Coming to America: Obi helps GFA boys hoops slay foes
Published 1:30 pm, Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Snowdrifts approach 10 feet tall. Roads are better suited for the Iditarod dog sleds than cars. Television weathermen throw around the term "snowpocalypse" without impunity.
Suffice it to say, by mid-January, most citizens of Southwestern Connecticut have had their fill of snow in the winter of 2011.
For the sizeable chorus cursing Old Man Winter under their breath, Sean Obi's tact is markedly different. Obi, a 6-foot-9 center at Greens Farms Academy, is from Nigeria and hadn't seen the fluffy white stuff until last month.
"I never knew it would get to snow this much, it's very beautiful," the soft-spoken sophomore said last week.
While Obi, who just turns 16 this weekend, is getting accustomed to snow and all other aspects of life as an American teenager, the region -- specifically college coaches -- are beginning to get to know about him. Through GFA's first nine games, he has posted an eye-opening line of 23.6 points and 19.7 rebounds per game, attracting scouts from places like Harvard and Columbia, who are equally impressed by his honors-level academics.
"Basically when I came here, I never looked at all that stuff," Obi said about the recruiting process. "I came here to play basketball and whatever takes place in the next stage is left to God."
The abridged story of how this budding Division-I prospect landed on the quiet, tranquil GFA campus highlights the power of connections made during a lifetime.
Steve Eggers, an oil trader who lives in Greenwich, had been doing business in Nigeria dating back to the 1970s. During his many trips to the country, he'd play pickup basketball in his downtime and developed ties within the Nigerian hoops community.
Flash forward to July 2010 and one of those contacts, Ahmed Baba Ahmed, a Nigerian businessman based in Texas, called Eggers raving about a kid playing in a private school in his hometown.
"He called me up and was like, `Steve, I've got the next LeBron James.' I said, `Ahmed, they're all the next LeBron James.' He's like, `Nah nah, you don't understand. He's a great kid, he's very talented,'" Eggers said. "Five or six weeks later, he was at our door."
Eggers said that it wasn't that cut and dried. He and his wife, Bobbi, had previously thought about adopting or being foster parents. The family is also friends with former King School of Stamford coach Ervin Braun, who became the guardian of two players from Mozambique in the early 2000s.
Factor in Greens Farms Academy trying to increase its international diversity and sporting profile and Eggers' son Hunter playing for the Dragons varsity team, and the family took a chance.
Eggers did make sure to express to Obi's family in Nigeria that GFA didn't have the reputation as a basketball factory, so if they wanted to send him to one, he could help arrange it.
Obi's family, though, was happy with a school with a strong academic reputation, which could offer one-on-one instruction. GFA's first-year coach, Doug Scott, a former assistant at St. Luke's in New Canaan, has familiarity with international players as well.
"My parents here are very lovely," said Obi, who calls the Eggers mom and dad.
Until coming to America on Aug. 27, Obi had been attending a school in the city of Kaduna in the north-central part of the country -- away from his family in the state of Anambra, located in the southeastern part of Nigeria -- to focus on basketball and academics. Conflict around his home also forced Obi to move around when he was young.
Always among the tallest kids, Obi only began focusing on basketball four years ago, growing up developing his smooth footwork on local soccer fields. The fact he'd already been away from his family and spoke English helped make the transition easier, though Obi is still getting used to some American customs, especially the food.
"He hates cheese. ... No pizza. No beef," Hunter Eggers said. "He basically eats chicken and rice ... and Frosted Flakes."
Culinary cultural differences aside, the transition for Obi has been rather smooth, as he's put in as much work in the classroom as the basketball court.
Some aspects of Western education have taken some time for Obi to grasp, such as his first book, "Oedipus Rex." Conversely, his favorite subject is Algebra, which naturally has less of a language or cultural barrier.
Obi spends most of his time free time studying, sometimes past 2 a.m., or talking with his family in Nigeria on the phone or Skype, which is a software application that allows him to make voice calls on the Internet. The only television he watches is NBA games, specifically Knicks' forward Amar'e Stoudemire.
"This kid, you'll never meet anyone that works harder at anything," Steve Eggers said. "He's not a one-dimensional kid."
Those dimensions, despite the comparison to LeBron, don't include that me-first, diva-like attitude displayed by many players of Obi's age and talent, such as James.
If anything, Obi's cerebral approach and sculpted physique are more reminiscent of a player very familiar to Connecticut basketball fans, Emeka Okafor, which is fitting, since the former UConn All-American is of Nigerian descent.
"We kind of kept him under wraps and only put him in one college exposure camp back in the fall, and the Eggers literally almost had to change their phone number," Scott said.
Obi admits all aspects of his game need improvement, notably free throws, as he works toward taking his game to the next level. And Greens Farms' opponents don't always provide a nightly challenge in the post for Obi.
In an easy win over Chase Collegiate on Jan. 11, he appeared a foot taller than all his opponents. During the summer, he plans to join an AAU team where there will be more players of his size to help his game grow.
As he continues to develop and becomes more of a known commodity on the American hoops scene, the intensity of his collegiate recruitment should increase. The process -- something else that's entirely foreign to Obi -- shouldn't faze him, with his thoughtful, grounded approach to life.
A life that now should be filled with plenty of new experiences.
"I always watched (American) movies," Obi said. "I knew it was filled with opportunities both for sports and academics. I knew it's all about being hard-working and doing what's best."