More Nigerian-Americans Are Reaching Highest Levels of Sports

March 18, 2015

At Arizona State’s recent Senior Day celebration, guard Promise Amukamara was escorted onto the basketball court by her four sisters, whose mellifluous names spoke of royalty and hope — Peace, a teammate, along with Princess, Precious and Passionate.

Their brother, Prince, a cornerback for the Giants, sent his well wishes in a text message.

“All of them got scholarships to university,” said Christy Amukamara, the family matriarch. She smiled. “That was a great relief for us.”

Technically, Passionate, a high school senior, had yet to sign a scholarship offer as her team played for an Arizona prep basketball championship. Still, the Amukamaras are at the forefront of a growing number of Nigerian-American athletes, born in the United States, who are excelling at the top levels of high school, college and professional sports.

Andre Iguodala and Victor Oladipo play in the N.B.A., and Ime Udoka is an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. The brothers Samuel and Emmanuel Acho are in the N.F.L. The sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike of the W.N.B.A. were the only siblings both drafted No. 1 over all in a professional sport besides Peyton and Eli Manning. Jahlil Okafor of Duke is predicted by many to be the first pick in the comingN.B.A. draft. And the sprinter Courtney Okolo of the University of Texas set a women’s N.C.A.A. record of 50.03 seconds at 400 meters last spring.

Arizona State’s Peace Amukamara warming up before a game against Colorado this month. CreditJarod Opperman for The New York Times

Typically, these athletes have parents or grandparents who came to the United States to study or to escape the 1980s-era military regime inNigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, with about 175 million people living in an area twice the size of California.

About 380,000 Nigerian immigrants and their children live in the United States, up from 25,000 in 1980. They have settled in metropolitan areas like New York, Houston and Washington, and as a group, they are far more likely than the overall American population to receive undergraduate and advanced degrees, according to a 2014 analysis done for the Rockefeller Foundation and the Aspen Institute.

Many in the Nigerian diaspora view sports as a kind of student-athlete ideal with its discipline, work ethic and opportunities to gain access to higher education and professional careers, the athletes, their parents and sports officials said.

“The educational piece is the cross-nexus; they’re not just doing this for sport,” said Chris Plonsky, the athletic director for women’s sports at Texas, where a number of Nigerian-American and Nigerian immigrant athletes have played.

While at Nebraska, Prince Amukamara said, he planned to attend law school until he heard the ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. project him as a first-round pick in the 2011 N.F.L. draft.

“My Dad said, ‘O.K., you can pursue sports,’ ” Amukamara, 25, said, adding, “Sports has always been secondary.”

Athletes born in Nigeria have also continued to rise to prominence in North America in the decades after Christian Okoye’s grinding success as a running back with the Kansas City Chiefs and Hakeem Olajuwon’s Hall of Fame basketball career with the University of Houston and the Houston Rockets.

Masai Ujiri is the general manager of the Toronto Raptors. Obafemi Martins, a forward for the Seattle Sounders, finished second last season in the voting for most valuable player in M.L.S. The country’s top-ranked girls high school basketball team, SS. John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School, in Philadelphia, has two players from Nigeria: Christina Aborowa, a 6-foot-4 senior forward headed to Texas, and Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6-9 junior center.

Ujiri estimates that his foundation, Giants of Africa, has brought 75 to 100 male athletes to the United States from Nigeria over the past dozen years to play college basketball.

Photo

Promise Amukamara with fans after the Colorado game.CreditJarod Opperman for The New York Times

Carl LeVan, an Africa scholar at American University, said that sports in Nigeria had historically provided a unifying force in a culturally diverse country and, along with literature, had helped instill a sense of exceptionalism.

“This is another area where Nigerians hear that calling to greatness,” LeVan said.

On occasion, athletic migration has gone in the other direction. At the 2012 London Olympics, nine players on the Nigerian men’s basketball team were born in the United States. And Nigeria’s reigning 100-meter sprint champion, Mark Jelks, is from Gary, Ind.

Sometimes, achievement has brought controversy. Jelks was called a mercenary last summer by some reporters and former athletes in Nigeria after he switched his track allegiance from the United States. He had only a casual relationship with Nigeria and had previously beensuspended for two years by American antidoping officials after missing an out-of-competition drug test. He could not be reached for comment.

While Neumann-Goretti, the Philadelphia high school, has lost only one girls’ basketball game in two seasons, the team has been engulfed in turmoil. John Gallagher, the coach at a rival Catholic school, resigned in February after being linked to emails, sent under a pseudonym to the University of Texas, that questioned the eligibility of Aborowa and Aiyeotan.

Gallagher’s lawyer told The Philadelphia Inquirer that his client had broken no laws. The emails emerged in a slander and libel lawsuit filed by Neumann-Goretti’s former coach, Letty Santarelli, who resigned in November amid an investigation of the team.

