ND basketball coaches go barefoot for charity
FARGO, N.D. -- More than 25 years ago, a missionary in Nigeria gave a 9-year-old boy his first pair of shoes and told him to dream big. For Emmanuel "Manny" Ohonme, that translated into a love for playing basketball, an athletics scholarship to a North Dakota college and 5 million shoes for poor children.
Ohonme founded Samaritan's Feet, a charity that, with the help of thousands of barefooted basketball coaches, has given children around the world the same ticket to a better life he received from the man known only as Dave From Wisconsin.
It's homecoming week for Ohonme, who received undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Fargo area and met his wife at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. He traveled from his home in Charlotte, N.C., for this weekend's college basketball rivalry game, in which North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips and University of North Dakota coach Brian Jones plan to roam the sidelines sans shoes.
"My break was given to me here. My education was given to me here. The opportunity I have today was given to me here," Ohonme said.
Ohonme, 42, is a native of Lagos, Nigeria, where he grew up in a two-bedroom cinder-block house shared by 13 family members. Families in his neighborhood lived on less than $1 a day. Children would pray for zero-zero-one, which meant, "I don't have breakfast or lunch, but at least give me supper to make it to the next day," Ohonme said.
His life changed in 1980, when a volunteer from the United States came to his neighborhood to help with sports camps for children and teach basketball, of all things.
"Before that, if there was anything round that bounced, we kicked it," Ohonme said. The 9-year-old wound up winning a hoops-shooting contest. His prize: a pair of canvas shoes.
Dave From Wisconsin -- Ohonme says to this day he doesn't know the man's full name -- told Ohonme that being surrounded by poverty was no reason to give up hope. So when Ohonme wasn't selling water and soft drinks to supplement his family's income, he took refuge on the closest crude basketball court.
With the help of the same basketball coach who mentored NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon, Ohonme was able to attract interest from colleges in the United States. One of those schools was thousands of miles away, in a cold place called North Dakota.
"I decided that the school that gives me my travel papers first and sends me the best-looking brochures, that's where I'm going," Ohonme said, laughing about his decision to attend Lake Region. "Obviously they took that picture in the summer."
He arrived in Devils Lake on a Sunday, clad in a linen suit that provided little protection from the chilled air. As he walked around town, a couple stopped on their way home from church and offered him a ride. They took him home, fed him his "first American cuisine" with mashed potatoes and gravy and let him snooze on the couch.
When he woke up, the family was gone, but they'd left him a note to help himself.
"I am from Lagos, Nigeria. Nobody leaves a stranger in their house," he said.
Ohonme finished his stint at the two-year college, finished his undergraduate years at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and received a master's degree from NDSU. He and his wife moved to Charlotte to begin their business careers and raise a family.
When Ohonme returned to Nigeria for his father's funeral, he revisited that old basketball court and saw kids with no shoes -- and no future.
It led him to start Samaritan's Feet in 2003, but the momentum it needed didn't arrive until 2008 when Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis basketball coach Ron Hunter shed his footwear and help generate donations for 100,000 shoes.
Since then, more than 3,000 basketball coaches at all levels have coached in bare feet. Ohonme said the charity has helped more than 5 million children get shoes in 65 countries.
"What started in my little garage in 2003 has now galvanized a global movement," Ohonme said. "It's going to be exciting for me to come back to what we knew as home and see the people of North Dakota rally around this."
This year, he said, more than 50,000 children will get shoes in 86 U.S. communities, including the Fargo-Moorhead area.
It will be the second time that NDSU coach Phillips will ditch his shoes. He jokes that rival coach Jones, at 6-foot-11, will be making a much larger contribution, but hopes their solidarity will convince fans to donate to the cause and a goal of 10,000 shoes.
"We will still be trying to beat each other's brains out during the game, but we can agree that we can do some good here in the meantime," Phillips said.
Follow Dave Kolpack on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DaveKolpackAP.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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