Straight outta Clon­dalkin to NBA?

Dublin-born and reared Ai­dan Harris Igiehon is on the cusp of join­ing bas­ket­ball’s NBA elite

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan:

On Fri­day Oc­to­ber 19th last, lost in the usual bul­letins and white noise con­cern­ing Premier League tur­bu­lence, rugby up­dates and ob­scure golf tour­na­ment re­sults was one of the most re­mark­able Ir­ish sport­ing achieve­ments in many, many years.

Ai­dan Harris Igiehon, a Dublin teenager who is on a high-school bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship in New York, for­mally ac­cepted the of­fer of a full bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship to the Univer­sity of Louisville. Right now, Igiehon is ranked as num­ber 36 on ESPN’s list of the top high-school play­ers in Amer­ica (out of a pool of around 545,000).

If any­thing, that plac­ing is falsely low: in sev­eral au­thor­i­ta­tive NBA draft pro­jec­tions, the Clon­dalkin teenager is fore­cast to be selected around 12th over­all in the 2021 draft lot­tery. Igiehon’s pro­gres­sion to the elite tier of the best young bas­ket­ball play­ers in Amer­ica has been a story of ex­cep­tional per­se­ver­ance and un­der-the-radar am­bi­tion. And what makes it im­plau­si­ble is that it has all hap­pened within six years – and al­most by ac­ci­dent.

Pic­ture it. As a young­ster, Igiehon was ob­sessed with soc­cer. He was with a friend kick­ing a ball around, out­side Moyle Park, one non-de­script af­ter­noon, killing time, maybe day­dream­ing of the Premier League. In the gym, Mick White was hold­ing tri­als for the un­der-13 age group. Any­one in Ir­ish bas­ket­ball knows of White: one of those guys who has for years worked qui­etly and bril­liantly and anony­mously, teach­ing kids the skills and val­ues of his sport.

He saw two lads kick­ing ball, Ai­dan and Joe, and en­cour­aged them to come in, coax­ing them to give the game a go.

“They didn’t have enough play­ers and the coach came out and asked me if I would come in to fill up spots,” Igiehon re­calls now, speak­ing on a break from Sun­day af­ter­noon prac­tice in New York. Through his mo­bile comes the clear sound of the game: rub­ber sole against hard wood and the boom­ing echo of a ball.

“And I picked up the orange ball and I started drib­bling it. And I kind of fell in love with it from that day. But . . . at that time I was 5’6” and re­ally short and couldn’t play at all. I was hor­ri­ble.”

That same af­ter­noon, Rob White re­ceived a call from his Dad. Mick White was ec­static. He didn’t see the hor­ri­ble­ness. He told his son about these two kids who wan­dered in to the gym. “Mick said that one of the boys was go­ing to be phe­nom­e­nal. That he didn’t know which end of him was up but the po­ten­tial was huge. That was the first I heard of Ai­dan. Then, when I saw him, he was ex­tremely long, even be­fore he started to grow.”

Was the day prov­i­den­tial? Ai­dan thinks so. Al­most as soon as he touched a bas­ket­ball, his body be­gan to change. For the next 12 months, he kept on grow­ing and grow­ing at a rate that made his coaches and team-mates slack jawed – 5’8” and stretch­ing.

Touch­ing 6’ by Christ­mas. Still no let up. By the time he was ap­proach­ing his 14th birth­day, he was 6’5” tall. In the densely pop­u­lated world of Dublin un­der­age bas­ket­ball, he was half-cu­rios­ity, half-phe­nom­e­non, rack­ing up 30-plus points a game, ex­u­ber­antly fin­ish­ing break­away dunks and gen­er­ally de­stroy­ing the other “big men”’ in his age group.

