From Nigeria To New Jersey, It Wasn't Always A Slam Dunk For Felicia Aiyeotan

Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6-foot-9 center at Blair Academy, has come a long way since being introduced to basketball in her native Nigeria. Courtesy Carly Leifken

Felicia Aiyeotan was 9 years old and living in her native Lagos, Nigeria, when she noticed she was already taller than her 5-foot-8 father and her 5-9 mother. By the time she was 12, Felicia was standing 6-5, and that's when she experienced what she calls the worst moment of her life.

It was supposed to be a day of celebration -- one of Aiyeotan's classmates was throwing a birthday party complete with gift bags for the all children. But when the woman who was handing them out got to Aiyeotan, she turned furious.

"I had my hands out to accept the gift bag," Aiyeotan said, "and the lady started saying, 'What is wrong with you? You are this big, and you still want a kid's gift bag?'

"She thought I was an adult. I walked away. I wished at that moment the ground could open up so I could disappear. I regretted being tall."

Now 6-9, Aiyeotan no longer feels that way.

Right around the time of that birthday party, Aiyeotan was introduced to basketball. It has literally and significantly changed her life. It's given her purpose, and it's brought her to the United States, where college coaches have lined up to offer her scholarships.

Now an 18-year-old senior at Blair Academy (Blairstown, New Jersey), Aiyeotan is the No. 33 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2016 class.

She is considering six colleges -- Boston College, Florida, Penn State, Rutgers, Virginia and Virginia Tech -- but could add more to the list. It also seems likely that Aiyeotan, not wanting to rush her decision, may wait until the regular signing period in April to choose her school.

Aiyeotan has reduced the often confusing recruiting process to a simple check list:

"Where am I going to get the best education? Am I comfortable there? Am I going to play?"

From tears to cheers

Aiyeotan's staggering height comes from her late maternal grandfather, Ola Rotimi, who was said to be 7-1.

But Rotimi wasn't an athlete, and neither was Aiyeotan until she was prodded by her mother to show up at a basketball camp called "Hope 4 Girls Africa," which is run by Mobolaji Akiode, who spent part of her childhood in Nigeria.

Akiode, a 5-10 wing in her playing days at Fordham (where she was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame last year), had to coax Aiyeotan onto the court.

"She was crying," Akiode said. "I had to make her play."

Aiyeotan said her reluctance was because of a lack of confidence. "Back then, I didn't want to belong to anything," Aiyeotan said. "I just wanted to be by myself. When I tried to join anything, I always got laughed at."

This camp was different, though. Akiode worked hard to find shoes to fit Aiyeotan, who wears a men's size 17. And the other girls encouraged Aiyeotan to play.

"The first couple of days -- it wasn't easy because everyone there already knew the game, and I didn't," Aiyeotan said.

"That week, my shyness went away. I was free and comfortable. I felt accepted for the first time."

Once the camp was over, though, hope seemed to disappear.

Aiyeotan's school didn't have a team or a basketball court. Her only opportunity to play was on Saturdays at a gym about 30 minutes from her home. But when she got to the gym -- which had just two hoops -- she couldn't get on the court. Despite her height, no one would select her for pickup ball.

Aiyeotan, who is the middle child and only daughter among three siblings, enlisted her 6-4 older brother to come to the gym with her. When he got chosen, he said he would only play if his sister could be on the same team.

By the time Akiode came back to Nigeria three months later in November of 2009, Aiyeotan, even with such limited practice time, had improved considerably.

Her mother, Wemimo Aiyeotan, came to visit Akiode during the November 2009 camp. "Felicia's mom said, 'My daughter has not been the same since you met her. She thinks she can be somebody now.'

"That's how our bond started."

Coming to America

Soon after that, Akiode, with Wemimo's approval, started calling schools in the U.S. in an effort to place Aiyeotan.

Aiyeotan ended up at Philadelphia's Neumann-Goretti, where she played the past three years, becoming a starter as a junior. Akiode, 33, became her legal guardian, and Aiyeotan lived with a host family in Philadelphia.

That arrangement ended in April, with the Neumann-Goretti program swirling in controversy after going undefeated and winning the national title.

But despite accusations from rival schools, Aiyeotan and another Nigerian, 6-5 Christina Aborowa, now a freshman at Texas, were ruled to be in the country legally and of an appropriate age to compete in high school basketball.

"When I placed her at Neumann-Goretti, I didn't know about all the rivalries in the Philadelphia Catholic League," Akiode said. "Who knew basketball was so crazy there?

"We got caught in something that was way bigger and way crazier than what I could have imagined. [Aiyeotan and Aborowa] were easy targets because they're tall. But I'm more than confident we did nothing wrong."

Akiode said Neumann-Goretti was supportive. "They wanted Felicia to stay," Akiode said. "But they understood we wanted Felicia to have a new start."

That fresh start came at Blair, where Aiyeotan will make her debut this season.

Hope restored

Aiyeotan, who has a 3.7 GPA, is a much better student now than she was in Nigeria.

"I was a little shaky back home," Aiyeotan said. "I wasn't in the right environment -- we had over 100 kids in a classroom, trying to pay attention. And I was shy because of my height."

At Blair, classroom sizes are much smaller. Education is hugely important for Aiyeotan, who wants to create her own clothing line and find ways to give back to the people of Nigeria. She also wants to settle in the U.S., and bring her family with her.

Basketball could make all of that possible.

"I love basketball," she said. "It's an outlet for me to express myself. I think it's the only place I fit in as a girl who is 6-9."

Indeed, life isn't easy for someone so tall. Aiyeotan said she struggles to find clothes that fit her, and she has to sleep "slanted" to keep her legs from sticking out of her bed.

Still, at least one of her teammates said Aiyeotan is the "nicest person on campus," always engaging others in conversation.

Oftentimes, the subject of dunking comes up.

Blair's coach, Quint Clarke, who went to Lagos this summer to work in Akiode's Hope 4 Girls camp and met Aiyeotan's mother during the visit, said his new center has been dunking with two hands in practice. She's performed a "one-dribble drop-step" maneuver, finishing with a flush, Clarke said.

Andra Espinoza-Hunter, a 5-10 junior guard at Blair who has committed to Connecticut, said she is excited to see that move in a game.

"She can dunk pretty easily," Espinoza-Hunter said. "Hopefully for a home game, we can throw her an alley-oop, and she can slam it down, and the fans can go wild."

Blair's Ke'er Sun, a 6-foot senior wing from China, said Aiyeotan is "impossible" to stop in the post.

"We pass it to her really high up so no one can get it except her," Sun said. "It's a secure feeling because when you pass it to her, you know it's probably going to go in."