The amazing journey and mission of BYU's Gideon George

BYU's Gideon George is using his opportunity in basketball to give back. "I wanted to be able to touch the lives of people like me back in Africa," he said. Courtesy of BYU

GIDEON GEORGE HAD been in the United States just a few days when he spotted the basketball shoes at the bottom of a garbage can in a dorm room at New Mexico Junior College.

It was 2018, and the young player had just flown from Nigeria to a country he only knew from the movies, hoping to build a career in a sport he was still learning. Back home, this pair of shoes would have cost his parents a month's salary, but here, his teammate wore them a few times, didn't like the fit and tossed them in the trash.

George reached into the can and pulled out the shoes by the strings.

"Can I have these?" he asked.

In the weeks that followed, George went from locker to locker, making his pitch for spare shoes. He explained that the shoes he wore as a kid were often torn, with holes in the soles, and he was among the lucky ones. In Nigeria, the lack of proper footwear is among the leading causes of disease, with bacteria spread through open wounds on the feet. Before long, George had a stockpile ready to send home, hoping he might spark someone else's journey, the same way his began: With a free pair of sneakers.

The blue Nikes that first lured George to the basketball court are now long gone, worn to oblivion on the sizzling concrete courts of Minna, Nigeria, but they carried George a long way -- more than 7,000 miles, across an ocean, first to New Mexico Junior College and then to BYU, where he's now a beloved teammate with a raw but intriguing skill set. He has made it his mission to give others the same chance.

"I'm grateful," George said, "and I wanted to be able to touch the lives of people like me back in Africa."

GEORGE IS THE middle of five siblings. His father is a retired policeman. His mother works as a seamstress, making uniforms for local school children. The family lives in a one-bedroom apartment with outdoor bathrooms, and in the summer, the space is so stiflingly hot the family often sleeps outside. Still, it was, George said, a typical middle-class existence in Minna.

"It was fun," George said. "No one ever complained. The opposite, really. We appreciated what we had, and we were really thankful."

It was George's older brother, Samson, now a 22-year-old senior forward at Central Arkansas after transferring from Pitt, who was the basketball player. One afternoon when Gideon was 14, their mother sent him to fetch his brother from the gym, and Samson's coach begged the younger boy to give basketball a try, too.

George was tall and lanky -- he'd eventually grow to 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds -- with long arms and broad shoulders, but he didn't know the first thing about the sport. He was into soccer and wasn't particularly interested in learning basketball.

"I didn't know what to do with the ball," Gideon George said, "so I just kept passing it."

He showed up to a few more practices, but soon quit. Then came the shoes.

They'd arrived from the U.S. through a charity called Timeout 4 Africa, a nonprofit that provides school supplies and athletic gear, then found their way to a local coach named Harry Ayere, who offered them to George for free. There was just one catch: He wanted George to play basketball.

In exchange for the shoes, Ayere had George write a letter, promising to commit himself to the sport, to show up for practice each morning before school, and to stick with it through the early struggles. After a few months in the gym, George began to realize where basketball might take him.

George's brother moved to the U.S. full time to finish high school in July 2014. It was a smooth process, Samson George said, because he'd already been to the United States on a travel visa for a basketball tournament a year earlier. Gideon's process was much more difficult.

On his first attempt in 2015, George rode a bus 13 hours to Lagos, the country's largest city. More than 200 people were lined up at the U.S. embassy hoping for a visa. Applicants hand paperwork across a barrier of bulletproof glass, then answer a few terse questions. The official returns either a white or pink copy of the application. The white sheet represents a ticket to a new life. Pink means a long bus ride home.

George got the pink sheet.

There was no explanation for the denial, George said. Some applicants pay a fee to go-betweens who promise easy approvals, but George had already scrounged money from charitable groups like Timeout 4 Africa to afford the application. So he left the embassy without a visa and found a nearby gym, where he joined a pickup basketball game. He knew a few of the players from camps he'd attended, and one invited him to stay the night at his home before George boarded another bus for the 13-hour trek back to Minna.

Over the next three years, George returned to the embassy four more times. Some nights, he slept outside the gates to ensure his name was added to the list of applicants at dawn. Each trip ended with another pink sheet of paper and no explanation for the decision.

IN MAY 2018, two days before he was scheduled to leave for Africa, a message pinged on Brandon Goble's phone. Samson George had seen an advertisement for one of Goble's camps on Twitter, then tracked down Goble's number from a friend.

"My brother can play," he wrote. "If you see him, you're going to like him."

