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January 10, 2014

The road less traveled

By: Marc Mullen

Tech women’s basketball player Uju Ugoka followed a winding path to Tech, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming one of the ACC’s best players

Uju Ugoka has carried the Hokies during the early portion of the 2013-14 season, averaging more than 19 points per game heading into ACC play.

A person would be hard-pressed to find a more difficult road to playing Division I basketball than the one taken by current Virginia Tech women’s basketball player Uju Ugoka. In spite of that road, she is leading the Hokies this season in scoring and rebounding and is poised to post a double-double almost any game night.

Sure, there have been many success stories of players from countries in Africa, ones who have come to colleges in the United States, participated in athletics and earned their degrees. In fact, two basketball players – Cheick Diakite and Nare Diawara, both from Mali – each played for the Hokies’ basketball teams (men’s and women’s, respectively) less than a decade ago.

However, neither of them can claim the same path that Ugoka, a Lagos, Nigeria native, took to get to Blacksburg. She not only crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but also covered most of the states of Texas AND Florida before settling in at Virginia Tech.

Oh, and add in this fact. Ugoka had never picked up a basketball until she was a teenager and she picked it up only because of her own curiosity. Hard work and determination have taken her the rest of the way.

“I was maybe 15 when I started playing basketball,” the now 20 year old said. “I saw some tall girls [in the community], and I thought ‘I’m kind of the same height as them. Let me see where they are going.’ I was playing soccer actually, and I said, ‘OK, let me go with them,’ and I saw them playing basketball. And, like, the next day, I switched from playing soccer to basketball. So that’s how I started playing basketball.

“I just saw them play. I just fell in love with the style, the way they dressed, and everything. I was like, ‘Hmmm, I think I’ll play this game.’ I thought, ‘I could play this game,’ and I just fell in love with the sport when I saw those girls.

“So I started playing basketball on my own. I had no coach. That was why it took me awhile to learn the fundamentals of the game because I started alone. I had nobody to teach me anything. So that’s why, when I got here, I was learning ball handling that you are supposed to learn when you are little. That’s what I was learning when I got here.”

Ugoka, who was a pretty good soccer player and actually helped her secondary school to a team title and earned a scholarship for the effort, immediately switched from the national sport of Niagara to a lesser-known sport. But she had the support of her parents.

“My dad actually thought I would play soccer,” she said. “He wanted me to go to a soccer academy in Nigeria to brush up on my soccer skills because we won that gold medal. That was when my dad thought, ‘Oh, I think my daughter should play sport [sports],’ because before that, if I tried to play sport, they didn’t want me to play any sport.

“Since then, he gave me the green light to go ahead and play sport. When I told him I switched to basketball, he was like, ‘Why?’ But then I told him, and he was like, ‘It’s your choice, OK, cool.’ So I started playing basketball, but I had to do everything on my own. I needed to be independent to pursue my dreams. None of them, my family members, have seen me play. They just know that their daughter played basketball.”

For a couple years, Ugoka, who is the fifth child of her parents’ [Paul and Kate] eight children, would practice, play and learn as much as she could of her new endeavor. She then took part in a Hope4Girls Africa basketball camp in Nigeria. The camp – according to its website – is an organization that is dedicated to the increased participation and empowerment of disadvantaged young African women in sports and education.

She was among about 50 other girls at the camp, but her performance there landed her an opportunity. She and one other girl, Ijeoma Uchendu, were able to bring their talents to the United States. Mobolaji Akiode, a former basketball player at Fordham University, is the founder of the organization and helped the pair relocate to Denison, Texas to play for Grayson College, a community college of about 5,000 students.

“The first day I picked up the ball, I knew that, even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I just had the feeling that this sport was going to take me so many places,” Ugoka said. “I just had the feeling because, for me to stop soccer immediately to switch to basketball, I knew it would take me so many places.

“I was invited as one of, like, 50 girls that got to go to the camp, and I was one of two girls that she [Akiode] picked to go to school here [in the U.S.]. She got us into the JUCO [junior college], and that’s how we got here to the States, with the help of her.

“And my parents, when I got a scholarship, they were so excited and were like, ‘Go ahead.’ They were like, ‘Just go, go, go, go.’ And I was like, ‘Cool.’ So they have been supporting me and making sure I’m playing well, even though they’ve not watched me play. They pray that I play well.”

Still in the infancy stage of her basketball progression, Ugoka played well enough to earn conference player of the year and National Junior College Athletic Association All-America honors after her freshman season with the Vikings. However, Grayson, which currently fields just two sports now (baseball and softball), decided after the 2011 season to disband the women’s basketball program.

Ugoka was not deterred, as she picked up where she left off once she transferred to Gulf Coast State in Panama City, Fla., for her sophomore season. Averaging almost a double-double for the Commodores, she was again named an All-American and was a top-three finalist for National JUCO Player of the Year.

With the success came a big decision for Ugoka, who would need to make her third move in as many years if she wanted to continue her playing career. Suitors like Tennessee and Florida State were in contact with her, but she eventually chose Tech.

“I’ve been to schools and I know what I want and I know where I can play and I know the environment, if I’m needed or if I am not,” she said about her commitment to Tech. “So I visited, like, four schools, but when I got here, the coaching staff was nice, and I felt at home.

