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Terps

Latest leg of Terps center Sean Obi's lifelong journey leads to Maryland

College Park — From the outside, Sean Obi’s college basketball resume might seem like those belonging to other players who jumped from one school to another looking for a bigger role or a brighter spotlight.

But his decision to become the fifth graduate transfer in coach Mark Turgeon’s seven seasons at Maryland had as much to do with what is most important to the 6-9, 250-pound Nigerian center.

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“I wanted to be closer to home,” Obi said after a morning workout this past week at Xfinity Center. “My blood sister lives about 45 minutes away from here. … My [adopted] family in Connecticut, it’s a drivable distance [to come to games]. I’m really close to my family.”

Turgeon is as impressed with Obi’s back story as he is with what he hopes the Duke transfer will bring to his team’s frontcourt this season.

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“I see a very mature kid who gave up a lot to play basketball in the States,” Turgeon said. “He’s very bright. At this point in his life, he’s seen it, done it and can give us as a group a little bit of leadership because of all the different things he’s been through the last five or six years.”

This marks the third college stop for Obi, who played his freshman year at Rice.

Yet it is just one of many moves Obi has made in a life that saw terror as a young child growing up in Nigeria, then found tranquility after coming to the U.S. and moving in with Steve and Bobbi Eggers and their three kids in tony Greenwich, Conn., when he was 15.

While Obi made an easy transition to what his “American mom,” Bobbi Eggers, joked the teenager thought “was going to be a Kardashian lifestyle,” the adjustment academically to the Greens Farms Academy in nearby Westport was a challenge.

“When he was in Africa, he was in classrooms of 100 kids,” she said. “He had never touched a computer before. They learned by rote. It’s like 1935 America. They’re not allowed to talk to the teacher, they’re not allowed to ask questions. There’s no relationship there.”

At Greens Farms Academy, a private school where the typical class size is around 12 students, nearly all of them white, the first reading assignment Obi was given was the Greek tragedy, “Oedipus Rex.” The second was a play by Shakespeare.

“He’s so self-motivated, he would sleep for two hours and wake up and do two hours of homework, then sleep for two hours and then do more homework,” Bobbi Eggers said. “He was round the clock trying to figure this out. I could weep when I think about it.”

There is one word to sum up Obi’s transition, first to the Connecticut private school and then to his first two college stops: “Adaptable, that’s a good word,” Bobbi Eggers said.

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It was a trait built out of the need to survive.

Life in Nigeria

The first move came when Obi, having just turned 5, and his family had to flee Kaduna, Nigeria, after the local Muslim governor introduced sharia law to Christian families like Obi’s. It led to a one-sided conflict where more than 3,000 were reportedly killed.

“The Muslims burned down their house in the middle of the night,” Steve Eggers said.

The struggle, according to Steve Eggers, an oil trader who spends three months a year in Nigeria, was more than a religious conflict, but one also tied to the economic and societal differences between the two groups.

Obi’s parents “lost everything,” their now 22-year-old son recalled. “We were in the North, which is predominantly Muslim. We had to move back to [the south]. In Nigeria, wherever your parents come from, that’s where you come from. We moved back there, that’s home,” he said.

While Obi returned to Kaduna at age 13 to live with a coach at a basketball academy and attend school there for two years, the next big move came when a family friend who had gone to George Washington University contacted Steve Eggers about hosting Obi.

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The friend, who was Muslim, was a business associate of Eggers.

“He said to me, ‘I’m giving you Sean, because I want to give you a lot of other kids [in the future] and he’s the best example of what we have and we can work from there,” Steve Eggers said.

Obi, who had nearly reached his full height, had aspirations of playing basketball at a U.S. college, preferably one with a strong academic reputation. Obi had a choice between going to Greens Farms or attending a prep school more geared to producing high-level Division I prospects.

“I had a few other options to come to the States and go to high school, but the situation with my family now in Greenwich was very realistic and trustworthy for my family back in Nigeria and myself,” said Obi, the youngest of six siblings in Nigeria.

Only one of his sisters, Christine, lives in the U.S., in Prince George’s County. According to Steve Eggers, Obi has been back only once to visit his family, and that came during the first summer he was in the U.S. His mother visits regularly while his father has never been able to come.