Dilemma

The Whites and other Dublin Lions coaches were left with a dilemma. They had watched the pro­file of ball play­ers in West Dublin change dra­mat­i­cally over the past two decades. Ai­dan Igiehon was born in the Coombe hospi­tal. His par­ents are from La­gos, but Clon­dalkin was his world and he was one of a num­ber of Ir­ish kids with African or Eastern Euro­pean back­grounds rad­i­cally chang­ing the height and ath­leti­cism stan­dard of the city game. “Ai­dan made peo­ple sit up,” Rob White says. “He has al­ways been a very strong per­son­al­ity. He was get­ting to a unique stage where we were at a fine line be­tween keep­ing him and not see­ing him progress, or send­ing him away and he would flour­ish out there. And that is ex­actly what hap­pened.”

They de­cided to or­gan­ise a trip to camps in New York and Philadel­phia in the sum­mer of 2014. Twenty-two kids signed up. It was self-fi­nanced: ¤2,500 per player. The Lions’ coaches had no con­tacts or prom­ises: the idea was to al­low young­sters like Ai­dan show­case their game at camps pop­u­lated by high-school coaches.

Within a week, he had of­fers which re­quired a sud­den and rad­i­cal change in life: swap­ping the fa­mil­iar­ity of home for a bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship in New York. Mick White found him­self call­ing Nibo, Ai­dan’s mother, to tell her to come over: that things were start­ing to hap­pen fast. It was good luck that his aunt, Zeno­bia, and his un­cle, Solomon, were liv­ing in Brook­lyn and had the space to wel­come their nephew into their home.

But it was serendip­i­tous that Zeno­bia, Ai­dan’s aunt through mar­riage, knew the re­alpoli­tik of bas­ket­ball; that her broth­ers had played at a se­ri­ous level in the city and then pro bas­ket­ball abroad. She had an in­stinct for just how fe­ro­cious the com­pe­ti­tion among teenage bas­ket­ball prodi­gies in New York can be, let alone across the whole of Amer­ica.

“She has been just so sup­port­ive of me. She mo­ti­vated me and she pushed me. And she made sure I worked my butt off.”

In one way, it has been a de­mand­ing and solemn ado­les­cence. There were oc­ca­sional tears on the phone home to Nibo; to Rob White. The ar­rival of his brother Bran­don on a soc­cer schol­ar­ship made home feel closer. But his hours were mapped out. Free time is a lux­ury he sel­dom grants him­self. 4.30 am wake-ups. Shoot­ing for 90 min­utes daily be­fore school. Post-off drills after school, then full train­ing. It can be soli­tary, ex­haust­ing.

“For sure,” he laughs. “I’m only hu­man. Push­ing your body to its lim­its . . . it’s very, very tir­ing. I take rest pretty se­ri­ously too.”

Over the last year, weights train­ing fills in two hours at lunchtime. His school, Lawrence Wood­mere Academy, is in Long Is­land and so his day in­volves the en­er­gis­ing hus­tle of the sub­way; the per­ish­ing-cold win­ter com­mutes, and the broil­ing sum­mer af­ter­noons when it is bas­ket­ball, bas­ket­ball, al­ways bas­ket­ball.

“I don’t think any of us, even me, fully un­der­stand, how much he has given this,” says Rob White.

Lawrence Wood­mere Academy is not one of the pow­er­houses of the New York high-school bas­ket­ball scene. When Ai­dan be­gan to ex­ert his prow­ess – still grow­ing un­til he achieved what he jok­ingly refers to as “ath­letic freak” sta­tus: a 17-year-old, 6’10”, 240 lbs leaper – the big­ger, flashier high schools came call­ing but he stayed loyal: he liked his team­mates, his rou­tine, his coach. He trusted it.

He was still just 15 when he be­gan to re­ceive a for­mal col­lege schol­ar­ship of­fer from St John’s, one of the pres­tige bas­ket­ball sides in New York. And that’s when the things be­gan to change at speed of sound rate. Let­ters of in­ter­est. Phone calls. In­vi­ta­tions. Then firm of­fers.

