The Morning Sun
The new life Innocent Nwoko embarked on in 2013 was not supposed to include basketball.
Nwoko, now a freshman on the Central Michigan men’s basketball team, was fully concentrated on advancing his education and playing the sport of soccer that he was so passionate about when he moved halfway across the world from Nigeria to Michigan four years ago.
A future playing college basketball had not even entered Nwoko’s mind.
“The person who brought me here told me he wanted me to get an education,” Nwoko said. “I never thought I’d be playing college basketball when I came over here. Even when I thought about playing school sports, I thought about playing soccer.”
Advertisement Nwoko did not even play basketball when he began attending Austin Catholic Academy in Chesterfield as a sophomore.
To take it a step further, he did not even know the rules of the sport let alone having ever played in an actual basketball game until that fateful year.
Odds were stacked against Nwoko ever becoming a Division I college basketball talent.
To make matters more difficult, he was also struggling to adapt to life in a brand-new country and being away from his direct family in the Nigerian state of Lagos.
“It was a little bit hard,” Nwoko said in a clear understatement. “I didn’t know anybody here. English was my second language. Trying to catch up in school was hard.”
Nwoko continued communication with his mother, father, three sisters and two brothers back home every week using Skype and Facebook as primary methods.
“I lived in Nigeria for 16 years and it was fun growing up with your friends and your family,” Nwoko said. “I’ve been here for four years and I see a lot of differences in how people behave and how you communicate with your friends.”
It is no coincidence that Nwoko did not have a grasp of basketball upon changing countries as Nigeria is a soccer-crazy country with other sports taking a backseat.
With his parents, basketball is rarely brought up.
“My parents don’t really know anything about basketball,” Nwoko stated. “They don’t really like anything about basketball. They will ask me how I’m doing in school and if I’m getting good grades. My siblings and friends who know about sports, I can talk basketball with them.”
So how did Nwoko get from the point of not understanding the game of basketball in 2013 to someone who four years later is a very promising freshman center at a Mid-American Conference university?
It was an often frustrating but ultimately rewarding process for Nwoko.
“I didn’t play basketball when I arrived in this country and my best sport was soccer,” Nwoko said. “But people said I was too tall for soccer, so I tried to put my mind into basketball and get better at it every day.”
A co-op agreement between Austin Catholic Academy and New Haven High School allowed Nwoko and another talented Nigerian transfer, Jerry Ben, to play soccer for the Rockets.
Basketball? Not on the radar, yet.
But due to the height of both the now 6-foot-11 Nwoko and the 6-10 Ben, they caught the attention of New Haven men’s basketball coach Tedaro France.
“The first time I was in the gym I was kicking the basketball like it was a soccer ball,” Nwoko remarked. “Coach France had to say, ‘No, no. That’s a basketball. You dribble it. You don’t kick it.’”
France convinced the duo to give basketball a shot, thinking he might have a star pairing on his hands.
What he instead found out was that neither had any semblance of a skill set.
In a 2015 feature story on Nwoko and Ben in the Detroit Free Press, France is quoted as saying of their first basketball workout: “They kicked the basketball that day more than they dribbled it, and both could barely dribble or even dunk a basketball. They both were very uncoordinated and unorthodox handling a basketball.”
Nonetheless, neither gave up. Both would eventually overcome all obstacles in their new sport to become high school standouts. Nwoko earned a scholarship to Central Michigan, while Ben was rewarded with a basketball scholarship to Cornell.
Nwoko recalls those early days of honing his basketball skills under the tutelage of France, a former standout Central Michigan football player.
“It was hard and frustrating at first learning a sport you don’t know anything about,” Nwoko said. “Coach France helped me a lot teaching me the basic stuff. He showed me how to pass the basketball, how to dribble. But it was hard.”
Living with France during his time at New Haven afforded Nwoko a comfortable bed and food at the ready.
Despite being unable to compete at the prep level as a sophomore, Nwoko played on the AAU circuit where he managed to hone his skills. The following season as a junior for New Haven, he showed how much his basketball acumen was advancing by averaging 5.1 points along with 7.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocked shots per game. Nwoko was a major factor in the Rockets enjoying a remarkable 25-1 campaign.
Meanwhile, he continued his soccer prowess as a 30-goal scorer while maintaining his academics with a 3.6 grade-point average.
Central Michigan began to show serious interest, offering Nwoko a scholarship his sophomore year which he verbally accepted before officially signing on the dotted line in November of 2015.
“My sophomore year I didn’t even know how to pass the ball and I was offered a scholarship,” Nwoko beamed. “I didn’t even know how to play the game and they believed in me enough to give me a scholarship.”
Nwoko was unsure at first, but France eventually convinced his blossoming player that becoming a Chippewa would be a smart decision.
He did not rest on his laurels despite knowing his college future, becoming a Class B All-State honorable mention selection as a senior and helping New Haven to a 22-4 record.
Chippewas head coach Keno Davis finds it unbelievable how far Nwoko has come along in basketball after being oblivious to even the game’s regulations in 2013.
“It’s beyond where I thought he would be at this point,” Davis said. “Just because when it’s a new game and going from high school to college, that’s an experience even for guys who have played their whole life. He makes the scout team really tough to go against. He’s going to be a guy who next year I think will be able to see the court immediately and then have an impact on the game.”
Nwoko was a late arrival to Central Michigan, waiting on paperwork to get finalized and missing the summer. The delay likely forced him into a redshirt, although the argument could be made he would have sat for a year regardless of arrival time to extend his development time.
“I wasn’t really expecting to redshirt but I couldn’t come here at the time,” Nwoko explained. “Other players came during the summer, but I came late. So it was like I was behind. I didn’t know the plays and there was too much to learn. They told me I would redshirt. I was sad a little bit, but I was like, ‘OK, maybe this is my time to get better.’”
Working extensively with CMU’s junior interior players Luke Meyer and DaRohn Scott as well as the coaching staff, Nwoko is using his year of sitting to his advantage.
“They tell me to go get a rebound or go block a shot,” Nwoko said. “I learn from them. I will watch what Luke and DaRohn are doing, what coaches are telling them to do. I always listen.”
Nwoko also has the very competitive side of him and as a rim protector, he puts it into use each practice.
“I go head-to-head with them and we try to block each other,” Nwoko joked. “They try to dunk on me and I try to block all their shots. If I’m getting better, the team is getting better.”
The untapped potential and raw ability of Nwoko shows a player still coming into his own, someone whom the ‘sky is the limit’ cliché clearly applies.
“He has the physical tools, the size, the strength,” Davis said. “He has the ability, being a soccer player, of being able to run the court. And now the development he’s had is really exciting to see. The center position is one that is always tough to recruit, but we feel we have a good one for years to come in Innocent.”
Nwoko is pursuing a major in international business as he continues his vision of what brought him to a new country in the first place - an education.
There is absolutely no doubt Nwoko has no regrets about his move to the United States.
“I plan on visiting Nigeria but coming back here to live after I’m done with college,” Nwoko added.