She declined to comment.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association have said they found no wrongdoing. Neumann-Goretti is heavily favored to win the state’s Class AA girls title Friday. Plonsky, the women’s athletic director at Texas, where Aborowa is scheduled to play next season, said, “We have every confidence that she’ll be fine.”

A predominantly black team like Neumann-Goretti’s might have rankled the largely white powers that have dominated Philadelphia’s Catholic League in girls’ basketball, leading to unfounded rumors, said Mike Flynn, who assisted the Nigerian players in coming to the United States and operates the Amateur Athletic Union team on which they have played.

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Neumann-Goretti High School’s Felicia Aiyeotan during a game last month.CreditCharles Mostoller for The New York Times

Still, Flynn acknowledged, there can be risks for players coming from Nigeria and other African countries. “There are so many people looking to make a dollar off them in their own country and so many people not looking out for their welfare once they get here,” Flynn said.

While those who meet expectations often find their way, he said, those who do not are “sometimes chattel; they don’t have a school, a home, a support system. You disappear into the undocumented American landscape or you go home.”

At 18, Aborowa is the median age for Nigerians. And she speaks fluent English, the former colonial language of British rule, which has eased her assimilation into the American culture. Her coach said she was a straight-A student.

Aborowa said that three or four years ago, however, she knew almost nothing about basketball and had little expectation beyond a life as a mother and perhaps as a trader of goods. A coach spotted her in Lagos, Nigeria, and gave her his phone number. Her guardian tore it up, Aborowa said, admonishing her not to speak to strangers.

The coach persisted, and Aborowa began to learn the game, eventually traveling to Philadelphia with the help of a foundation called Hope 4 Girls Africa. Basketball, Aborowa said, now means “everything” to her.

“Before, I didn’t have a life; there was no opportunity to go forward,” she said. “Now it’s my dream, my hope. My mom doesn’t have the money to send me to school. Now I’m there.”

She plans to study computer science at Texas and would like to own a business.

“We believe in hard work,” Aborowa said of herself and other Nigerians. “It’s in the blood, to go hard every time, to go for what you want.”

Ify Ogwumike, 47, was also born in Nigeria, the daughter of an oil company executive. She is an assistant superintendent at a school district outside Houston. Her husband, Peter, owns an information technology business. Their four daughters have become somewhat inadvertent basketball stars.

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Christina Aborowa of Neumann-Goretti High School won the tip-off in a game last month. CreditCharles Mostoller for The New York Times

“We come from highly educated families where the mind-set is to send your children to the best schools where they get the best education and the best opportunities,” Ify Ogwumike said. “Sports was not a focus; education was the focus. We just happened to find sports and find that you can get the best of both worlds.”

She insisted that her eldest daughters, Nneka, 24, and Chiney, who will be 23 this month, play the piano. Not until they were 11 and 10 did the sisters take up basketball at a Y.M.C.A., adhering to their mother’s two requirements: They had to play the same sport, and it had to be indoors in the humid Houston-area climate.

The parents of her friends were skeptical at first, Chiney Ogwumike said, and advised her mother, “You need to put them in honors math.”

Eventually, Nneka and Chiney both became all-Americans at Stanford, and No. 1 overall picks in the W.N.B.A. draft. Nneka plans to pursue a Master of Business Administration degree, while Chiney intends to enter law school. A younger sister, Olivia, played in the starting lineup much of this season as a freshman at Pepperdine and will be joined by the youngest Ogwumike sibling, Erica, next season.

“Sports opened doors and sometimes knocked down doors for us,” Chiney Ogwumike said.

Romanus Amukamara, 56, a math teacher, traveled to the United States from Nigeria in 1980 on a student visa and was told by his parents that a “good name is better than riches.” His grandfather was a king in an autonomous village, hence the names Princess and Prince given to his eldest children. Education was paramount; his eldest three children have college degrees, and Promise is scheduled to graduate from Arizona State in May.

“People can take your wealth, your property, but they cannot take away your knowledge or that diploma,” Romanus Amukamara said.

Sports provided structure and recreation. Romanus Amukamara was a soccer player, and his wife, Christy, was an elite sprinter in Nigeria. Their children became intensely competitive. Princess Amukamara, 28, played high school football before turning to softball in college. (“I think she was a linebacker,” Prince said with a laugh. “She always wanted to spear people. Precious, 24, won seven Arizona state high school track and field championships.

Promise, 21, and Peace, 20, received basketball scholarships and have helped make Arizona State a top-10 team this season.

“In high school, our eyes opened when our coaches told us, ‘You have the potential to get a scholarship and play the sport you love at the next level,’ ” Promise Amukamara said.

Passionate Amukamara, 17, laughed and said she felt some pressure to be the best athlete in the family because she was the youngest. “Once my parents found out my brother was good in football and my sisters were good in basketball,” she said, “it became, ‘You have to excel in sports as much as you do in school.’ ”

Source: New York Times

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