Nnanna Egwu: Standing tall

Nnanna Egwu: Standing tall

Ask Klee about Egwu's future role at Illinois here

SOUTH HOLLAND – When Nnanna Egwu returned to his native Nigeria in August to visit relatives who hadn't seen him since he was 5, their reaction made for some priceless moments. Egwu, of course, is 6-foot-9, a good 7 inches taller than anyone else in his immediate family. All of the aunts and uncles and cousins could hardly believe their eyes. "Oh, my God, his height!" came the shrieks. "When they saw him," Egwu's mother, Immaculata, recalled, "they all went back to tell the others, 'Go and see him.' "

If Egwu – the St. Ignatius Prep junior who has orally committed to Bruce Weber's Illini – stood out in Nigeria during his three-week visit in August, it was nothing compared to the way the country stood out to him.

Egwu moved to Chicago three months before his sixth birthday, his twin sister tagging along with then-pregnant Immaculata. The family had not been back to Nigeria since, which made its summer vacation a bit more special than a trip to, say, the Wisconsin Dells.

Egwu had but a few vague memories of his early childhood days in the African country. He wasn't sure that his return would be worth his time.

He was wrong.

"If you were to ask me a year ago, 'Would you like to go back to Nigeria?' I would have said, 'Uh ... they can come here.' But if you ask me now I say, 'I want to go back five or six or seven more times.' I loved it."

Most of his time was spent developing relationships with relatives. All remained in Nigeria when the Egwu family moved west a dozen years ago. He scoped the landscape, experienced the traffic nightmares – one city, Lagos, made Chicago traffic seem like a stroll through the countryside – and even took on his cousins in some playground basketball games.

The mere mention of the exercise brings a smile to Egwu's face. The angular, soft-spoken 17-year-old can't contain his laughter.

How good are your cousins when it comes to basketball?

"Not," Egwu says, his chuckles bubbling into full-blown laughs, "that good."

So you took it easy on them? "You have to," he says.

A family's journey

Egwu's father, Emmanuel, moved to the United States in 1981 to study at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in finance. Then single, he eventually married and brought Immaculata and the twins to America.

No one knew at the time how much Nnanna's path would be impacted by the decision. These days, Egwu is one of the nation's top 100 juniors, despite having played organized basketball for little more than three years. His college education will be paid for through his athletic skill, a thought that at one time seemed preposterous. Had Nnanna stayed in Nigeria, there is little doubt he wouldn't have been anywhere near a basketball scholarship.

"I always thought about that," Egwu said. "What would I be doing right now? I have kind of an idea, but you're never really sure unless you've lived it. I think if I'd stayed there, I'd probably be at a university. Nothing to do with sports, basically. There's lots of children that skip grades because they have so much time (and) they use it to read and study so they get a lot smarter. I think that's what would have happened to me."

Education – and its importance in the Egwu family – changed that path.

Then living on Chicago's North Side, Egwu's journey always has been rooted in academics. That's how he ended up at St. Ignatius, hardly a hoops powerhouse in a city known for precocious basketball talents. Immaculata and Emmanuel spelled it out early and often: Education comes first. It is a lesson learned, and reinforced, in Nigeria.

"Back home, you are known for what degree you have," said Immaculata, a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital. "I had my master's in Nigeria before I came. So I keep telling him, 'Being tall does not mean you have to end up in sports or in basketball.' Tall people can be doctors and lawyers."

One day, however, before his eighth-grade year, Immaculata enrolled Nnanna in a park district basketball program, the boy's first exposure to an organized program. The blossoming began, and it continues.

"I'm still surprised," Immaculata said. "The first time I went to watch him I thought, 'What are you doing? This is what I'm taking my time for?' I still don't believe it. I keep asking, 'Can you shoot?' "

Immaculata, a gregarious sort with a boisterous laugh, can't help herself. She acknowledges that "sports is not my thing." And the truth is, if Emmanuel's grandfather hadn't grown to be 6-10, sports might not be Nnanna's thing, either. That's where his height apparently comes from, considering Emmanuel is 6-2.

Size isn't the most important thing that's been handed down, however. Egwu's improvement on the court – from being a lost neophyte to a burgeoning offensive force – is traced to his work ethic, and in that arena he has a long way to catch his parents. Immaculata works the night shift at St. Joseph. Emmanuel takes his four kids to school at 6:30 each morning, then works two jobs – he's a mortgage adviser and a cab driver – and doesn't arrive back at the house until midnight.

"And he gets back up by 6:30 the next day to take us to school and go to work again," Nnanna said.

The fruits of their labor are a two-story home in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. In many respects, Nnanna is the typical American teen, sporting a blue Cubs T-shirt as he ambles around the house, preparing to study for an Algebra II final exam the next day.

But he's also a 3.2 student at St. Ignatius, a school that produced the likes of Bob Newhart, Michael Madigan and Michael Wilbon. According to one report, 91 percent of St. Ignatius students wind up at a four-year college.

In the Egwu household, that number figures to be 100 percent. Height matters not.

"If you have an education, that's one thing that's never going to be taken away from you," Nnanna said. "I don't want to assume I'll only be at Illinois for two years. I don't want to assume that I'll be going pro in six years. That's one thing I can take. If they offer (a free education) to me, I'm not going to leave it behind."

A new perspective

What Egwu had to leave behind in August was his homeland. His three-week stay was extraordinary, and it left him with a much different view of his native country.

For example, he gained an even heftier appreciation for education.

"You're not even guaranteed to be in school back there," he said. "They don't have as much material to learn from. What little they get, they prize. They don't take it for granted."

Egwu long ago reconciled his desire to be great in basketball with the importance of education. In Africa, he likely would have had one without the other. Here, he is living the American dream, one Immaculata wouldn't dare deny her oldest son.

"I know that's where his smile is," she said simply.

Part of that smile, too, stayed behind in Nigeria. Egwu will carry the memories with him for another year at St. Ignatius, and then to the UI. And, no doubt, beyond. That's just who he is.

"It was disappointing to leave, but I had to. Had to go to school," he said. "But I really had a great time. I didn't know how it would be. I grew up so tied with the life in the United States that I found it difficult to go and live in other countries. But I did it and I'm glad I did. I wanted to come back because I miss this country, but even now, I still miss Nigeria. Hopefully I'll find another time to go ... and hopefully soon."