Only a two-star prospect when he left Greens Farms despite being the No. 3 ranked player in Connecticut by ESPN and called “the toughest player who ever guarded me” by AAU teammate and Detroit Pistons star Andre Drummond, Obi chose Rice over Columbia and Yale.

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“I thought, ‘Why not get an experience in a different part in the country and go to a really good school?’” he recalled.

Along with his adopted brother, Hunter Eggers, Obi headed to Houston.

Named as one of the top 25 freshmen in the country after averaging 11.4 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Owls, Obi was one of the country’s high-volume rebounders, Obi had 13 games with double-digit rebounds, including a career-high 19 against South Alabama.

When Rice coach Ben Braun was forced to resign after Obi’s freshman year, he was on the move again. This time, Obi was looking to play at a higher level of basketball with the same emphasis on academics. The list was pretty short.

“I’m a huge academics guy, and I looked at the top 30 schools and saw which were good in basketball,” he said. “If you didn’t necessarily fall into that category, that helped me narrow down my choices.”

There was plenty of suitors, including Duke.

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“Since I did what I did as a freshman, they felt I was a guy who could come in and help with my rebounding and physicality,” he said. “When I visited Duke and met Coach K, there was nothing to lose. Get a great degree and have a chance to play on the one of the best programs in the country.”

Part of a championship

Sitting out the 2014-15 season, Obi gained a reputation of one of the team’s best practice players going up against future overall No. 1 pick Jahlil Okafor and wound up being part of Duke’s most recent national championship.

Asked what that experience was like, Obi said, “Unbelievable, one of the best experiences in my life, made lifetime friendships. I learned a lot, and obviously contributed a lot in practice because I was healthy that year. … It was a really special year.”

Plagued by a cartilage problem in his left knee, Obi played sparingly as a redshirt sophomore, appearing in just 10 games for a total of 27 minutes. As his junior year approached, Obi had surgery to clean up the knee and was advised by doctors not to play for a year.

In the spring, Obi decided to transfer. After graduating with a 3.6 GPA and a degree in sociology, Obi chose Maryland over Georgetown. One of those who advised him on picking the Terps was his former Duke teammate, Rasheed Sulaimon, another of Turgeon’s graduate transfers.

Sulaimon, who had been dismissed from the Duke team midway through the championship season but remained in school to finish his degree, wound up playing a key role on Maryland’s first Sweet 16 team since 2003.

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Obi, who called Sulaimon a close friend and a “good man,” was told by his former teammate that being a graduate transfer on a team that has been successful can be tricky to navigate, especially at the beginning of the season.

“Obviously you don’t try to cross certain boundaries, the guys that have been for four years you have to respect them, they’re legit seniors,” Obi said. “Being the new guy, I feel it’s to slowly integrate. As Rasheed said, as the year goes on, everyone’s going to be a leader.”

A mature leader

Turgeon is counting on Obi to give the Terps a tough, interior presence they’ve lacked and help shore up an area — rebounding — that has proven problematic at times, especially in the Big Ten and NCAA tournament.

“I think with the [2017] recruiting class, we tried to become more physical and become a better rebounding team,” Turgeon said. “We felt we’ve got that. Sean is arguably our best rebounder in practice, him and Bruno [Fernando], two new guys. Darryl [Morsell] is not too far behind.

“He likes to rebound. Sean knows who he is. What he does, he does well. I do think the best thing he does is rebound, the second best thing he does is communicate. His communication helps us defensively. He's in tune, he’s talking a lot.”

Obi has a clear sense of what his role is going to be, and that part of his job will be toughening up Fernando, as he did with Okafor. The last high volume rebounder the Terps had was Charles Mitchell, who left after his sophomore year in 2013-14 and also wore jersey No. 0. (Ironically, so did Sulaimon.)

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“That’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Obi said of his rebounding. “I’m not someone who grew up playing basketball. I’m not the best ballhandler. I try to focus on the best attribute I have and I do it to my very best. I take a lot of pride in rebounding the ball.”

Though Obi knows this is his last stop in college — maybe his last organized team if he decides to use the master’s degree he is pursuing in global supply chain management — he is not looking that far in the future. Maybe not past the season opener Nov. 10 against Stony Brook.

“For me, I take it one day at a time, I’m looking for the best every day,” Obi said. “I want to be a huge contributor whatever way I can. I am so consumed with winning. Whatever it takes to win, I’m willing to bring it to the table. Being part of a championship team I’ve learned all that.”


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