“I’m so far away from home, so I needed a place that I could call my home. So this school, I thought I could play here. I didn’t care if they were highly ranked or not. I just wanted to be confident where I am playing because, when you are confident, you play good. You play well. And I’m like, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to go to Virginia Tech.’ That’s how I chose it.”

Ugoka’s first year in Blacksburg was a disjointed one. She had to sit out the first nine games because of an NCAA violation and missed four other games because of an injury. She also was playing for her third different coach and in her third different offense in three years. Not to mention, she was playing in one of the toughest leagues in the country.

But none of that mattered to her. Something instilled by her father when she was young still makes all the difference to her. It comes up in every conversation she has with him and her mom when she is able to call home – which is maybe once every two weeks.

“My dad, first of all, always asked me, ‘Do you pray every day?’ That’s the No. 1 question, and if I don’t, oh he’s going to be mad at me,” she said. “So first of all, do you pray all the time, and he’ll tell me the Bible verse to read, and he just tells me ‘Every day, work hard. I don’t care. I just want you to always work hard because hard work pays.’ That’s what he always says.

“Then my mom will ask me how I’m doing. That’s how moms are. My dad will ask, but he’ll first of all start with that. Then my mom will ask how am I doing, am I OK, how’s everything going. She just wants to know how I am faring.”

Ugoka’s parents do not need to worry if she is working hard every day because her success this season is indicative of that. She is currently one of just four players in the ACC averaging a double-double, and on one occasion, she was named the conference’s player of the week.

In postgame interviews, she is constantly asked what has been the difference for her this year as opposed to last, and she continues to repeat the same answer night after night. It’s not because she’s trying to dodge the question. It’s because she believes in telling the truth.

She believes that hard work – for example, working out every day – will get the results, and not some miracle pill.

“Mine is just determination,” Ugoka said. “I know that I have to work twice as hard as I can to be able to compete. I know that I have to work harder every day, just put in more determination and use my athleticism and how fast I am. Just use what I have to get what I want and then work on the rest that I don’t have. So just work extra hard, like twice as much, in order to reach the level I need to be.

“But also being healthy is the No. 1 key because, when you are healthy, you can play as well as you can play. I’m a face-up 4 [power forward], so the offense really, really fits what I do. It’s kind of blending together. Working harder at the same time and just letting the game come and just play freely. Have fun and play the game, but work hard at the same time.”

It really is a remarkable story. Ugoka comes to the United States, attends three different colleges, will still graduate on time this May with a degree in sociology – in fact, she won’t even be 21 before she is handed her diploma – and credits nothing but the hard work she puts in every day.

“I learned that back home,” she said. “We don’t joke about academics back home, and the Mobolaji’s camp, too, will tell you, not just basketball. Education really matters. So I’ve been putting that in the back of my head. You have to work hard in your education, too.

“So wherever I go to, I put in the effort, not just in basketball, but also in my education to get a good degree and play well at the same time. That’s been helping me, and I’m going to be graduating at an early age, so it’s kind of cool. I will have a longer career.”

That career she hopes will start with playing professional basketball somewhere, but the part after she says, “will take care of itself.”

And with the way she’s approached the past six years, wherever she ends up and whatever she puts her mind to will no doubt get her unconditional resolve.


What do you do in your free time?

I like to watch movies, and I sleep. I love both. But 80 percent of the time, I watch movies. I love cartoon movies and also Nigerian movies. I love them, even though you can tell what’s going to happen. I still love watching them. Then, I watch others, like the Disney movies, “Sleeping Beauty” … I love all those movies.

How’s the Blacksburg weather compared to what you’re used to?

It’s cold! I don’t notice it as much as last year because last year was my first time experiencing the cold. Not the snow, because surprisingly it snowed in Texas, but last year, I actually experienced what cold was. It was really, really freezing. But this year, I’m kind of adjusting to it. Like now, the Australians [her Tech teammates from Australia] are experiencing what I did last year. So that’s funny, but I’m getting used to it.

Have you become accustomed to the food yet?

I’m still trying to. I can eat it, but not as much as I can eat if I’m eating my country food. And my country food, I can eat and eat and eat until I can’t even move. But here, I can’t really eat as much, but I can eat it. I still have to eat something in order to play.

How much sightseeing have you been able to do while traveling with the team?

Not much. We go straight to the hotel. We stay inside. Then from the hotel, we go to the basketball gym, and then after that, we leave. Unless we are driving with the bus, then I get to look around, but no sightseeing. When we went to New York to watch the men [in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn], we did stop by Manhattan and saw the big screens [in Times Square], or where they have all the big screens. That was very, very fun.

What was the big breakthrough you had when you came to Virginia Tech?

When I was little, I knew I couldn’t see good, but like, you know what, whatever. So I was playing basketball without contacts, but I never knew I couldn’t see. So when I got here, coaches were like, ‘Hey, Uju, what’s wrong with you? Why are you squinting your eyes?’ I guess I can’t see. So they get me the contacts, and I could see clearly. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I must have been blind.’ So if I take the contacts off, now I know what I couldn’t see. I was playing, like, half blind.

Where do you think you are in your basketball progression?

I would say, right now, I am 60 percent because I know I am still learning. I’ve not played many years. I’m still learning from people every day. The more people I play with, different people, I learn every day because I’m not perfect with the game. So, I would say 60 percent. I’m still reaching my potential. I know my potential, I know what I can be and I’m not there yet, but I still have to work extra hard to get there.