The best fit

“By the sum­mer of me go­ing into what would be fifth year in Ire­land, all the top schools [as in Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties] in the coun­try started call­ing me. So sud­denly I had these schol­ar­ship of­fers all over the coun­try. How that works is that you talk with each coach and get to know them a bit. And their job is ba­si­cally to get you fa­mil­iar with their pro­gramme and show you why they are the best fit for you.

“And that’s where it gets re­ally com­pli­cated be­cause you are not com­par­ing the pros and cons of dif­fer­ent col­leges. You are kind of look­ing at the pros and pros be­cause they all have so many good things to of­fer. And that’s where I be­gan to strug­gle. I had to trim those, this sum­mer, down to 10 schools. And that was ex­tremely hard. After that you do what is called ‘of­fi­cial vis­its’ and that meant cut­ting the list again to four of five.

“And that was harder again. Be­cause by then you are quite close to the head coach of each of the 10 schools and you are in tune with the sys­tem they have in place. So around Au­gust, after I came back from Ire­land, I trimmed it down to four; Univer­sity of Ken­tucky, St John’s, Louisville and Ore­gon.”

If you are 6’10” and are knee-deep in col­le­giate of­fers, then your name is in the note­books of all NBA scouts, prob­a­bly sur­rounded by bul­let points and ques­tion marks. At that rar­efied tier, you are en­ter­ing a very ex­act and cal­cu­lat­ing busi­ness. About 1 per cent of high-school play­ers get of­fers to play col­lege bas­ket­ball: three in ev­ery 10,000 make it to the NBA. Al­most all of those go through the elite col­le­giate bas­ket­ball sys­tem. The most cov­eted play­ers de­clare for the NBA draft after their first year, part of the “one-and-done phe­nom­e­non”. Amer­i­can col­lege bas­ket­ball is a beau­ti­ful il­lu­sion.

Sport­ing pu­rity

As a tele­vi­sion spec­ta­cle, set against the back­drop of eu­phoric stu­dents fans and fea­tur­ing ri­val­ries that date back to the sepia age, the com­pe­ti­tion is pre­sented as the pin­na­cle of am­a­teur sport­ing pu­rity. And it is in the sense that the ath­letes are strictly and rig­or­ously un­paid. Their coaches, how­ever, earn vast salaries, with the top 10 com­mand­ing be­tween $3 mil­lion and $10 mil­lion per year.

Bas­ket­ball teams gen­er­ate huge sums for their col­leges: in a re­cent Wall Street Jour­nal re­port, Louisville’s bas­ket­ball set-up was val­ued at the equiv­a­lent of $320 mil­lion on the open mar­ket. Michael Bree, from Sligo town, was the first Ir­ish-born player to play NCAA di­vi­sion one bas­ket­ball when he went to David­son in North Carolina.

Since then, a hand­ful of Ir­ish play­ers have made that grade. Conor Grace, a 6’10” for­ward from Dublin, fol­lowed Bree to David­son: he grad­u­ated in 2005, two years be­fore Steph Curry ar­rived in the col­lege as a rel­a­tively un­her­alded point guard.

Grace has been work­ing in Kingston, Ja­maica since 2016. A hand in­jury has in­ter­rupted his bas­ket­ball but he keeps a close eye on the Ir­ish game and has fol­lowed Ai­dan Igiehon’s rise with in­credulity.

“It’s just very, very ex­cit­ing,” he says. “Ir­ish bas­ket­ball has had peo­ple who have gone over to the States. Some stayed and some didn’t like it. But to go over there as young as Ai­dan was and have that sin­gle-mind­ed­ness and out­look is pretty cool. And then, Louisville is such an his­toric bas­ket­ball school. They have this mon­ster tra­di­tion in the game. I don’t know Ai­dan at all but I imag­ine the rea­son he chose there is that he will be ex­pected to come in and con­trib­ute in a big way im­me­di­ately.”

