Nigerian forward thankful for opportunity

On a roster filled with players not originally from Mississippi, one player in particular stands out. Ude Ifeanyichukwu, a 6-foot 10-inch junior forward for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles basketball team, arrived in the United States in 2010. He is originally from Abuja, Nigeria.

Migrating to the United States to play a sport he was still unfamiliar with wasn’t an easy task. His life is an inspiring story of faith, love and seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Born Joel Ifeanyichukwu Ude in May of 1992, Ude grew up like most Nigerian children, namely by playing soccer. Ude continued to play soccer well into high school until a well-respected woman in his community told him that he might have greater success playing basketball.

“The first time I started playing the game, I actually was not really interested,” Ude said. “But she told me that there are so many good things that can happen for me if I play basketball, because of my size.”

In 2010, Ude attended a summer basketball camp in Nigeria that was run by Ejike Ugboaja, a famous Nigerian basketball star who plays in Europe. The purpose of the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation and its camps is to provide Nigerian students and athletes with tremendous opportunities to study abroad. As Ude explained, this particular camp helped players to develop skills while American coaches scouted and recruited them.

Ude was selected to play at Saint John’s Northwestern Military Academy, a preparatory school in Wisconsin. He knew this meant that he would have to leave his loved ones behind, but he also knew what kind of opportunity he had before him.

“It was hard leaving my family, but at the same time it was like a dream come true,” Ude said. “When I was picked in the camp, I was bawling like a little baby because if you asked me to come to the United States by myself, then my family cannot afford that.

“It was like, ‘Oh my god,’ and sometimes even now, if I look around me, go to classes, do homework online, write papers… I lay down in my bed sometimes and ask myself, ‘Is this really true?’”

Before leaving for America, Ude’s family held a meeting to discuss him being chosen and to bid him farewell. It’s their hope is that one day, Ude may be able to return and help his family members.

After leaving prep school, Ude attended Laramie County Community College in Wyoming for two years, where he continued to sharpen his mind as well as his skills in basketball. At Laramie, he dominated Region IX with 3.7 blocks and shot 59.3 percent from the floor in his first year.

Once he graduated from Laramie in 2013, he was recruited by not only Coach Donnie Tyndall of USM, but other schools as well. Among Ude’s other options were Kent State, Middle Tennessee State, and Gonzaga.

“I was born in a Christian family,” Ude firmly said about the decision-making process. “I believe in God. And before I do anything in life I pray and ask God for his favor and grace.”

USM’s Southern hospitality, climate and its team’s welcoming aura invited Ude to join the Golden Eagles.

“The first time I came to visit (USM),” Ude said, “I felt that it was like a family reunion. It was like I’ve been here for five years, the guys were great, and I felt so comfortable. It felt like home.”

Ultimately, Ude chose Southern Miss because he believed God had called him there and Ude praises God regularly for all the blessings he has received.

“Everything I have in this country is (the result of) basketball,” Ude said. He already has a prep school diploma and an associate’s degree from a junior college. “By the special grace of God, and God willing, in 2015 I’m going to graduate with my bachelor of science,” Ude said proudly.

Ude is currently majoring in interdisciplinary studies, with special emphasis on communication and family studies.

“First of all, every college basketball player wants to play professional basketball, whether they are good or not,” Ude replied when asked what he hoped to do after graduation. “That’s the hope, that’s the dream.”

But Ude says he understands the value of an education. After all, if professional basketball is not an option, Ude is confident he will be successful working for a firm that does family therapy, or some other field that involves communication. He even hinted that he might pursue a master’s degree.

“30 years from now I won’t be able to dunk the ball,” Ude said. “I will lose that natural ability. But I cannot lose my degree; nobody can take that away from me.”