On Feb. 14, 2014, 17-year-old Abiodun Ayetimiyi boarded a plane alone in Lagos, Nigeria, and flew to the United States. He left his home, his family and his friends to pursue a dream.
The dream was a chance to play basketball in America and work toward a better future.
Ayetimiyi said goodbye to his family the day before he left. He didn’t want the sadness on their faces to be the last thing he saw before boarding the plane.
His trip took 28 hours with a 4-6 hour layover in Dubai. As soon as he boarded the plane to America, Ayetimiyi experienced culture shock, something he knew would be the norm when he arrived at his new home.
“I was confused, like, I don’t know where I’m going. When they asked me if I want tea, and I said yes — I always knew tea to be hot back in Nigeria — so I got my first iced tea on the plane,” Ayetimiyi said. “Seeing that, and the food, it was different. The chicken was different from what I used to eat. That’s when I told myself like, ‘AB, everything is going to be different for you from now.’”
Ayetimiyi landed in Houston and a coach, “Coach J,” as Ayetimiyi remembers him, picked him up and brought him to North Carolina to go to school and train. Well, he thought he was going to school. It was just basketball training. The basketball camp had a dorm-style setup where Ayetimiyi was sleeping in a room with 4-6 other players on bunk beds.
“The living condition was tough because now we’ve got to wait for someone to decide when we’re going to eat and what we’re going to eat, and we don’t have say,” Ayetimiyi said. “It wasn’t what I really expected.”
At the time, America wasn’t living up to Ayetimiyi’s expectations. His spirit was down and he asked himself if he should just give up and try to find a way back home or take everything in stride and hope for the best.
“It was really tough, trying to get through the system and fit things together,” Ayetimiyi said. “It was a big jump. It was really big. Like, for six months when I came here I was crying every day because I don’t know no one; I don’t know what to do; I don’t know where to go; I don’t know who to talk to. It was a really big jump.
“Back home, I know if I don’t know what to do, I could probably go to my mom or my dad and they would take me along and put me to the right path. But coming down here, there was no one, and it was a big difference.”
It was a long journey just to reach that point, though. Growing up, Ayetimiyi had always played soccer. His friends played basketball, and when he was 10 years old he had the urge to join them.
“I was just like, man, I think I can do something with my hands. So that was when my friends put me through and started working with me on basketball and stuff like that,” Ayetimiyi said.
His father, Ayetimiyi Fredrick, didn’t want him to play basketball. Out of five children, Abiodun was Fredrick’s only son, and he wanted Abiodun to follow in his footsteps and go into the medical field.
“My dad never wanted me to be in sports because, in Africa, we don’t see sports as anything that is going to benefit someone. Most parents in Africa saw sports as a waste of time, a waste of opportunity and stuff,” Abiodun said. “I just kept pushing. My mom was supportive, but my dad wasn’t because he just wanted me to be a medical doctor.”
Abiodun continued to work out and practice despite Fredrick’s disapproval. He didn’t have the money to join a gym for access to a basketball court, so to find practice time, Abiodun went to basketball practices in Lagos and volunteered as a ball boy. When players would get tired and take a break, Abiodun used that time to get his own practice in and work on his game as much as possible. Otherwise, it was nearly impossible to find a goal to practice on.
“Most of the time, we just go outside and find maybe a basket that looks like — and maybe a sack or something — and put it somewhere and start playing outside. That’s what we do most times,” Abiodun said.
After five years of work, Abiodun was invited to try out for the Nigerian Under-18 National Team when he was 15. He didn’t make the team, but at 16, he was chosen to go to Basketball Without Borders in South Africa in 2013. Basketball Without Borders is an outreach program started by the NBA and FIBA in 2001 that focuses on global basketball development.
There, he met NBA players like Kyrie Irving, Luol Deng, Thabo Sefolosha and Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri.
“Me hanging around them made me feel like if I can be among the very best, I can get somewhere one day,” Abiodun said. “The South Africa camp really motivated me more.”
Abiodun’s friends and the people at the NBA camps saw his potential. They told him if he could get to America, he could do something with his talent. Although the trip boosted his confidence, he didn’t leave South Africa unscathed. During a full-court game, he got hit and cracked his skull. He still didn’t lose faith. Abiodun was determined to make a recovery and continue chasing his dream.
“In Africa, everyone’s dream is to come to the U.S. to play, at least play college basketball. That’s everyone’s dream in sports. So, I just keep believing and keep the motivation,” Abiodun said.
Fredrick saw Basketball Without Borders on the news when he was with a friend, and seeing the reach the game had across the world changed his perspective. When he returned to Lagos, Abiodun was asked a question his dad had never asked him.
