No choice but to dream big: The journey of NCAA MVP Allwell Oraeme

Allwell Oraeme - MIT Cardinals - Mapua

“To be honest, I didn’t know nothing about the Philippines before I came here,” admits Allwell Oraeme. The year was 2012, and the Nigerian athlete had received an invitation to play basketball in a country halfway around the world. Oraeme himself was skeptical, but when his parents asked him if he knew what he was doing, he bluffed: “Yeah, sure!”

Nigeria’s national basketball team may be playing in the 2016 Rio Olympics, but with most of the country’s attention heaped on soccer, there’s barely any support for collegiate basketball. If you want a career in hoops, says Oraeme, you uproot yourself and find your luck elsewhere.

“I just had to do it because that was my only chance to play basketball,” Oraeme says. “They didn’t need to convince me…There’s nothing [in Nigeria] like the NCAA.”

Oraeme had one shot, and he sure as hell wasn’t throwing it away.

From Lagos to Manila

Few collegiate players have had a rookie year as dominant as Oraeme’s. The 6’9” center of the Mapua Cardinals burst onto the scene in last season, averaging 16 points and 20 rebounds per game. Head coach Atoy Co put him in the paint, and surrounded him with sweet-shooting guards, drastically changing his squad’s fortune. From back-to-back last-place finishes the two years, the team came close to a seat in the Finals, settling for a third-place finish. On an individual note, his feats did not go unnoticed, as he earned a rare triple crown: Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Most Valuable Player.

Those accolades are why it’s hard to comprehend that Oraeme only began playing at the age of 14, and at a different position too. “Back home, I played as a three. The centers were 7’ to 7’2” and when I was starting, I was just 6’5”, so I couldn’t play the center then,” says Oraeme.

Oraeme learned to play ball in his hometown of Lagos, a sunny state about a ten-hour drive from Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Moving to the Philippines meant facing several challenges at once: adjusting to the center position, fitting in with teammates that spoke a different language, and rising to meet the expectations heaped upon foreign student athletes.

“It took me a while, but I had to embrace it,” Oraeme says. “It worked out pretty well.”

He surprised everyone during his rookie year, even himself, inadvertently raising expectations even higher. However, Oraeme says the pursuit of individual awards has to take a backseat to a higher goal for NCAA Season 92.

“I’m not focusing on [becoming] MVP anymore. I just want to get the championship because that’s the highest ceiling a player can get,” says Oraeme, aware that Mapua hasn’t come out as the last team standing since the 1991-92 season. “So if I get that, then I feel like I can set my eyes again on the MVP.”

Big man, big dreams

All this, of course, is in service of the big dream: a shot at playing in the NBA.

Regardless of what he accomplishes in the NCAA, Oraeme can’t play in the PBA because he lacks Pinoy blood. And so far, we haven’t seen a PBA club tap someone that played in the UAAP or the NCAA as their reinforcement in the conferences that allow imports.

Moving back home to play isn’t an option, either. While the Nigerian national team is competing in the Olympics, it’s a squad that does not represent the overall health of the country’s basketball scene. Their players come home to play for the flag, but they’re otherwise playing professionally in leagues in Israel, Italy, Spain, and other countries around the world.

Again, Oraeme is forced to set his sights on a higher prize.

His collegiate career can’t just be good, it must be excellent. He can’t just make an impact, he needs to make headlines. He must rack up stats and assemble a highlight reel impressive enough to draw the attention of the NBA, a league, once again, on the other side of the world.

Oraeme’s voice is level, but you can hear the determination: “Anywhere, just keep pushing it. Push my career forward.”

The long road back to home

Like the Philippines, Nigeria’s people are in the midst of a modern diaspora, with an estimated 1.2 million Nigerians living abroad. The 19-year-old Oraeme’s journey is typical of his generation: young, scrappy and hungry for success.

“Most of my friends have left, too, so when I go back I don’t really know what to look for,” Oraeme admits.

What he does miss is the food. Oraeme smiles when he talks about egusi soup, a colorful dish made with ground melon seeds, fish, beef, and vegetables. Where he’s from, staple food comes in a variety of pounded yams, cassavas, plantains, and colorful fried rice. “It’s hard in the Philippines because it’s white rice all the time,” he says with a laugh.

Eventually, Oraeme sees himself settling back down in Nigeria. If given the chance to play for the national team, he’d take it. But in spite of all his efforts to build a career abroad as an athlete, Oraeme says even that isn’t the endgame.

“I’m not trying to become the greatest basketball player of all time. I feel like basketball is a stepping stone to get the other things you want in life,” says the forward-thinking player. “For when you go to another phase of your life.”

Ask Oraeme about his dreams for the future and he answers without delay. In search of a career, he’s willing to go around the world, to uproot himself and plant his feet on new ground again and again. But his idea of success is rooted at home.

“I want to own a basketball club in Nigeria,” he says.

Would he coach? Oraeme laughs. “No, I just wanna give people good jobs, make their life better.”

The 19-year-old, just on his second playing year in the NCAA, is thinking of a future a decade away, the possibilities that open up should his years of risk and hard work pay off.

And then, onto the next thing.

Photo by Joaqui Flores