Goble is the director for JuCo Advocate, an organization that connects international basketball prospects with schools in the United States, and he agreed to give Gideon George a look. Samson messaged his brother and told him to buy a bus ticket.

The journey from Minna to Owerri, where the camp would be held, is not easy. George said there are conditions to worry about, from unpaved or dilapidated roads to armed bandits and kidnappers that sometimes target buses. The 400-mile bus ride took more than 16 hours.

"But he knew what he wanted," Samson George said.

About 30 players showed up for the camp. The courts were mostly broken concrete painted pink and blue, with backboards that had to be readjusted with a pole any time a player touched the rim. It was clear from the outset, though, that Gideon George was the best player there.

He played with fierce physicality and was exceptional at the rim. He had an innate ability to play calmly in traffic, dictating the action without the ball in his hands. What most impressed Goble was George's shooting ability. Most kids in Nigeria get little training in technique, Goble said, learning through videos of NBA players on their phones, but George seemed to have an innately soft touch.

"We could just tell right away that he's just got something different in him," Goble said.

The second day of the camp, George's performance dipped, as did other players. He was sluggish. Many of the other players slumped through workouts, too. Goble figured it was the heat -- temperatures soared well above 100 degrees -- but a day later, he learned that the local sponsors had taken the money that players had brought for food and housing. Players hadn't eaten, and at night, they'd slept against the concrete walls that surrounded the courts, chased off repeatedly by local police.

Goble only learned of the scam after an assistant coach discovered a flyer telling players to bring money the camp had not required. The players never said a word.

Goble saw promise, though. He sent a few videos of George playing at the camp to a friend, Luke Adams, who was starting his first season as coach at New Mexico Junior College. Adams told Goble that if George could get a visa, he'd have a spot on the team.

George took a six-hour bus ride to Abuja, Nigeria's capital, for his sixth attempt at a visa. By now, he'd spent close to $500 on travel and applications, money his parents raised by selling the small bit of land they owned.

"Where are you going?" the man behind the bulletproof glass asked.

George only knew the name of his destination: Hobbs, New Mexico.

"What are you going for?" the man asked.

"To get a good education," George answered. "And to play basketball."

The man looked at George. He stamped the paperwork, then tore off a sheet and passed it across the divider.

It was white.

"My mom shed tears that day. My dad was rejoicing," Gideon George said. "They were so proud."

TO GET TO know his new recruit, Adams would take George for long drives around the NMJC campus and pepper him with questions about his life in Nigeria. After a while, George would get quiet, and Adams would nudge him.

"What do you think of all this?" he'd ask.

George's answer was always the same.

"Coach," he'd say, "this is heaven."

On the court, George's perimeter game didn't develop as Adams had hoped and his skill set was raw, but he worked hard and learned quickly. Adams had four players miss a game against South Plains during George's freshman season, forcing a late reworking of the game plan. George's role changed the most, and the two stayed in Adams' office well past midnight, watching film and talking through technique. Before George left for the night, he turned to his coach and grinned.

"Don't worry, Coach," he said. "We're going to win."

George played 33 minutes in the game, scoring 16 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, and as he left the court with a little more than a minute to play and a 12-point lead, he walked past Adams and smiled again. "See," he said. "I told you."

George was named to the Western Junior College Athletic Conference all-conference team as a freshman and won newcomer of the year honors. He was all-conference again as a sophomore.

Still, George thought often of his family and others in Minna. He'd skip meals so he could send the entirety of his weekly work-study stipends -- about $100 per week -- back home, but he longed to do more.

Then he found those shoes in a dorm-room garbage can.

George started collecting sneakers first from teammates, then he asked a few friends on the women's basketball team for extra shoes, too. That led to George meeting soccer players and cross country runners, all willing to donate. Eventually, word of George's quest got back to Adams, who pitched a plan to the school's athletic director to offer free tickets to any fans who donated a pair of shoes. Dozens showed up for the game, sneakers in hand.

"I don't know if there's a person on Earth who doesn't like Gideon," Adams said. "You can just see his heart."

George called Jonathan Kolo, the CEO of Timeout 4 Africa, and said he had a few pairs of shoes to donate. Kolo, who lives in Washington, D.C., wanted George to focus on school and basketball, but the kid was insistent. Kolo relented, passing along his company's FedEx account number with instructions to send any shoes George collected directly to him. Kolo figured he might get a dozen pairs.

A few months later, a FedEx truck arrived at Timeout 4 Africa's office in D.C. Kolo opened the door, where the driver had stacked box upon box with more than 200 pairs of sneakers and slippers, hiking boots and dress shoes, all sent from a small town in New Mexico.

