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According to Lampley, Sonoiki was certified as reputable by a coaching contact, so he wired him the money. Soon afterward, Lampley says, all communication with Noik stopped. (Sonoiki claims the money went toward a nonrefundable plane ticket for Kene to Florida that was never used.)
Of course, Kene claims he didn't know then that Sonoiki was passing himself off to American schools as his guardian, never knew he was taking money in his name. Mention Noik around Kene these days and his fear is obvious. Whatever happened with Kene, independent observers acknowledge that Noik's decision to wheel and deal in the largely unregulated global marketplace has tarnished his reputation as a builder of talent. "I wish I could go back to the days when I'd come to the National Stadium, and Noik would be sitting in a chair, and all the kids would be working their asses off," Ujiri says. "Noik then was not so aware of the dealing world. It was more in the best interests of the kids. Kene would be perfect in that situation. Unfortunately, I don't think it can be like that again."
Nor should it be, Noik says. "Why should I work with kids and watch other people who have done nothing with them come and take them into situations for their own benefit?" he says, his voice rising. In other words, it comes down to turf. Noik's message is simple: Duffy can send his minions to Nigeria, but I'll be damned if I give up my stake without a fight.
Suddenly, the power at the Lagos Sheraton goes out. Nigeria is the world's sixth-biggest oil producer, a resource-rich West African giant with 150 million people, and yet every night the electricity fails with head-scratching regularity.
In the pitch black, Noik keeps talking as if nothing has happened.
On Kene's last day at the big-man camp in Zaria, the coaches separate the top 10 players and have them play short games of three-on-three. Kene is the youngest camper chosen, and it shows. He doesn't demand the ball or initiate any moves—it takes a leap of imagination to envision him on the same court with Shaq—but he blocks a few shots, grabs some rebounds and sticks a putback.
It's nothing special, but the mere fact that Obi is competing after his seven-month layoff is a major victory. Nobody thinks it's too late for Kene to develop into an NBA prospect—not Ellerbe, not Ujiri, not even Noik. The lingering question is where that growth will take place. Will it be the Canary Islands, where former U.S. college coach Rob Orellana has agreed to admit Kene, scholarship included? Or will it be Norway, where big-man camp attendee Will Voigt, the American coach of the professional Ulriken Eagles, has consented to work with Kene and even found him an Igbo-speaking host family? If the right visa were to come through, either place would meet Udezue's goal of not tying Kene down to a long-term pro contract, and the Canary Islands option would allow Kene to retain his college eligibility. ( Duffy would have to cover Kene's living expenses in Norway, thus foreclosing the college route.)
As of Sunday, Kene was still in limbo, staying with a friend of Udezue's in Senegal and waiting to interview for a Spanish visa. If it isn't granted, he'll spend the summer in Lagos living with his aunt and uncle and suiting up in the Nigerian league for Dodan Warriors, the archrival of Noik's Islanders. "He needs to play," says Warriors coach Alex Owoicho. "In Enugu they don't play a lot of games, but in Lagos we play a lot. He's going to have a chance to play for three months nonstop."
A chance. It's all that Kene wants. That's why he keeps working with Udezue despite all the setbacks, why he's out here on the basketball court at Ugo's hotel in Enugu on a hot Saturday afternoon in April. Surrounded by a grove of cashew and mango trees, Udezue runs Kene through jump hooks, free throws, spin moves and the Mikan drill before going over one last thing. "Now you're going to take a dribble and do a jump stop," he says. "Most big guys on the break go to the rack, but if you just stop, you can do this." Udezue demonstrates, stopping and leaning to his right as he jumps to get off the shot. To his surprise, Kene gets it right the first time.
"Good job, Kene! Now do one more...."