Perhaps to the surprise of many, the Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball program has a “Mr. NBA.”
That was the moniker attached to Nana Opoku when he visited his relatives in his parents’ homeland of Ghana in the summer of 2019. And it had everything to do with Opoku’s 6-foot-9, 210-pound frame.
“They started messing around and calling me ‘Mr. NBA,’” Opoku, now a redshirt junior forward, recalled of that trip to the West African nation. “ … Even strangers on the street, when they saw me, would say, ‘Hey, Mr. NBA!’ I was like, ‘Are you talking to me?’”
While Opoku’s professional potential has yet to be cemented, he long ago solidified his status as a major contributor for the Mountaineers. A two-year starter, Opoku ranks third on the team in scoring this season at 9.7 points per game, second in rebounds at 7.2 and first in blocks at 1.9.
As Mount St. Mary’s (10-10, 9-7 Northeast Conference) prepares to begin a two-game series at Bryant on Tuesday and Wednesday to try and qualify for the four-team league tournament, Opoku ranks second in the conference in blocks, sixth in offensive rebounds (2.6) and 10th in overall rebounds. Tied with two teammates as the tallest player on the roster, Opoku’s height has been a valuable commodity for coach Dan Engelstad.
“That length, size and athleticism does have great benefit for our team,” he said. “He impacts the game just with his wingspan and his ability to block shots.”
Opoku’s physique wasn’t exactly inevitable. His parents, Alfred and Adjei Opoku, are both 5-7.
But the signs were there. Alfred Opoku said when Nana was born, he weighed 9 pounds, 11 ounces and measured 21 inches long. And according to the elder Opoku, Nana’s maternal great-grandfather was close to 6-9, and his paternal grandfather exceeded 6 feet, which is considered tall in Ghanaian culture.
“I’ve got some brothers that are tall, and some are short,” said Alfred Opoku, a 63-year-old senior engineering inspector who settled in Woodbridge, Virginia, in 1998. “Some of us take after our mother, and we’re a little short.”
Alfred and Adjei Opoku have three other children. Oldest daughter Maa Abenaa is 28 years old and 5-9, younger son Kwadwo is 18 and 6-3, and youngest daughter Abenaa “Abby” is 15 and 5-8.
Nana Opoku said strangers who meet the family for the first time are left incredulous by the height difference.
“People are always like, ‘Are those your real parents?’” he said with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Yes, they are. That’s my dad and that’s my mom.’ … It does get tiresome, but my dad has grown to accept it, and he actually laughs when people ask.”
Engelstad said he doesn’t ask questions about the roots of Opoku’s frame.
“His parents are wonderful people,” he said. “I don’t know where he got that size from, but we’ll take it, that’s for sure.”
Nana Opoku, who turned 22 on Feb. 21, said he began playing football and basketball when he was 7 years old. Three years later, he had already passed his parents in height. He began to dunk as an eighth grader, and then made the decision to focus solely on basketball.
“I didn’t think much of it as a kid,” he admitted. “But my parents kept saying, ‘You’re still growing.’ I didn’t believe them. But now I’m 6-foot-9, and it’s like, ‘Guess who was right?’”
Basketball wasn’t always easy, however. Alfred Opoku, who played college soccer in Ghana, remembered his son initially chafing at the physicality in the paint, leading him to sign his son up for football to help him develop a tougher skin. And after Nana did not make the basketball team at his middle school, he was offered a position as the team’s manager.
“I said, ‘Nana, OK, are you going to set up chairs for them?’” Opoku recalled. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m going to do that.’ I said, ‘OK, take it up. But on the side, while you are not practicing, you can work on your own.’ And that’s when Nana started working so hard. He worked harder and harder. I told him, ‘Nana, hard work always beats talent. So you might not be the most talented kid out there, but with hard work, you can beat some of these kids with talent.’ And lo and behold, there were these superstars who were his age that Nana overtook. With time, he just rose to almost over everybody.”
After a standout prep career at Potomac High School in Dumfries, Virginia, Opoku chose Mount St. Mary’s over programs at James Madison, the College of Charleston, Hampton and Kent State. After Opoku sat out his freshman year in 2017-18, then-head coach Jamion Christian left for Siena, and Engelstad filled the vacancy.
In the past three years, Opoku has been polishing his skills on offense and extending his range. This winter, he has relied on a half hook shot around the basket and a one-handed jumper inside the free-throw line.
Engelstad said Opoku’s season started slow and appeared to hit its lowest point during a two-game series at Central Connecticut State on Jan. 21-22 when he scored a total of eight points on 3-of-11 shooting and turned the ball over six times.
“After that series, I brought him into the office and showed him ways he could be more aggressive and attack,” Engelstad said. “I think in the next series [against Sacred Heart when Opoku scored a combined 27 points — including a season-high 19 — on 11-of-25 shooting], you could just see his confidence start to rise with the plays he was starting to make. You could see the light go on, and since then, he’s been really his old self.”
While the Mountaineers are led by junior point guard Damian Chong Qui (McDonogh), Opoku may be their most electric player. He’s had several crowd-rousing, rim-rattling dunks, including one over a St. Francis Brooklyn defender on Jan. 21, 2020 that was rated the No. 1 highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter that night.
As much as he loves to entertain the fans, Opoku said his objective is to simply contribute.
“I feel for my role on this team, I have to be the guy that can make an impact on both sides of the floor,” he said. “It’s not just scoring and it’s not just rebounding. I’ve got to be able to do all of the little things to help our team win — regardless of what it is. So maybe one night, it’s scoring. Maybe another night, it’s blocks. Maybe another night, it’s rebounds. In my mind, I just do whatever it takes to win.”
In describing his level of pride for Nana, Alfred Opoku said,“From one to 10, I would say 10.” But he also stressed he is not afraid to push his son to improve.
“He thinks I don’t know anything about basketball, so who am I to be talking about basketball?” Opoku said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, Nana, I was a sportsman. I played soccer all of my life, and I played college soccer. So I know how sports goes.’ Even though I don’t know basketball and I don’t have a background in basketball, I’ve watched him enough to know what is going on in basketball.”
Nana Opoku said he can feel the love from his parents.
“I made it to my dream of being a Division I athlete when few people get to say they did, and they don’t have to worry about paying for any of my schooling, which is a blessing for them,” he said. “And my parents have seen all the work I put in, all the blood, sweat and tears that I put into the game to get where I am.”
Work ethic is one of the traditional pillars of Ghanaian culture, which also emphasizes honesty, humility and respect for elders, Opoku noted. Another cultural tenet is poking fun at each other.
When he visited his relatives in Bodomase, Ghana in 2019, Opoku said some Ghanaians mistook his height as an indication that he was a foreigner. So they talked about Opoku in their native tongue, of which Opoku somewhat understands.
“They would say something that wasn’t disrespectful, but I understood the language, and I said something back,” he said. “They were taken aback and surprised.”
The “Mr. NBA” nickname from his time there has served as an inspiration for Opoku, who is on pace to graduate in May 2022 with separate bachelor’s degrees in business and sports management.
“It was funny. It was also a little motivational, to prove them right,” he said. “It would mean the world to me [to play in the NBA]. It would mean that I’m one of those guys that put their names in the book and can say, ‘I made it. This is what I do and this is my job. Now I get to go do what I love.’”