Ball Is Not Life
From a first glance, Ikechukwu Donatus Eke, or ‘Ike,’ as his classmates call him, is a normal 16-year-old high school student with a contagious smile. He likes listening to Drake and is worried about next week’s history test. As he walks down the hallways, he is greeted by smiles and laughter from his classmates. By no means does he appear to be the Nigerian transfer student who has lived with two different surrogate families in the last 12 months and is in the middle in one of the largest prep-school recruitment controversies Michigan has ever seen. When asked about the greatest difficulties of moving halfway across the globe to a new country and culture, Eke smiled. “The snow and the food,” he laughed. “I hate snow.”
The 6’9″ sophomore was one of two players who made the move from Nigeria to the United States and came to the University of Detroit Jesuit high school last year. However, the MHSAA (Michigan High School Athletic Association) forced the players to sit out of the 2013 season, as it found that they were brought to U of D to play basketball. But that ruling does not define the young man I met. Eke is different from most of his American classmates and teammates. While most of them dream of playing in the NBA or NFL, Eke has a different dream. “My goal is to get a good career. I don’t have a basketball goal. My focus is on school. If you don’t do good in school you aren’t going to play basketball.”
Eke had never played basketball until a man he referred to as “Mister” saw his height and told him try the sport. That man was Ron Thomas, the father of a U of D basketball player. Thomas told Eke to fill out an application online and talk to the school. When Eke was accepted, Thomas brought Eke into his home. “Coming to America was like a miracle to me… He helped us a lot and got us here today,” Eke said. “I’m glad, but now I don’t live with him.”
This summer, Thomas lost custody of Eke and fellow Nigerian U of D student Greg Eboigbodin after claims that Thomas was mistreating the two boys turned out to be true. “It was tough, I was shedding tears every day,” Eke said. “I think he was taking advantage of us. I think he pretended to like us; he was doing it for his own purpose… for basketball.” Before losing custody, Thomas tried to pull Eke and Greg from U of D and enroll them into a suburban public school. But Eke refused. “[Thomas] told me he was going to take me away from the school and I said no. This school is a better school for me to stay at.”
It is no secret that U of D is in the most competitive division in the state and one of the top in the country: the Catholic League Central Division. It also is no secret that the school has won just four state championships in its 137 year history and has historically been known as a yearly bottom-dweller in the division, except when it comes to basketball. It is easy to see why some may perceive this as an open and shut case. But where U of D lacked in athletics, it always made up for in academics. Since 2000, U of D Jesuit has had more National Merit and National Achievement Semi-Finalists than any other Catholic school in the state. The Jesuits are a priestly order that has always been dedicated to academic achievement and educating those of all walks of life, so what makes Eke different?
“I’m 16 years old now and I’m 6’9″. If you see me, you will think I came here to play basketball, which is not the truth. I came here for a better education.” He continued on, laughing. “They look at my height, but I don’t look at my height. I think I’m short.”
When asked if he thought he was brought to the United States to play basketball, he shook his head, annoyed. He had been asked this question before. “No,” he repeated the word seven times. “I came here just to get a better education… basketball doesn’t bring me here. The school brings me here.”
Eke feels comfortable and welcomed at his new school. “I laugh at them, they laugh at me, I play with them,” Eke grinned from ear to ear. “Whenever I think about the school, I feel great I feel happy.” For most high school students, a fraction of the amount of press and coverage his situation has gotten might be too much, but Eke shrugs it off.
“Yeah I read some… I mean I know it’s talking crap about me but I don’t care what people say about me or what I do. I would look at it and I’d say ‘Ok, thats fine.’ I don’t care about the articles. I care about my life and my happiness.”