Ekezie's rule of thumb -- father knows best

February 07, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The phone rings at all hours at the Ekezie home in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Friends from the United States shout across the Atlantic, speaking in rushed, excited tones about Obinna's progress at Maryland.

Not the academic progress his father so closely monitors.

His progress in basketball.

"Someone called from Houston today," Ekezie's father, Obi, said Tuesday. "He woke himself up at 6 a.m. I get calls from people almost every day."

This isn't the way it was supposed to turn out, was it?

Obinna, the Terps' 6-foot-10 sophomore center, chose Maryland because it was only one of nine U.S. institutions to offer a double major in business and engineering.

Now, broadcaster Dick Vitale is calling him "the most improved player in America." A more restrained observer, North Carolina coach Dean Smith, says he is the most improved player in the ACC.

The NBA?

Suddenly, it's a possibility for a player in only his fourth year of organized basketball.

And even if it's not Obi's first choice for Obinna, a father's pride transcends cultural differences and international boundaries.

Obi Ekezie can't help it.

He's got a basketball jones.

Just consider his response upon learning that Obinna criticized the officials after fouling out in Maryland's loss to Wake Forest.

"The ref was kind of overprotecting [Tim] Duncan, or what?" Obi said, laughing.

Obi has seen his son play at Maryland only once, in an exhibition game last season. But two of his daughters also attend Maryland. The family gets ESPN in Nigeria. He stays informed.

"What do you think?" he asked a reporter at the conclusion of a telephone interview. "Let me interview you now."

Yes, his interest is considerably greater than it was two years ago, when Obinna was at Worcester (Mass.) Academy.

Maryland coach Gary Williams recalls when Obinna made his recruiting visit to College Park, with Obi at his side. Williams showed the Terps' highlight film, made his ACC sales pitch.

Obi all but yawned.

"I want to meet the dean of business, the dean of engineering and the president of the school," he said.

As luck would have it, all three were on campus, and Obi left satisfied with Maryland's academic quality.

It wasn't your standard request.

But then, this isn't your standard family.

Obi owns an oil company in Nigeria, visits the United States three times a year -- "we're talking private planes, stuff like that," Williams said.

The oldest of the six Ekezie children, Chika, is a senior at Maryland, studying biological science in a pre-med program.

Another daughter, Sylvia, is a junior who started in computer science, but is now concentrating on journalism.

What do they tell their parents about Obinna?

"We are not big on praise in my house," Sylvia said. "But he's doing good."

Three younger brothers -- ages 15, 13 and 5 -- still live in Port Harcourt, an oil town of 350,000. And the 15-year-old is growing quickly, according to Obinna and his sisters.

It's funny, because Obi is only 5-6. Obinna's mother, Abaku, is 5-8. But his two grandfathers were 6-9 and 6-2.

Still, the height on his mother's side hardly guaranteed Obinna a basketball future.

Hakeem Olajuwon aside, soccer is by far the most popular sport in Nigeria -- the entire country rejoiced after the men's team won the Olympic gold medal last summer.

As Chika put it, "I was never really interested in basketball before."

The Ekezie sisters attended Ocean County (N.J.) College, then followed Obinna to Maryland. If one of them or Obinna doesn't phone home after a game, Abaku will call the next day.

Mom, too, has caught the bug.

"I want him to do better, play better," she said. "I tell what he's not doing right, try to correct him even though I'm not a basketball player. I played a lot of netball when I was a young girl. I try to tell him what to do."

Netball?

"It's a form of volleyball," Sylvia said.

Obinna smiled.

"She thinks she knows a lot about basketball," he said. "Mothers always think they know better. But she gives me some pretty good advice."

It's clear, though, that Obi is an even more profound influence on Obinna.

"He's scared of his father," Williams said.

On Tuesday, the eve of the North Carolina State game, Maryland was in the middle of practice when Obinna informed Williams he had to leave for a 5 p.m. class.

"I said, 'Obinna, it's not finals week, we've got to get ready for State," Williams said. "He said, 'My father says this has got to be a priority.' So fine. He goes to class. Which, of course, is the right thing to do."

"I've got to put my feelings aside -- 'let's run five more plays' -- and look at the kid. He's one of those people who can handle both."

Obinna said he attended four classes Wednesday before scoring 11 points in Maryland's 66-55 victory over N.C. State. He then returned to his dorm to complete three hours of homework in calculus.

His grade-point average is 2.7.

"I ask him about his academics," Obi said. "In that area, he needs me to push him. That's all I talk about.

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