Grace played pro­fes­sion­ally in Europe for sev­eral years. In sum­mer­time, he’d re­turn to David­son to work out. It was on one such visit that he first en­coun­tered Steph Curry. Last year, Curry be­came the high­est-paid player in the NBA, when he signed a five-year con­tract with the Golden State War­riors worth $201 mil­lion. When Grace played pick-up games with him, though, he was a slen­der, un­her­alded guard with an un­ortho­dox shoot­ing stroke and a preter­nat­u­ral dis­po­si­tion for hard work.

No­body knew it then but Curry was at the be­gin­ning of a daz­zling ascent to the apex of bas­ket­ball, a trans­for­ma­tive fig­ure in sport. Each year, Curry hosts a camp for 24 high-school play­ers he chooses. This sum­mer Ai­dan Igiehon was among that class. Curry flies the play­ers and their fam­i­lies out to North­ern Cal­i­for­nia for a week that is part try-out, part mo­ti­va­tional re­treat.

“There were 76 NBA scouts there,” Igiehon says. “You see those faces sit­ting on the side­line and you think: ‘wow, ok, now the heat is on’. You have to per­form at 110 per cent ev­ery time. And I think I had a good camp . . . I dom­i­nated and left a good taste there. It was all . . . it was pretty amaz­ing. Steph Curry: he is a very hum­ble guy. I mean, he is one of the names in the game of bas­ket­ball right now.

“But it was so easy to talk with him. It was as if he looked at us as lit­tle broth­ers. He was hang­ing around with us and shoot­ing with us. He hosted an All-Star game and he was my coach. He was giv­ing me lit­tle point­ers and ad­vice. And I played ex­tremely well. The type of pas­sion he has is a con­ta­gious pas­sion. And to have him say­ing: if you work hard you can be what­ever you want: that felt pretty amaz­ing.”

That’s where Ai­dan Igiehon has moved to in the five short years since Mick White handed him a ball. There’s a video on You Tube that Igiehon did for Over­time, a sports net­work, in which he goes along to the 2018 NBA draft and in­ter­views the new re­cruits. He’s a like­able com­bi­na­tion of hy­per-ex­cited and con­fi­dent and un­af­fected. But what’s strik­ing, though, is that all of the brand new NBA stars know ex­actly who he is. When you en­ter the 1 per cent of bas­ket­ball po­ten­tial, it’s a small com­mu­nity.

“You know, I don’t want to say that that sur­prised me, be­cause it didn’t. But it was a kind of re-as­sur­ance to me and made me feel: ‘yeah, I am do­ing the right thing’. I am work­ing hard. I am on the right path. I don’t let stuff like that blow my head up be­cause I am not where I want to be yet.”

Where he wants to be, ul­ti­mately, is a big name in the NBA. What he has done will only re­ally hit home when Marv Al­bert or some other fa­mous voice croons over the word “Ir­ish­man” and it sud­denly be­comes clear that a Dublin bas­ket­ball kid has made it to a place that had seemed im­pos­si­ble. He doesn’t per­mit him­self those day­dreams or to pre­sume that he has cleared the ob­sta­cles.

He still has a win­ter of high school be­fore he moves to Ken­tucky. He still has thou­sands of hours to fill. He has promised Nibo to push him­self aca­dem­i­cally. And he has lis­tened to what he has been told. “You can get blinded. You can lose fo­cus. It’s flat­ter­ing that peo­ple think I can be there. But I have to do it now.”

Ai­dan Igiehon was born in the sum­mer of 2000. He was one year old when Denny Crum re­tired as head coach at Louisville after 30 years that crys­tallised the ob­ses­sion with bas­ket­ball. Crum had this say­ing that be­came cel­e­brated. Funny, it could serve as a motto for Ai­dan Igiehon.

Crum said: “Most of our fu­ture lies ahead.”

‘‘ I am work­ing hard. I am on the right path... But I am not where I want to be yet.”

Above and bot­tom: Ai­dan Harris Lgiehon in Dublin in Au­gust 2017.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: TOM HONAN

Left: in his for­ma­tive bas­ket­ball days with friends playing for the Dublin Lions

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