LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne big man Tonye Jekiri is turning heads as much as any Turkish Airlines EuroLeague rookie. In his fourth year as a pro, he and his team have already started leaving a mark in the continent's top competition. At just age 25, Jekiri is averaging 10.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists through six games. He ranks second in rebounding among all EuroLeague players and seventh with an average performance index rating of 18.8. He is one of the main reasons that ASVEL has won all three of its games at home, where Jekiri is averaging 14.7 points.
Jekiri's basketball story is unconventional. Born in River State, Nigeria, his first sport of choice, as for most kids in that country, was football. He had big dreams about becoming a professional football player, but that was only until something was becoming more and more apparent.
"I was really tall," he explains. "I just kept growing. I grew more than my friends, so a basketball coach saw me and he told me about the game. I didn't like it."
"A basketball coach saw me and he told me about the game. I didn't like it."
Just like that, Jekiri began dabbling in basketball. He was 16 years old and he knew there was a sport called basketball, but not much else. His size was his gateway to the game, but people soon saw something more in him than a big body.
"I went to a basketball camp far away from my state, with like 400 kids, and I got picked just because of how I ran, how I moved," he recalls. "So I got picked out from that huge group and I thought it was a blessing."
From that point on, it all happened really fast for Jekiri.
"Everything soccer was my passion at the time, it was all that I wanted to do," he says. "Basketball was never in my dreams. It all happened so fast that everything about soccer in me turned to basketball."
It was apparent that Jekiri had a talent for the game, so he was taken to the United States in September of 2010. He went to Miami, Florida and started playing basketball more seriously at Champagnat Catholic High School. He soon learned that playing basketball took a big effort if you wanted to compete. The more effort he put into it, the more he liked the game:
"I started playing for real and I thought it was great. My team was made up of guys from different countries: Bahamas, Brazil... We were all international guys and playing with them was great because you could see they were there to play hard and win games. I loved the game quickly because I was surrounded by hard-working people."
Jekiri had some solid performances and his name started to resonate in the basketball circuit. When the time came to choose a college for his next steps, he decided to stay home at Miami University.
"I wanted to stay there, it was my home. I liked it there, the weather was great, more like Africa you know... always hot. I went to visit a couple of schools up north and it was cold and all, and they told me 'Yeah, it's gonna get colder in November, this is nothing!' So I thought, 'I don't think I am ready for this!'"
He was the only freshman on the Miami team, so he had to wait for his chance. After that, he started seeing more playtime and among his teammates was Anadolu Efes Istanbul star Shane Larkin. Together they won the 2012-13 Atlantic Coast Conference regular season.
After college, Jekiri's fast evolution in the basketball world led him to become a pro. For the second time in his life, he would have to make a big move, this time to Turkey to make a living off the game. It was another change of mentality that he had to adapt to, and quickly.
"In college, you get everything you want. They give you a little money for yourself. Sometimes you go 'Ah, I don't feel like practicing today,' but the coaches understand because you have classes and they want you to pass. So when I started my first year as a pro, it was hard."
By now, Jekiri has gotten used to the professional life. He understands that more is demanded of him every year, but his motivation and his drive are in full throttle as always. A new step in that motivation has been joining the EuroLeague in his first year in France with ASVEL.
"My mom and dad have never seen me play live."
"I always wanted to face guys that I watch and look up to. And this is it. In the EuroLeague, I can do it. Just imagining that I will face all those guys, win or lose, I know I will learn something, get something out of it. It's always a battle out there."
Back in Nigeria, football is still the number one sport, but a small group of people that grows little by little is following Jekiri's career in basketball. He is making a name for himself, and when he went back to the country to play for the national team, he even had some friends travel to see him play live for the first time. However, Jekiri would love that two of those people, most of all, could see him play live, too – his parents, Emilinia and Frank.
"My mom and dad have never seen me play live. Hopefully one day they will get to see me play. We are planning on flying them here so they can see me. I am excited that I make them proud."