Rutgers Scarlet Knights freshman Emmanuel Ogbole did not play basketball until the age of 17 and at one point a career in American football looked more likely, but the 6-foot-10 Nigerian center persisted and has been rewarded.
Ogbole, who moved from Nigeria to the US last year to attend junior college at Monroe, hit Rutgers’ radar late and received an offer in November 2022, the month of his 22nd birthday.
Before that Ogbole, who previously attended a 2018 Giants of Africa camp hosted by Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, was scouted in Nigeria by top local program Educational Basketball, who tried to convert him to American football.
Previously, he had intended to play soccer professionally, but he soon found a new home in basketball, where he started out at TNT Academy in Abuja. Ujiri’s Giants of Africa camp played a role in convincing him to switch lanes and chase a career in the sport, although he was not yet good enough to attend the NBA Africa Academy in Senegal.
Ogbole told ESPN: “You have to be at a certain level to get picked by the NBA Africa Academy… I wasn’t really that good and I knew that.
“I was privileged to attend the Giants of Africa camp hosted by Masai Ujiri… In 2018, I attended the camp. I wasn’t really good. I just had the size and everything. I didn’t really have much skills. All I could do was dunk the ball and maybe give a few passes.
“I attended that camp and I noticed how diverse basketball was and what you could achieve through basketball… Basketball is a small world. You can meet great people from playing basketball. I have so many people who I call family because of basketball. Blood and sweat joins everyone together and it’s a great family.”
Kenneth Odumegwu (Green Bay Packers), David Agoha (Las Vegas Raiders) and Chukwuebuka Godrick (Kansas City Chiefs) all became NFL players via Educational Basketball and then Osi Umenyiora’s Uprise camps and the NFL IPP Program.
All three were former basketball players and Ogbole could have been forgiven had he made the switch too when he was scouted last year, having missed his window to join the NBA Africa Academy while he was still learning basketball basics.
“One of my videos happened to just air on social media and people were seeing it and that was how Educational Basketball saw me. At that moment, Educational Basketball were recruiting football players. They saw how big I was, how physical I was, how athletic I was, how aggressive I was,” Ogbole said.
“They [said] football would be good for me, because most Nigerians never tried football. We hear about it but we never had interest in it, because it’s either soccer or basketball. They reached out to me on social media once [and asked] why I don’t come around and try football and see how it goes.
“I told them I had something already going on with my basketball and really, I’m not interested in football. They were like: ‘Ok. That’s good.’ They wanted to polish me more with my [basketball] skills and everything. They were impressed and they started working with me.
“When I first lifted a weight – bench press, they saw I wasn’t good at it and they were like: ‘You never lifted weights?’… It was so funny.”
It all seemed a distant memory as Ogbole shone for the Monroe Mustangs in the 2022-23 season, averaging 12.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He caught the attention of several colleges – even Kansas and Texas Tech – but Seton Hall and Rutgers were the quickest out of the blocks with official offers.
Ogbole, who has three years of eligibility remaining, chose Rutgers partially due to hopes of following in the footsteps of fellow Nigerians Eugene Omoruyi, who came through their program and has played in the NBA for the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons, and current Rutgers center Clifford Omoruyi (not related to Eugene).
Although he has spent pre-season rehabbing from an injury sustained in March and may take some time to get into full flow, Ogbole is not far away from being able to make his debut for the Scarlet Knights, who open their season against Princeton in a game scheduled for November 6.
He hopes to inspire fellow Nigerians who, like him, were spotted late by the US basketball system.
“Everyone has their journey; everyone has their time. I wasn’t really bothered or broken down – it didn’t shake me at all when I saw people traveling, moving to various places. I was happy for them. All I cared about was to make myself better,” Ogbole said.
“I’ve had a lot of people telling me I’m very good, I’m going to be an NBA player… In my mind, I already know that. I just need to work on my craft.”
Watch College Basketball, the NBA, and the NFL on ESPN’s channels in Africa.