Detroit — All Gregory Eboigbodin and Eke Donatus Ikechukwu II wanted was to get an education and play sports.
But not even a year into their journey that has taken them from Nigeria to Michigan, some of their dreams have hit a snag.
Eboigbodin and Ikechukwu are freshmen at U-D Jesuit, chasing their academic dreams.
But their athletic dreams have been stalled after Michigan High School Athletic Association officials deemed them ineligible, saying school officials illegally recruited the pair.
What came into question is the height of the 15-year-olds — Eboigbodin is 6-foot-9 and Ikechukwu 6-10 — and their desire to play basketball.
Tom Rashid, an associate director for the MHSAA, said undue influence was used to enroll the students. Association officials ruled the two were recruited, which is illegal according to MHSAA rules.
“On Oct. 22 we received a letter from the MHSAA stating they had heard that there were two Nigerian students here who were above average height and that they were ineligible,” U-D Jesuit coach Pat Donnelly said. “So we, as a school, provided the information they were looking for and on Dec. 6 they ruled they were still ineligible.
“They thought they came here for athletics. There’s nothing we can do about it now. We respect their decision. I don’t agree with it.”
School administrators appealed the ruling, but were denied.
So, Eboigbodin and Ikechukwu will continue their education, but not be eligible for athletics until the 2014-15 school year.
Adjusting to America
Eboigbodin said he and Ikechukwu, who have been friends for a few years, had been looking forward to coming to the United States. They left their family to pursue a better life in a world they knew little about.
And they received their opportunity, in part, through a relationship between Eboigbodin’s parents and Ron Thomas, a trucking business owner in Metro Detroit.
Thomas, whose son Billy plays at U-D Jesuit, conducts business in Lagos, Nigeria. And that is how he came in contact with the boys’ parents.
“I made a commitment to the people in Nigeria to help some families,” Thomas said. “It’s an arduous process. You have to prove you can take care of them. You have to go through the whole immigration process.
“It’s tough in Nigeria. The vast majority of people there are poor. I’m committed. ... Eke and Greg are great kids. I got their families through the people that work for me. It’s an unbelievable feeling you get when you can help people like that.”
But according to MHSAA officials, Thomas is the person responsible for Eboigbodin and Ikechukwu attending U-D Jesuit, and therein lies the recruitment.
“My expectations were to get a good education,” Eboigbodin said. “For me school is first, basketball second.”
Thomas, however, also was instrumental in bringing Ugochukwu Njoku, a 6-10 center at Detroit, to the U.S. Njoku is from Lagos.
So for Eboigbodin and Ikechukwu, their time to play must wait.
They have been able to practice with their team, but on game nights, watch in street clothes.
And they still don’t understand why they can’t play.
“I feel very bad,” Ikechukwu said. “I’ve been working out six or seven months trying to get better. I was so sad when they told us. I was surprised.”
So was Donnelly.
Eboigbodin and Ikechukwu are not natural basketball players. Far from it.
As Nigerians, the most popular sport they follow is soccer, which they have played nearly all their lives.
In fact, they began playing basketball only recently, at the recreational level.
“They’re raw,” Donnelly said.
Had they been ruled eligible, Donnelly said neither would have started, but both would have played significant minutes.
So in the meantime, the two will continue to struggle with their Latin classes, try new foods — Ikechukwu’s favorite is pancakes — and become accustomed to Michigan winters.
“We don’t like snow,” Ikechukwu said. “We had seen it on TV before. But no, we don’t like it at all.”