Fire burns in Ekezie

Basketball: Nearly fully mended and `revved up like a volcano,' the former Terp tenses for draft.

June 26, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The scar curls down his right heel, a raised trail mindful of a lizard's scaly tail or a stretch of the Appalachians on a topographical map.

Obinna Ekezie runs his finger over the six-inch scar, a keepsake of the injury to his Achilles' tendon that cut short his senior season at the University of Maryland and threatened his hopes for a professional basketball career.

Now, with his torn tendon repaired and the NBA draft four days away, Ekezie itches to play. Forced to pace himself during his gradual recovery, he has yet to return to the court, save on a casual basis. To sharpen his skills, the 6-foot-10 center shoots around daily in the college's north gym with his 18-year-old brother, Ugo, while longing for the real thing.

"I'm motivated, revved up like a volcano waiting to explode," Ekezie said. "I can't wait to be 100 percent.

"Basketball is my passion, and it burns more than ever now. First, I have to prove I can get back to where I was; then, that I can be twice that good."

Ekezie averaged 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Terps before he was sidelined in February. A four-year starter, he ranks sixth all-time for Maryland with 125 blocked shots.

His size (260 pounds) suggests the 23-year-old Ekezie may go in Wednesday's draft, according to NBA personnel -- perhaps in the first round.

"The league has such a need for big men that he will do fine in the draft," predicts Scott Layden, head of operations for the Utah Jazz.

Others say Ekezie's raw talent may draw attention. The big Nigerian never played ball until five years ago.

"Obinna is strong, smart and mobile, a diamond in the rough," said Mel Daniels, director of player personnel for the Indiana Pacers. "He has a great body, but hasn't really learned how to use it.

"He was starting to do the little things more efficiently this year, until the injury. The up side is that he hasn't reached his full potential. That's intriguing."

Unlike many players vying for NBA attention, Ekezie is unable to strut his stuff. Instead, at a pre-draft camp in Chicago last week, he spent his time on the sidelines, being assessed by doctors.

Nonetheless, the progress he has made since his surgery nearly five months ago leaves him close to full strength. Ekezie swims, lifts weights and works out on a Stairmaster. Basketball practice consists of non-contact workouts with Ugo, his 6-foot-5 younger brother, who hopes one day to follow Obinna to Maryland.

Ekezie remains on campus for summer school, where he is taking classes in engineering and business writing. A year shy of his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, he expects to play pro ball and complete his studies, mostly online.

Being at Maryland has made it convenient for follow-up visits with Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, the Terps' team physician. She is the orthopedic surgeon who stitched together his ruptured Achilles', the tendon that connects the calf muscle to the heel bone.

"Obinna's tendon is 100 percent healed," said Curl, of University Sports Medicine. "We're weaning him back [to basketball] gradually, from jogging to sprinting to jumping and playing full tilt.

"By July, he'll be scrimmaging, right back in the mix."

Athletes who sever their Achilles' can recover to play as well as before, she said, so long as they follow a regimen of therapy.

"Once back in shape, Obinna will be his former self," said Curl, who will examine him once more, next week. "Then he's in the hands of whatever team he lands with."

Meanwhile, Ekezie prepares for the draft. Come Wednesday, his entire family will converge on the Greenbelt apartment of Obinna's older sisters, Chika and Sylvia, to watch it on television.

"My mob is coming in," Ekezie said. Besides Ugo, the group includes his father, Obie, from the headquarters of the family petroleum business in Houston; his mother, Ada, and 7-year-old brother, Nnamdi, from the family's home in Nigeria; and another brother, Kaka, from London.

"We're deep in numbers," he said.

Whether he is drafted or not, Ekezie has a positive outlook.

"The issue is not whether I have the skills to play in the NBA, it's when I'll be ready to play," he said. "In other words, it's up to me. If that's the case, I'll be fine.

"By the grace of God, I can play in that league."

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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