“If a door closes, another one opens.”
Ola Adeogun lived his life seizing every opportunity that came his way.
He was into sports at a young age. “I used to participate in different sports. Table tennis, soccer, handball. I used to play goalkeeper [in Nigeria],” he said. Nigeria was, and still is, a football country. It’s understandable why Ola wanted to play the sport like the rest of the kids in town.
But everything changed after Ola had a huge growth spurt when he was about 13 years old. “I grew faster than my teammates [in soccer]. One day, when we were about to play, they just told me, ‘no, you’re too tall.’ They even call me names like ‘tallest’ because I was tall and skinny,” he said.
It was only until Ola was 15 when he discovered basketball. “One time, I played on a military barracks na malapit sa amin. Laro lang kami sa basketball court gamit ang soccer ball,” he said. Back then, he only had his athleticism to rely on, as he didn’t know the fundamentals of the sport just yet. “Athletic na ako noon pero hindi ako marunong mag-dribble. So kapag malapit na ako sa ring, nilalagay ko lang yung bola. Kahit sino pa makatapat ko, kapag nasa malapit sa ring kayang kaya ko sila,” he added.
It was a match made in heaven. Ola fell in love with basketball, and tried to learn it by heart. Just a few months into the sport, he already received invitations to attend several camps. “I started going to places because of basketball. So I discovered that I could use this to travel, go to school,” he said.
Ola tried to take his talents to the USA, but it didn’t pan out. “When I was back home, I tried to apply for US Visa, but I was denied. I was about to finish high school then. I planned on applying again after high school,” he said.
Ola never set foot on the US to go to college. It seemed like destiny wanted to take him to another country: the Philippines. He was invited to participate in Basketball Without Borders. That was where he met Bill Bayno, a former PBA coach who eventually became his contact in the country. “Coach Frankie contacted Coach Bill, and that’s how I got connected to San Beda,” he said.
At first, Ola was reluctant to play in the Philippines. “I thought it was on Palestine because of Philippians. Who plays basketball there?” But with a school willing to give him a college scholarship, he took the chance and flew across the world to play hoops.
Ola was amazed when he witnessed Philippine basketball for the first time. “The first game I watched was Baste and Letran. I was watching (Calvin) Abueva, (Rey) Guevarra and (RJ) Jazul. I was blown away! The crowd, intense! Lots of people play basketball here,” he said.
It was the start of Ola’s journey towards basketball supremacy in the NCAA. He played four seasons for the San Beda Red Lions, which resulted in three titles and two mythical team selections. He also graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing management.
Unfortunately, Ola will be one of the last foreign student athletes (FSAs) to experience such opportunity in the NCAA. The collegiate league will close its doors to future FSAs come Season 96.
“It was a selfish move,” says Ola, citing the success that San Beda achieved. “They told us we’re taking away slots from locals,” he adds. In NCAA Season 92, four out of the mythical five selections were FSAs, with Jio Jalalon being the only Filipino player.
“They said we’re killing local basketball,” Ola exclaims. But how can these foreigners kill the sport that they helped elevate in the first place? “Most of my teammates in college, si Rome (Dela Rosa), si Jake (Pascual), si Kyle (Pascual), the Semerads, they have been in the PBA for years now. They learned from us and we learned from them. Even si (Raymond) Almazan, we compete and learn when playing against each other,” he adds.
Truth be told, these foreign student athletes have been instrumental in raising the level of local talent in the Philippines. Ever since Ola, Sam Ekwe, Allwell Oraeme and all the foreign talents stepped into the league, local players and teams pushed for changes in the way they approached the game. Without them, the league might still be stuck with 6’5″ centers who would be contented with limiting themselves in the paint rather than improving their all-around game.
Ola believes that this mentality that Filipino players are less talented is not true at all. “Look at (Terrence) Romeo, (Troy) Rosario, Ranidel (De Ocampo), (Jayson) Castro, June Mar (Fajardo), they are all Filipinos and they can compete against anyone,” he says.
If anything, this belief can have negative impacts as to how people perceived foreigners in general. “It’s like, imports are better so we just remove them,” Ola says. He further exclaims that instilling to people’s minds, especially the youth, that imports are always better and stronger will stunt the growth of the sport here in the country. “Look at Kiefer (Ravena) and Bobby (Parks). They went to the NBA D-League because they know the competition is tougher there. Even Kobe (Paras) went to the US to play,” he says.
Ola believes that the real reason behind the rule change is the notion that San Beda benefits from it. The Red Lions have been a dominant force in the league. The team won 10 of the last 12 titles, and amassed 21 total championships in NCAA history. “It’s crazy because San Beda can win with or without an import. They already did it,” says Ola as he recalls the 2011 championship when Sudan missed the entire tournament due to an ACL injury.
“It’s hypocrisy. In the national team, you only have 12 spots, but you still gave one to an import. Why can’t you do the same in college?” Ola exclaims.
Whatever the reason for this ruling may be, one thing is certain: the NCAA is killing the opportunities for these foreign student athletes to study and play in the Philippines. “It’s like they’re telling us na we can study with our money but we can’t play sports for the school,” Ola says. People like him went to the country with education, not basketball, as their top priority.
Ola claims that basketball helps raise awareness among his countrymen regarding the opportunity to study on the other side of the world. “Maraming students, maraming foreigners na pumunta sila dito dahil may opportunity silang mag-aral. Nigerians, they heard about schools here because of us,” he says.
Aside from studying for a diploma, coming here is a chance for these foreigners to immerse and understand the Filipino culture. For one, Ola has devoted time to learn the Tagalog language, and can now communicate using a language that was once unknown to him. With the rule, less people would have that kind of experience.
But it’s more than just the education. Philippines presents a chance for these people to have a better life. “People don’t even know what’s going on back in Africa. Some people there just want to escape colonial oppression, go some place where we have actual opportunities,” Ola adds.
The rule is the final nail in the coffin with regards to how foreign students are treated in the country. Ola feels that they are often detached from the local ballers because of their race.
Moreover, derogatory remarks are common in games here in the country, be it at the amateur or the professional level. And foreigners are not excluded from the tirade. Even Ola has first-hand experiences of discrimination on and off the court. “If I get involved in an argument, I will be portrayed as the bad guy even though they didn’t know what the other guy said to me,” he says.
“That’s just the way it is. I have no control over it,” Ola says. Still, he is thankful to San Beda for making him a better person than he was before he went here. “I don’t know where I’m gonna be if San Beda didn’t give me the chance,” Ola expresses.
He is now pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at San Beda while playing for commercial leagues around the Philippines. For him, being at the local leagues is his chance to reach out to Filipino youth, inspire them to play basketball and hopefully help change the perception about foreign athletes.
He still hopes that the NCAA will allow FSAs to play in the league once more. He wants his foreigners like him to experience what he went through with San Beda.
But Ola is confident that other opportunities will be available for the future generations of FSAs elsewhere, if not in the NCAA. “There’s something about life. If a door closes, another is gonna open. No matter what, they should stay positive in life,” he says.
But if the NCAA will not open its doors again for these foreign student athletes, then the league will never have another Ola Adeogun for the years to come.
Photos from Interaksyon, GMA News, Ceej Tantengco