MARK POPE WASN'T sure what to make of George when they first met. George had talent, but Pope, the head coach at BYU, knew the transition to big-time college basketball wouldn't be easy.

But Pope liked spending time with George, and after a few more visits, he realized it didn't matter if his game was ready for BYU. Pope saw the same characteristics that made others want to help with his shoe drive.

"Just talking to him," Pope said, "it comes to a point where you're like, why would you not want him in your program? Just to be around him."

Pope offered a scholarship, and George arrived at BYU last summer. His first season has mixed a handful of impressive games -- 13 points and 15 boards against St. John's in December, another double-double against Portland in early February -- but he's still learning. Pope gushes about George's potential, as he's a late bloomer. He has "a lot of catching up to do," the BYU coach said, though he is worth keeping an eye on in March. BYU is a No. 7 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology.

But as he expected, Pope raves about the impact George has had on his team off the court.

George didn't say much at first, but he laughed a lot. That's what hooked Trevin Knell, who volunteered to be George's roommate. George doesn't laugh so much as he bellows, an infectious howl that just keeps getting louder and louder. At night, George's laugh will sometimes wake Knell, as his roommate catches up with family back home -- late-night phone calls necessitated by an eight-hour time difference.

"No words," Knell said, "just him laughing so loud."

George knows how to get laughs from his teammates, too. The team was running through shooting drills one morning, and Knell was ice cold, rimming out one shot after another. Suddenly, from the other end of the court in a thick Nigerian accent, came the punchline: "Hey Trevin, are you going to make a shot today?"

"I just about fell over," Pope said. "I hadn't heard him say anything for days. And ever since then, he talks trash all the time. But only to Trevin."

There's one stretch the team does before practices -- legs spread wide, body slowly lowered toward the floor -- that George loves. The name makes him laugh. One day, just before the strength coach gave the command, a voice yelled out, "Sumo squats!" and the entire gym erupted in laughter. Now, it's tradition.

"We're a couple hundred days into workouts now," Pope said, "and there's not a day that goes by he doesn't chirp in his part and bring a smile to everybody's face."

The moment Pope fully grasped the impact George could have on his team came last summer during a Zoom discussion of the social justice protests across the country. George had yet to meet most of his teammates, and he largely remained silent on the calls, but amid a particularly passionate debate between a handful of players, George suddenly spoke up.

"I just can't believe people here are allowed to protest," he said.

The call went silent.

"It was just show-stopping," Pope said. "And he does that over and over again with his humility."

PERHAPS GEORGE HAS a future in the NBA, Pope said. He's a late-bloomer, a 21-year-old junior who's been playing high-level ball for just three years, but the raw skills are there. He could certainly play overseas, where he might earn more money in a few seasons than his parents will in a lifetime. George's story invites speculation about the next step, but Goble prefers to think of how far George has come.

There's a video Goble got from Adams, just a few weeks after George arrived in the United States. A few NMJC players had gone to a nearby water park. The camera fixates on the spout at the end of a long, yellow spiral. George bursts out, tumbling into a pool of clear, blue water. He jumps up, dries his face, then whoops one of those bellowing laughs before charging back up the stairs, three at a time, for another ride.

"It's the purest form of joy you've ever seen," Goble said.

Seven years after Harry Ayere lured George onto the basketball court with a pair of blue Nikes, he's still hopeful the sport will carry his protege far, but he's not worried about what the future holds. He knows George will make an impact. George said once his college career is over, he'd like to start his own non-profit, perhaps something helping schools or hospitals in Nigeria.

"He wants to help," said Ayere, who has assisted in distributing the shoes George continues to ship back to Minna, about 350 total so far. "Every time, he wants to help."

Ayere posts photos to social media after each pair of shoes finds a recipient in Minna, and George likes to sit at his locker at BYU and scroll through the images.

"I like to see the smiles on their faces," George said. "That's where I get my joy."

There's one of a pair of boys curiously inspecting a bright orange pair of basketball sneakers.

There's another where a horde of kids surrounds a cache of a dozen shoes, all brightly colored and gleaming under the Nigerian sun, like a buffet waiting to be picked apart.

Then there's one of three boys about the age George was when he secured those blue Nikes. They're all wearing tank tops with "Timeout 4 Africa" across their chests. Each boy holds a new pair of sneakers.

They look at each other in amazement, and one has that same joyous grin as the man who emerged from a waterslide in a place that could have been either New Mexico or heaven, to find a new life awaiting him.