“How was basketball?” Fredrick asked.
“That was when he decided he’s got to find a way for me to leave the country and go to the U.S. That was whenever he started finding a way, until one day he called me like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go to the embassy and get your Visa,’” Abiodun said.
After recovering from his injury, his dad helped him get his Visa and get on a flight to the United States. There was only one problem.
Abiodun had no way home.
Fredrick had spoken with a man who said he could get Abiodun’s ticket to America. Fredrick gave him the money for a ticket, but what the man didn’t tell him is that it was just a one-way ticket.
Abiodun had no idea what was going on at the time. He was stuck at a basketball camp in North Carolina and wasn’t going to school. Abiodun called his dad and told him he didn’t want that for himself. He wanted to go to school and play basketball.
So Fredrick called Aba Usman, Abiodun’s coach in Nigeria. Usman got in touch with Dominic Okon, a native of Akwa, Nigeria, and the current Director of Men’s Basketball Operations at Wichita State University. Okon is a Three Rivers College alumnus who spent eight years with the program as an assistant coach after a two-year playing career.
Okon brought Abiodun to Poplar Bluff to meet Three Rivers coach Gene Bess and assistant coach Brian Bess. Soon after, he met the man who would give him a home.
“I got to meet Yahahya Ibrahim. He was the one that helped me and said he was going to take me as his own, so he took me as his son, take care of me and find a way to put me into the high school,” Abiodun said. “I was let to play in the high school. Actually, I went to Columbia for the high school board. I had to do an interview and a meeting, and that’s when they let me play.”
Abiodun had to complete one year of high school since he was 17 years old. MSHSAA granted him a hardship to play high school sports, so he joined the basketball team at Poplar Bluff and was given his first opportunity to play basketball in America.
In his one year with Poplar Bluff, he helped the Mules win the Poplar Bluff Showdown 52-50 over Union City for the team’s second Showdown win ever. He helped force a steal and hit the game-winning basket at the buzzer for his only points of the game. That sums up his grit.
Coach Gene brought him on board at Three Rivers, where he started one game his freshman year and averaged 1.2 points in eight minutes per game.
In the last practice before the first game of the Region XVI Tournament, adversity struck again. Abiodun collided with a teammate and broke his jaw during practice. He spent the next four months recovering from the injury.
While he was dealing with that, he found out more bad news back home.
His father died. Fredrick was 67. The last time Abiodun saw Fredrick was when he said goodbye the day before he flew to America.
With his father’s passing and his injury woes troubling him, Abiodun decided to quit basketball for a year.
“All the strife just took me off school, off the game,” Abiodun said. “I just decided I don’t want to play basketball no more. I just wanted to find something else to do. I was just like, why am I getting all of these injuries? So, I didn’t want to be in the game no more.”
After talking with his wife, Khaiuna Ayetimiyi, and her family, they supported Abiodun from afar. They encouraged him to return to basketball, and he began working out again, turning his father’s death into a source of inspiration.
“When my dad passed away, I was so touched. I was like, man, I’ve got to find a way to put his name out there,” Abiodun said. “So, I decided to come back to play, and I started working out again.”
Coach Gene saw that Abiodun had begun to work on his game again. He saw the effort and the edge Abiodun played with and decided to offer to sign him back with Three Rivers.
Abiodun returned in the 2018-19 season and started 23 games. He averaged 19.6 minutes and scored 5.7 points per game. At 6-foot-2 inches, Abiodun led the team in rebounds, averaging 5.5 per game and playing with a chip on his shoulder.
Coach Gene consistently raved about Abiodun’s effort throughout the year.
“He’s just been a special player,” Coach Gene said. “We’ve had a lot of different problems over the last couple of years, and I thought he did everything he could to try to right the ship. And he’s played extra hard and tried to be a force off the court as well as on the court, so he stands out as just a special young man for us.
“He was so much more mature than his teammates, and that came with a little more age and the experience that he got. He was just one of those guys that worked hard, and you knew you were going to get his best.”
Now, his long journey has paid off. Abiodun recently earned a full scholarship to play NCAA Division II basketball at Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, Missouri.
“When we met him he was just such a — you could tell — high character person who’s very focused on making the most of his opportunities,” Southwest Baptist coach Clark Sheehy said. “He was very humble and at the same time — you could tell — hungry. And I think that was a drawing point for me when we were talking with him.”
Academically, Abiodun plans to study physical therapy, so a man who battled years of adversity could still end up in the medical field and make both Fredrick’s wishes and his own come true after all.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic