Since he was a boy growing up in Nigeria and learning to play basketball, Chidi Solomon Uyaelunmo has fantasized about becoming a professional basketball player. Now a 19-year-old freshman forward for the Towson men’s program, Uyaelunmo is tantalizingly close to perhaps earning a shot at turning reverie into reality.
“Every basketball player dreams to go play in the NBA or play overseas,” he said Monday. “I’ve thought about it, absolutely.”
Like his childhood role model LeBron James, Uyaelunmo (pronounced Ooo-Yell-A-Mo), however, is not limiting his scope to personal gain. He is committed to returning to his birthplace of Lagos, Nigeria, and helping his father’s community populated by members of Igbo ancestry, an ethnic group native to south-central and southeastern Nigeria.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Uyaelunmo and older brother Chinedu Victor Uyaelunmo, a 7-0, 220-pound sophomore forward playing for Southern California, envision starting an educational academy in Lagos. When they returned to Nigeria last August for the first time in at least five years, they and their sisters brought suitcases filled with toys, coloring books and painting supplies, and they have already partnered with their former high school, Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to donate 75 pairs of basketball sneakers.
“I have goals of giving back to my community when the time comes,” Uyaelunmo said. “It’s really important because that is where I grew up. If I look at that place, I can see a reflection of myself. So it’s really important for me not to lose that and to keep making connections.”
Tigers coach Pat Skerry said he is not surprised by Uyaelunmo’s plans.
“On top of being a good player and big-time student, he’s just a high-character guy,” Skerry said. “He gets along with everybody, he’s got a good dose of humility, he’s a gentle, mild-mannered guy. If anything, he’s such a nice guy that if there’s one thing on the basketball court [the coaches have tried to do, it is] to get him to be a little nasty. But he’s a world-class guy.”
Uyaelunmo (whose birth name means “God exists”) remembers a childhood in which he and his brother (whose name means “God is leading me”) went to school, completed their homework, and took care of their chores. The boys grew up in a small village on the outskirts of Lagos, and their father made three-hour commutes daily to make a living for his sons.
When Chidi Solomon Uyaelunmo was 13, his brother moved to Florida to continue his schooling and play basketball. A year later, the younger Uyaelunmo joined his brother in Florida.
Chinedu Victor Uyaelunmo was attending Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami when he met sisters Mikaela and Jada Pyatt. Uyaelunmo began to spend more time with the Pyatt family, and in 2015, Wendy Oliver-Pyatt and Michael Pyatt formally adopted the Uyaelunmo brothers.
Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, a psychiatrist and author of books specializing in eating disorders, said the family has been blessed by the addition of the boys.
“I think what they bring to the family is a sense of perspective, a sense of appreciation for things,” she said. “For example, Solomon one time said to me while we were driving over the causeway on the way back from Miami Beach, he looked at the skyline over Miami and asked, ‘How do they power the lights all the time?’ That’s because in Lagos, they don’t always have power. In fact, in the place where the kids lived, they didn’t have power. So it’s an appreciation for things that we take for granted. It’s something when you have somebody in your life that came from so little material goods and conveniences, there’s a deeper appreciation. They’ve brought a lot of laughter, a lot of love, and open hearts.”
Chidi Solomon Uyaelunmo said Wendy and Michael, whom he calls mom and dad, have treated him and his brother as they treat their daughters.
“It meant a lot to me because they have shown us love like a mom and dad,” he said. “They’ve supported us unconditionally. So it’s meant a lot to us for that to happen and for them to support us.”
Aware of her sons’ intent to assist their homeland, Oliver-Pyatt has begun work on forming the Be the Light Charitable Foundation to provide resources for children and young adults seeking financial security and career opportunities domestically and internationally. One initiative is aimed at helping children in Lagos obtain college educations by helping them pass college entrance exams and find apprenticeships.
“What we dream of is the boys having their own academy over there that will help kids in education and vocation,” Oliver-Pyatt said. “This isn’t the time in their lives to do that, but they’ve always intended to give back to their community.”
In August, the Uyaelunmo brothers returned to Lagos for the first time since they left and were greeted by their father, other family members and friends, who clogged the streets to welcome and embrace the boys.
“It was a really memorable moment, really fun,” Uyaelunmo said. “It was good because walking on the street, everybody came out. We had to make so many stops to see everybody. It was really emotional for me, too.”
Calvary Christian boys basketball coach Cilk McSweeney, who played for Towson in 2002-03 before transferring to Penn State, said he was happy to participate in the sneaker drive with the Uyaelunmo brothers.
“I’m just so proud of them because that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s bigger than basketball, and they truly understand that. Some kids don’t get it until they’ve finally made it, but they haven’t made a dollar yet, and they have a heart for their country already and the kids that are trying to make it out like they did.”
For the Tigers’ final seven games of the regular season and the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, Uyaelunmo is concentrating on improving his team-leading .600 field-goal percentage and his 3.8 rebounds per game. Skerry said Uyaelunmo is “one offseason away” from developing a consistent three-point shooter that will stretch opposing defenses.
But Skerry said Uyaelunmo’s potential extends beyond the basketball court.
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“He’s one of those guys that he could finish and play basketball professionally, he could go to grad school, he could become an entrepreneur,” Skerry said. “He’s kind of got the whole package.”