Chukwudalu Egbejiogu (right) watching keenly as the referee deals with an Abidjan Raiders’ complaint during their match at the Teslim Balogun Stadium… recently.
Chukwudalu Egbejiogu’s story reads like that of the rejected stone, who is now the pillar of the building. He is not actually the strongest of them all right now, but every basketball connoisseur, who has watched the teenage sensation believes he is on the way to becoming the next big thing in the game.
Chukwudalu Egbejiogu’s name doesn’t ring a bell. None of the journalists at the Teslim Balogun Media Centre that met the players of the ongoing Continental Basketball League knew who he was because he has not done anything worth the ink in the game he loves so much. Here is a boy who was rejected by some of the teams in the Nigerian elite league now playing in the bigger frame of Continental Basketball League.
Egbejiogu’s biggest claim to fame was playing in the smaller Division One League, but now he is rubbing shoulders with a gathering of some of the best players in Africa and American imports. The competition has worked wonders on his game that people are beginning to wonder where he had been all these while.
At 16 years and a few months, Egbejiogu has shown basketball fans, including officials of the game in Nigeria, that he has that talent capable of taking him to the biggest height in the game. Egbejiogu is the youngest player at the Continental Basketball League’ May Madness tournament holding across three African cities of Lagos, Yaoundé and Libreville.
But was he really worried when he was called up to strut his stuff at the hugely reworked Teslim Balogun Stadium?
“Yes, I was really tensed; I was a little bit frightened because I didn’t know how it would be to step out on the court against these top players,” Egbejiogu explains of his first game for Lagos City Stars.
“It was like much attention was on me, but I soon heard my friends clearly yelling my name and that motivated me. When I heard my name so loud and clear I felt like I was in my normal playing environment. And now my game is getting better.”
That game was against Abidjan Raiders and the lad was the player with the least exposure on paper, but at the buzzer he was surrounded by a horde of reporters as practically every moment he spent in that game was remarkable.
Although City Stars lost the match 88 to 73, but it was a win for CBL as the game threw up a potentially phenomenal star to Nigeria, Africa and the world at large.
Egbejiogu, revealed that all his playing life he had been begging for the opportunity to prove himself. The young player was brought up in Lagos but his talent still remained lost in the rustic Iba, Ojo area of Lagos, until a chance meeting with Mr. Charles Ibeziaku, best known among Nigerian basketball faithful as Coach Charlie in Onitsha, Anambra State.
Picking up the story, Coach Charles says, “I met him playing in Onitsha and I was amazed by what he could do. He was raw but I was sure that with more coaching he would really do well so I approached him. I had no idea he lived in Lagos and was only on holidays in Anambra. Discovering that he resides in Lagos gave me a great sense of relief; half the challenge was gone with that. And that was how the relationship started.”
Coach Charlie saw rightly, as he has remained grateful to God for the opportunity of meeting Chukwudalu, which is an Igbo name translated as Thank you Lord or Thank God.
“When he got to Lagos he was able to play in the Youth Alive League, City League, and then the last national Division One competition in Abuja having missed the one in Port Harcourt due to injury,” Coach Charlie said.
“The young man is mentally strong. When we began working together, I saw I could try out what Phil Jackson did with Michael Jordan – giving him free hand to operate and no restriction. That has worked with him in every team I have played him. I give him free hand and he delivers,” the coach said.
Egbejiogu just finished his Senior Secondary School work with Rolex Comprehensive College, Iba, Ojo. He is one of the thousands of Nigerian kids waiting for admission into the university. If you imagine he is going to study law or banking, you have missed the mark, as the young man has his plan laid out already.
“I want to study sports management because I hope to own a team someday,” he says.He is the first of four kids (all boys) born to Mr. and Mrs. Egbejiogu. He had to leave his parents’ home in the Iba area to live with Coach Charlie and work at his basketball career. It takes courage to leave the comfort and assurances that your mother’s kitchen provides to move over to an untested terrain. But that’s what Egbejiogu has done.
“I had to give it a try and it’s been okay.”The tougher decision was getting the parents to agree to that move, especially when he is the first of the children. After initial hesitation, they had to let go.
“I know he’s okay over there now. Yes, it’s true; we didn’t want to release him and that is natural, but we had to let go because it was a big stress moving up and down for him,” his mother, Mrs. Nkiru Egbejiogu said. “But I had to talk to his father because he was too stretched going to Surulere for training from here and back all the time. We had to agree to help him.”
But as much as the boy has told them about his progress, she has never watched him play in any tournament, except via video clips.“He has invited me now to come and watch him and I want to be there because I have promised him that. This is my first invitation and I want to honour it,” she said.
The CBL tournament, which began at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos on May 12, has a collection of professionals from the United States of America, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroun, Gabon, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Ghana/Bahamas, Senegal and hosts Nigeria.
Before he boarded the CBL train, Egbejiogu had played in the National Division One League in Abuja and he’s glad to show his clips from that competition. He had his biggest game in Abuja against NAF Rockets and incidentally was poised to play for the military club in the Nigeria Premier League, but was rejected by the NAF coach.
“That decision shocked me because I was sure he was capable but he’s in CBL now because he was denied that chance. If he could get to this level in the midst of respected Americans, what would he not have been able to do in that league? When he was turned down despite his efforts, I asked him to keep calm and work harder,” Charlie said.
Like another kid eager to hit a major platform, Dalu felt rejected by NAF and that rejection forced him to even work harder. When he got the chance with CBL, he took it with his hands, legs and his head. Now the bigger world has accepted him and he is determined to grow and not let down those who gave him the chance to try, even when his mates were only allowed to enter into the arena as spectators.