Planet Hoops

How a man with three countries is seeing the world through basketball

Melvin Ejim is known by American sportswriters: He’s a star forward on the buzzworthy Iowa State men’s basketball team who once led his team to the American Prep School championships and is now a prime candidate for academic All-America honors. He’s lived in three U.S. states and visited countless others.

But this American superstar is Canadian. And, actually, Nigerian as well.

“Both my parents are Nigerian — my entire family is,” Ejim says. “I’ve always identified myself as Nigerian; it’s just something my parents instilled in me. We [follow] a lot of the customs; we have a lot of the clothing; and we celebrate a lot sportsof the traditions when I’m at home.”

Home for Ejim is Toronto, Ontario — where he was born and raised and where his mother still lives with his brothers and sisters. Growing up in Canada and identifying as Nigerian, Ejim was most heavily exposed to the sports of soccer and hockey (he participated in everything he could, he says – from soccer to volleyball to cross country and track). But when Ejim was in eighth grade, his uncle took a look at the youngster’s rapidly stretching physique and suggested he try another sport: basketball.

“I was in the ninth grade when I joined my first AAU team, so I was kind of a late bloomer,” Ejim says. “My mom never really thought that I was any good at basketball, and it was also hard financially for her — at the time she had four boys and was a single mother. So my uncle took it upon himself to take on the financial part of it.”

Thanks to Ejim’s uncle and some youth basketball programs in Canada, the teen soon found himself playing in a tournament in Washington, D.C., where he was discovered by area prep school coaches and wooed to the States for what would turn out to be a highly successful career at New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy. He was named the 2010 New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year and was recruited by college programs across the U.S. – including the school where fellow Brewster alum Craig Brackins had found success: Iowa State.

“I had developed a relationship with [assistant coach] T.J. [Otzelberger]; I developed a relationship with Craig, and when I came down here on my official visit I knew this was a place I wanted to be.”

Ejim finished his sophomore season last year as one of ISU’s top players,
earning honorable mention all-Big 12 accolades and ranking seventh in the league in rebounding. A passionate history major and Phi Kappa Phi inductee with dreams of attending law school, he was a first-team academic all-conference pick who finished the season excited about his future in Ames, both on and off the court.

But there was always Nigeria.

It was a friend he knew from Canada, actually, who contacted him last summer with a simple question: “Have you ever thought about playing on the Nigerian National Team?”

The answer was no, he hadn’t, but Ejim was instantly intrigued. As a first-generation Canadian born to Nigerian parents, Ejim qualified to play for the team. He’d only been to the country once – when he was five years old. But he’d always identified with his parents’ homeland and now he was facing a chance to be an Olympian. His friend made the call to the Nigerian coach. Ejim would get a tryout.

The “tryout” actually lasted most of the summer. Players practiced and traveled with the team and were slowly cut in the lead-up to the London Games. Ejim was the youngest player on the veteran squad, which included several NBA players, but he consistently impressed the coaches. Ejim traveled with the team to China for a tournament and played in a game against the English National Team in Houston. Just weeks before the Olympics, in which the Nigerians would end up making a surprising Cinderella run, Ejim was cut.

Sure, he would have loved to play in the Olympics. But Ejim says the experience of traveling and learning international basketball was priceless. And the Nigerian coaches say they definitely have their eye on him for 2016.

“It was great,” Ejim says. “It was a whole new outlook on basketball for me — but one that can be translated to the collegiate level. Coach Hoiberg was all for it and definitely encouraged me to go out and learn from these guys.”

As for Ejim’s once-skeptical mom, who has yet to travel to Ames to see her son play for ISU in person, she’s starting to understand that her son has a bit of a talent for the game.

“The first time she saw us [Iowa State] play on TV, she was in awe,” Ejim said.

And then of course there was this summer, when Ejim represented her country on the hardcourt. “She has a full house now that she has six kids and my grandparents, but she’s definitely made it apparent to me that she’s going to try her hardest to get out here.”

And she might just find herself watching a future Olympian in action – a native son of which three countries can be proud.

About this story | By Kate Bruns, associate editor of VISIONS. Originally published in the winter 2013 issue.

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