No basketball player deserves to have his college career end as Maryland center Obinna Ekezie's did earlier this week, with a ruptured Achilles' tendon suffered in practice.
But Ekezie was particularly undeserving of such a harsh fate just weeks before his ultimate payoff, a trip to March Madness as a senior on a Top 10 team.
Ekezie, from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, has given the Maryland program four good years on the court and four even better years off the court, a contribution worth framing.
He deserved to have something good happen to him in return, not something bad.
You probably know what he has done on the court, evolving from an awkward freshman into a team leader. Yes, he was inconsistent, sometimes tried to do too much in the lane and had lost his starting job, however temporarily, when he went down with his injury. But he started 105 games and collected 1,172 points and 671 rebounds, solid career numbers. And he had a habit of pulverizing North Carolina that came in handy.
But as big as he was on the court, he's even bigger off it.
"What a good, good kid," Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said yesterday. "I consider him a role model. He has shown all our students how you can excel as an athlete and also do well in school."
Classwork is just an annoyance to many players, an inconvenience tolerated in exchange for the chance to impress NBA scouts, but Ekezie is an exception. The son of a petroleum engineer, he selected Maryland for an elite academic program -- a dual-degree curriculum blending business and engineering -- as much as for basketball. And he slam-dunked it.
"I just saw his grades from last semester," Yow said. "He's doing real well. He's going to leave here with a degree."
Ekezie, 23, already has completed the engineering component and is working on the business requirements. He'll need one more year after this to finish the five-year course, but even if he comes back from his injury and plays basketball for money next year, no one doubts he'll find a way to finish.
"If you spend time around him, you realize his No. 1 goal is to get his degree," said Anton Goff, an adviser on the athletic department's academic support staff. "He takes his academics just as seriously as his basketball. When he misses a class because of [basketball] travel, he always talks to his professor and gets his notes and work. I've never gotten a negative report from any professor on Obinna. He's a pleasure to work with."
Not one of those players you have to bribe to get to study hall?
"No way," Goff said. "No problem there."
Ekezie's standards have trickled down from his father, Obi, who is 16 inches shorter than his son but rules their relationship without challenge.
The joke around College Park is that Obinna will get his degree, or else.
"I know any time Gary [Williams, Terps coach] has an issue with Obinna, he just has to mention his father's name and that gets Obinna's attention," Yow said. "His father really rules the roost."
It's a solid family, and it guarantees Ekezie a career to fall back on, a rare advantage among top players. But despite those forgiving circumstances, Ekezie has worked hard on his conditioning and his game. He has come a long way from his days as a freshman who clanked free throws and stumbled around the lane.
He also has shot honestly with reporters, never dodging tough questions or losing his temper after losses.
Beginning to understand why the entire athletic department was shaken at the news of his injury?
"I was just heartsick when I heard," Yow said. "Here's a kindhearted kid who does things right and works so hard. I wanted to see him go out in the best possible fashion, in the NCAA tournament. It's just a shame that he won't."
Goff agreed. "We're all sad about it," he said. "He deserved his place on a team with such potential."
Exposure in the NCAA tournament would have helped his chances of a pro career, no doubt. Who knows what will happen now?
"I just hope someone gives him a chance," Williams said. "Someone should see his potential and the kind of person he is. He's going to keep working."
But with or without basketball, Ekezie will have a life. Yow admitted that was her second reaction, after feeling sadness for Ekezie.
"We all hope Obinna recovers and gets a chance to play [professionally]," Yow said, "but if that doesn't happen, he'll be prepared to lead a good life. It's a classic example of why it's so important for athletes to do well in school. A career in athletics is so tenuous. No one thought Obinna would have an injury like this. But he's going to graduate and he's going to be fine."
It's not the legacy Ekezie intended to leave at College Park, that's for sure. But it's a more meaningful legacy than any he could have forged on the court. Maryland's basketball program will be fortunate if other players follow his example.
Pub Date: 2/12/99