All I’ve learned from the NCAA’s Foreign Student Athletes

The clock is ticking for foreign student athletes in the NCAA. The incoming Season 94 and next year’s Season 95 will be the last years that they’re eligible to play in the Philippines’ oldest collegiate league.

The decision announced a couple of days ago is controversial, but not entirely out of the blue—it’s one that has been talked about and debated as far back as NCAA Season 90, when the San Beda Red Lions had notched five straight championships and had the league’s most awarded foreign student athlete in Ola Adeogun.

As a courtside reporter, I covered a lot of San Beda games in Season 91, Ola’s last year. They were a wonderful squad—Coach Jamike Jarin had established a close-knit team culture, Baser Amer and Art Dela Cruz were stars, you had up-and-coming guys like Javee Mocon and AC Soberano backing them up. I was assigned to many of their games that season and Ola was one of my favorite people to interview.

Team practice with Ola Adeogun and the rest of San Beda’s 2015 squad

The livestream didn’t work in Nigeria, Ola said, so for every year he played in the NCAA, he’d compile game footage and send it home in a box. He was thankful for his scholarship because his dream was to be a businessman. I asked him what his plans were after college, and misheard him.

“NBA?”

“No, MBA! At San Beda.”

One time after team practice, I dared Ola to sing a Tagalog song and he did “Lupang Hinirang,” hand on his chest and all.

Foreign student athletes can be shy (heck, I would be too if I was alone in a new country), so I try to break the ice by talking about things other than the game. I read up about Nigeria—how it’s a massive country with over a hundred languages; how intensely flavored the food can be. Nigeria is a lot like the Philippines in that the inequalities of the colonial period bleed into life today.

The year after Ola graduated, the most dominant foreign student athlete became Allwell Oraeme. Unlike the older, gregarious Ola, the Mapua Cardinal was shy around the press. Ask him questions in front of his teammates and he’ll answer with the generic: “We just follow what coach says and do our best.”

Chatting with Allwell Oraeme back in Season 92 (2016)

I was able to secure a one-on-one interview after one of their games, and we broke the ice by talking about the Nigerian national team qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Allwell told me it’s hard even for him to have a sense of affinity; Nigeria is a football country and the national basketball team is made up of guys who uprooted themselves to try their luck elsewhere, made it, and then came back to play. He didn’t even know their names, but with any luck, that would be his story too.

More recently, LPU Pirates’ Mike Harry Nzeusseu has found a second home in the Philippines. Nzeusseu was already playing for LPU when his mother figured in an accident in Cameroon that left her comatose. His Filipina girlfriend became his support system. After his mother recovered, he took his girlfriend on a vacation to meet his family in Africa. There, he proposed. The pair married in Manila wearing clothes from Mike’s hometown; Coach Topex Robinson was the witness. Cameroon is home, and now, so is the Philippines.

Many African countries are a lot like the Philippines in that the inequalities of the colonial period bleed into life today; like the OFW diaspora, millions live abroad to seek better opportunities. When Allwell got an offer to study and play in the Philippines, he knew nothing about the country but pretended to to calm his parents: “I had to do it because that was my only chance to play basketball. There’s nothing back home like the NCAA.” And even though he no longer plays in the NCAA, he’s not alone in that sentiment.

I’m trying to imagine what the NCAA will be like once the last of the foreign student athletes graduate. I know it was once “all-Filipino” for decades, but I came of age at a time when foreign student athletes weren’t just fixtures in the league, but my friends.

Bright Akhuetie’s post-game interview being invaded by teammates back in NCAA Season 92 (2016)

I’ve learned so much from foreign student athletes. That Bright Osagie Akhuetie means “Bright Godsend Who Answers When You Call;” that Prince Eze’s last name is the Igbo word for “King.” Working with foreign student athletes also made me a better reporter, made me appreciate the league more, and gave me a wider view of the world.

South African comedian Trevor Noah’s stand-up is funnier to me now because when he does accents, I know if he’s doing Ghanian or Cameroonian. I’ve learned how our countries are similar (kaldereta tastes like Nigerian food, apparently) and how we’re different (rice is cool, they joke, but at every meal? where’s the pounded cassava balls you can dip in stew?) I’m on my fourth year working with foreign student athletes, but there are still so many questions I’d like to ask. I wonder whether the remaining time will be enough, and whether there’s a chance the league would one day open itself again.

I don’t speak for the league nor all the people in it. I can only speak for myself: I’ll miss our foreign student athletes. I’d like to leave you with the quote Ola chose for his San Beda yearbook: “The best religion in life is to love.”

Photos from the author

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