a week, four months a year. In Europe the kids are practicing with coaches twice a day, 365 days a year. That's what he needs! Yes, you sign contracts that are not very palatable. But that's the system."

There was a time when Udezue and Noik were the closest of friends. In the mid-1990s, when Udezue decided to pursue a basketball career, he moved into Noik's spacious Lagos house, starred on his Islanders team and (through Noik's connections) secured a visa to attend high school in the U.S. "He is the best basketball mind here, and he is a good coach," says Udezue, one of four dozen players Noik has helped send to the U.S. over the past decade. "If Kene had been with him for the past year, he would be something else right now. But Noik comes with a price we can't afford."

Sonoiki has a reputation as a scheming Svengali who profits from Nigerian players when they sign lengthy deals with his sketchy Eastern European contacts. Though Kene's family says Noik never had permission to pursue any opportunities for their son, that didn't keep him from negotiating a deal for Kene with a Greek pro team last year. (The Obis declined the offer.) Likewise, the parent of a player at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla., says he gave Noik $2,500 for "transportation and visa costs" in June 2003 after Noik claimed to be Kene's guardian and promised to deliver him to the school. "He described him as this 7'1" wonder kid," says Tommy Lampley, an AAU coach whose son, also named Tommy, was the captain of Farragut's state champion team last spring. "I'm salivating. So I ask, 'What would it take to get him to Farragut?' Without hesitation he said $2,500."

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