Ekezie's a big man on campus

Academics: Recovering from Achilles' surgery, Obinna Ekezie works hard on his life transition game, excelling in his studies toward an engineering degree.

May 19, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The chalk flits across the blackboard, leaving a trail of mind-boggling ciphers and diagrams.

"OK, now, does everyone understand?" asks the man up front.

From his seat, Obinna Ekezie stares and nods. Yes, the squiggles and arrows and X's and O's make sense to Ekezie, the 6-foot-10 senior center on Maryland's basketball team last season.

In fact, this might have been a pre-game pep talk, except that the man at the chalkboard isn't a basketball coach but a college professor -- and the symbols aren't game-winning plays but mathematic equations that would dumbfound Dick Vitale.

Athletics. Academics. Ekezie moves easily in both worlds. In February, he snapped an Achilles' tendon, ending his college career prematurely. On the mend, Ekezie last week was cleared to begin jogging through the halls at Cole Field House. His gradual recovery after surgery has allowed Ekezie more time to focus on classes, no slam-dunk for the big Nigerian.

His major? Mechanical engineering.

Sworn to basketball, Ekezie is just as steadfast in his pursuit of a college degree. Somehow, his passions coexist.

"I seldom share this [academic] side with teammates," he said recently, scooping up his books after an 8 a.m. class in engineering dynamics. "Last week, I told one of them how much studying I do. He said, `You're sick.' "

With final exams this week, Ekezie has become a regular at McKeldin Library. He squeezes his 250-pound frame into a study carrel for three-hour stints, reviewing material like the velocity of separation and the conservation of linear momentum.

"To me, this is normal behavior," he said. "I've always taken school seriously."

Athletic scholarship in hand, Ekezie arrived at Maryland an anomaly, determined to complete the five-year engineering program.

"Obinna is neither a typical basketball player nor a typical engineering student. He's a hybrid -- and few do both," said William Walston, associate chairman of Maryland's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Ekezie is not the first to attempt the balancing act. David Henderson, a 1980 graduate who is now an environmental engineer in Roanoke, Va., and Bryan Palmer (1987) were bit players for the Terps who earned engineering degrees.

"I lived that challenge," said Palmer, of Damascus, who designs nursing facilities. "I remember the professor in my fluids class saying, `All athletes are Neanderthals.'

"Was the major worthwhile? Absolutely. Obinna will be well-positioned for the corporate world, once basketball no longer serves him."

The son of a petroleum engineer, Ekezie plans to enter his father's business, an oil company in Nigeria with offices in Houston. Family expectations matter when you're rushing to an 8 a.m. class on one good leg.

Last week, as Ekezie arrived five minutes late for Engineering 221, he sank into his seat, yawned once, cracked his knuckles and pondered the professor's wake-up query:

"How does something vary depending on the variation of the variable?"

Then the questions got tough.

For nearly an hour, Ekezie scribbled data in a spiral-ring notebook, pen dwarfed by his huge right hand. His work this semester has paid off. His average, prior to the final exam, was 88 -- 14 points higher than that of the class as a whole.

"The work isn't that complicated if you can conceptualize it," he said. "My dad told me that engineering is about real life. That makes it easier."

With a 2.8 grade-point average, Ekezie appears to have won the respect of his peers, off the court.

"Obinna is dedicated," said Fyondo Nguni, an engineering student from Zambia. "You'd expect him to take less challenging courses. I admire him for this."

When Ekezie completes the three courses he is taking this spring, he will be 1 1/2 years shy of his bachelor's degree. He intends to get it, sooner or later, even if picked in the NBA draft next month.

"Initially, when he told me his plans, I was skeptical," said Walston, his academic adviser. "I said, `Gee, Obinna, you're going to be making all that money and still doing homework?' "

Absolutely, Ekezie said. "I'll keep chipping away, a course or two at a time. I hope to take classes on the Internet.

"When you work this hard to reach this point, you don't chuck it away. And basketball won't last forever."

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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