Tall Tale: The Twists and Turns of Jonathan Nwankwo's Long Journey From Nigeria to Kent State

When you are 6 feet 9 inches tall, “You should be playing basketball” is a phrase you hear fairly often.

Jonathan Nwankwo, 21, a power forward on Kent State University’s men’s basketball team, heard the phrase so often from so many people that it almost seemed like a sign from the universe.

Pursuing a basketball dream, though, wasn’t as simple as trying out for the high school team. Nwankwo had to leave his home in Lagos, Nigeria, and begin a new life in the United States to make it happen.

Nwankwo’s basketball dream bloomed relatively late. He wasn’t dribbling a ball since he could stand, and he really wasn’t even interested in the sport until he started growing.

“I kind of started growing taller and taller,” he said, “And everyone said, ‘You gotta do something with it.’”

His friends kept telling him not to let his height go to waste, so he started learning the game and eventually basketball started to feel like his calling.

While basketball is played in Nigeria, the game is not as widespread nor is it regarded as seriously as it is in the U.S. with college ball and the NBA professional league.

Once Nwankwo started playing, he grew to love the game. “I started to feel like it was a call for me,” he said.

At age 14, he left his parents and siblings in Nigeria and moved to Mount Vernon, New York, to live with a sponsor family to continue his high school education and pursue the sport.

Basketball was one reason to relocate to the U.S.; a better education and future opportunities also were important, Nwankwo said.

As a freshman, he made the team at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, New York, even though he had never played organized ball before. There, Nwankwo discovered that his basketball dream was going to require a lot of hard work.

“It was challenging at first,” he said. “I had to get a lot of training and workouts. The hardest part was waking up in the morning to go train and sometimes I had to go after practice, too, so three workouts in one day.”

The school system, too, was challenging compared to what he was used to in Nigeria.

“The amount of work that you get, the testing, everything is just different, but I like school,” he said.

It was in high school where Nwankwo discovered his passion for math. He likes the way the discipline makes him think and work to figure out problems. He’s a computer information systems major at Kent State.

Math, he said, also has helped his game by making him remember plays and formulas and how to apply them on the court, where he wears No. 33.

Nwankwo switched schools to Monsignor Scanlan High School in the Bronx, and then completed a fifth year Victory Rock Preparatory in Bradenton, Florida, to further hone his skills before playing college ball.

In 2015, he signed to play at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was redshirted before transferring to the College of Southern Idaho, a junior college in Twin Falls.

Idaho may have been an off-the-beaten-path stop for this nearly 7-foot Nigerian, but there, Nwankwo was able to continue to play ball right away without having to sit out a season.

Nwankwo said he enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in Idaho and “the best French fries ever,” in the U.S.’s potato country.

His time on the court soon caught the attention of former Kent State Assistant Coach Bobby Steinburg, now an assistant coach at Youngstown State University.

Steinburg, who specialized in recruiting, had a knack for discovering powerful players in obscure locations, said Eugene Canal, former director of athletic communications for Kent State.

At the time, Nwankwo was recovering from an injury and was on crutches, but Steinburg saw his potential. Nwankwo intends to play for Kent State for his last three years of eligibility. His ultimate goal is to make it to the NBA to play professional basketball.

If that doesn’t happen, he said he’s be OK just finishing his degree, getting a master’s degree, and perhaps even moving back to Idaho, where he enjoyed the calm, slow pace.

“I’m not a wild person; that’s why I liked it,” he said.

For now, Nwankwo is focused on his classwork, basketball and adjusting to life in Kent.

Other than calls via computer, he hasn’t seen his parents in seven years, although he hopes to return to Nigeria over the summer to visit. His parents run a small distributor business for plastics products in Lagos.

He misses his family and also native Nigerian food, including egusi soup, made from the ground seeds of the egusi melon, and pounded yam, a dish similar to mashed potatoes. While he finds chicken in the U.S. odd tasting, compared to the fresh bird he was used to in Nigeria, Nwankwo has discovered lasagna.

“It’s really good,” he said.

POSTED: Friday, March 16, 2018 - 12:11pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 1:55pm
Lisa Abraham