Straight outta Clondalkin to NBA?
Dublin-born and reared Aidan Harris Igiehon is on the cusp of joining basketball’s NBA elite
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.
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.
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.
Left: in his formative basketball days with friends playing for the Dublin Lions