I tracked down former San beda Red Lion Samuel Ekwe to get his opinion on the proliferation of Africans in college basketball today. The short story sort of evolved from the issue to where Sam is now. For the record, I am all right with the Africans but deplore how their recruitment has become bastardized. I'll have something about that soon as I am writing a series of opinion-editorials on the UAAP's latest controversy. In the meantime, I hope you like this.
This appears in abs-cbnnews.com
Sam Ekwe: A legacy and a journey
by rick olivares
When the new college basketball season tips off, at least five NCAA and six UAAP schools will have Africans in their basketball rosters. And that’s not counting the other leagues around the country.
While the NCAA will be banning them from play in a few years’ time, the UAAP is going full blast on this with De La Salle digging deep into the sweepstakes with the transfer of Ben Mbala from Southwestern University to Taft this coming school year.
The floodgates burst since San Beda College paraded a 6’8” tower of power in Nigerian Samuel Ekwe who was a massive help in ending a 28-year title drought. With Ekwe in the line-up, the Red Lions first served notice by winning the Fr. Martin’s tournament during Ekwe’s debut. They then went on to win three straight NCAA championships to reestablish SBC as a college basketball power. They have since won one title with American Sudan Daniel and another with another Nigerian in Ola Adeogun.
I caught up with Sam Ekwe the other day to relate to him the changes in the college basketball landscape since he left. Ekwe is now playing with the High Desert Spartans in the West Coast Basketball League, a professional league in the United States. He also had a stint with WCBL team Santa Barbara Breakers.
When he learned of the legacy he left behind in the Philippines, Ekwe was happy. “If I have paved the way for my fellow Africans to find their niche in the Philippines then it is good. I feel good about it, if people follow what you did, that means it is a good thing. It is a life changing thing for me so I will always feel good about it. And it is all a blessing.”
It was former San Beda assistant coach Jude Roque (who along with current Red Cubs coach Britt Reroma) who recruited Ekwe through Filipinos based in Nigeria. At that time, Ekwe thought that he would be heading for Canada to try his luck. “Jude wrote me all the time,” recalled Ekwe of that period. “He told me how it would be good for me there.”
Before Ekwe could matriculate in San Beda, Roque had to do his due diligence. “I had to check the NCAA rules,” recounted Roque in a phone interview with this writer. “When I saw that it was possible, we had to make sure that all the papers were in order for Sam to go to us. Of course, the rules have changed since.”
Ekwe then said to be going to Manila to study to become a priest. “I attended Catholic preparatory, Catholic Grade school, Catholic High (missionary school) prior to San Beda,” revealed the Nigerian. “I said ‘If God calls me to the priesthood, I would go for it.’ But He didn't so is all good as well.”
Regarding his introduction to the Philippine brand of basketball, the Enugu, Nigeria native related: “When I first came to the Philippines, I knew how to play, but I needed to adjust to the way it is played there. It was very physical. Sometimes I felt like I always had to prove myself as a man on the court.”
Ekwe was a dominant force in the NCAA. In his first year, 2006, aside from leading the Red Lions to the title, he was also named Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, and a spot on the Mythical Five selection.
In 2008, he was also MVP of the elimination and finals round of the NCAA as he led SBC to a three-peat.
After his stellar if not legendary career with the Red Lions, the Laguna Trace Stallions of the Liga Pilipinas drafted Ekwe. “I wanted to play in the PBA, however the rule did not allow me to fit in, so after my contract with Laguna expired, I decided to migrate to the States.”
It has been a roller coaster ride in the US. The responsibilities he learned as a result of his stay in the Philippines has served Ekwe in good stead. He rents a small apartment where he does his own cooking and housekeeping.
On the basketball side, Ekwe has suited up for teams across the alphabet soup of pro-amateur basketball leagues around the West Coast from The Drew Summer League, Who's Next, WCBL, the Jester Black League National Pro-Am League (a tournament where R&B star Brian McKnight plays with his team, Goliath) and a few other leagues. Ekwe has also been contacted by a few NBA D-League teams for a tryout but the timing has never been perfect as he was either out of the US or preparing to leave. “It is always the wrong time but it is all good.”
Of late, Ekwe has been looking at opportunities to play in South America. But he has never given up his dream of playing in the NBA or even going back to the Philippines. “I’ve been to many countries but the top three are Nigeria, the USA, and of course, the Philippines.”
As the man says, the road isn’t easy, but it’s all good.