In August 2009, I decided to have my first hope4girlsafrica program in Ogun State, Nigeria -- the origin of my father. You know what they say -- charity begins at home, and I took that literally. I didn't know what to expect -- the most I had ever done was participate as a basketball camp coach during my college years, and now I was spearheading my own program. The process in pulling off the first camp seemed to me a personal mission: impossible.
The creation of H4G was the most emotional and mentally challenging experience I've ever had to endure. During that time in 2009, I was holding down a full-time job at ESPN, my dad was sick, and America was in an economic mess. Cutbacks were everywhere, and no one wanted to hear about another non-profit springing up (talk about bad timing), let alone one in Africa and even still Nigeria (our reputation precedes us). Even knowing all that, here I was, trying to organize a basketball camp with no funds halfway across the world. With a helping hand from Nike, the Indiana Fever, family, friends and a few brave coaches -- Kevin Morris, Adia Revell, Karleen Thompson, and Marianna Freeman -- we set off to Nigeria and had the first-ever national basketball camp for 65 girls all across the country. Even then, the camp was considered a tremendous success, but today that camp means more to me because of two young women whom I got to watch play.
Fast forward to August 2010. Uju Ugoka and Ijeoma Uchendu, through hope4girlsafrica, enrolled at Grayson College on a basketball scholarship. A few dreams came true when I watched the girls leave the shores of Nigeria and headed for Texas, fulfilling their dream of playing college basketball in the U.S and my dream of supporting education and opportunity for girls from Africa. Grayson College's first-year coach Elena Lovato gave our girls an opportunity to better their lives together as collegiate student-athletes. When I first met Ijeoma and Uju in 2009, they were not in school, like many of the other students. They were finding their ways through life, but both families lacked the means to do better for their girls. (Uju is one of eight children, and Ijeoma is one of seven.) There was so much potential there, but it had yet to be maximized. I knew if these girls had an opportunity to show their talent and their work ethic, their lives would never be the same. I couldn't imagine what my life would be like without my college experience, and I was obsessed with making that happen for these young ladies.
In the two girls' freshman year, Grayson College went 33-4 overall, became NJCAA Region 5 Champion, NTJCAC Conference Champion, and fifth-place finisher in the NJCAA. Ijeoma received NTJCAC all-conference honorable mention, while Uju piled on the accolades as a freshman, receiving NJCAA and WBCA first-team All-America, All-NJCAA national tournament all-tournament team, and NJCAA player of the year. But I knew they would do well in basketball. What I am most proud of us is the 3.2 GPA both girls have maintained as freshman, notwithstanding the difficulties that comes with missing out on an early formal education in the U.S. By no means was their first year in the U.S undemanding. Despite leaving a lower-class environment, it was only natural the girls fought through homesickness, old man winter, culture changes, and a deep longing for their favorite Nigerian dishes. Still, they persevered and made it through.
In all our programs, we emphasize the importance of education, as education is the great equalizer in all things. Because of education, the sky is the limit for these two young women, and I've always believed the first step out of poverty starts with an educated and enlightened mind. In Africa, we need to do a better job of using sports as a social development tool to support and encourage our girls through the many hardships they face growing up in an impoverished environment. Uju and Ijeoma will always serve as a reminder that every sacrifice made, every tear shed and every sleepless night was more than worth it.