Heel healed, all systems go

Basketball: Excited about his future, Obinna Ekezie looks like his old self in a no-holds-barred workout at Maryland.

September 16, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Obinna Ekezie jumped. He pivoted. He jammed. He threw his weight around in a pickup basketball game against the Terps at Cole Field House. And his heel held up.

Seven months after tearing his right Achilles' tendon, Ekezie returned to his old haunt, going full tilt last week for the first time since the injury that cut short his senior season. His return lacked hoopla -- no crowd, cameras or cheerleaders. Just a bunch of Maryland players and Ekezie, Vancouver's No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.

The group chose up sides, and the 6-foot-10 Ekezie went to work, wheeling and dealing at center like old times.

"The explosiveness was there," said Ekezie, who weighs 260 pounds. "I was quick off the dribble, and I dunked the ball pretty easily."

Ekezie's side won the game. Afterward, Lonny Baxter, the Terps' sophomore center, paid homage to the Grizzly-to-be.

"Get your butt out to Vancouver," said Baxter, whose team had just gotten beat.

Ekezie leaves tomorrow. First stop: Leesburg, Va., for a three-day freshman orientation in whichNBA rookies are drilled in off-the-court etiquette. Then it's on to training camp in Canada.

Ekezie, 24, signed a two-year contract Tuesday. Terms were not disclosed.

Vancouver seems eager to embrace the big Nigerian. Sports fans warmed to him during his appearance at a news conference after the pro draft in June.

The event was supposed to introduce Maryland's Steve Francis, the Grizzlies' No. 1 draft pick. But Francis balked, sulked and was later dealt to Houston.

At that confab, Ekezie spent 10 minutes responding to queries about his AWOL teammate before fielding even one personal question. Yet he kept his aplomb throughout.

"Obinna was very gracious; I expected nothing less," said Stu Jackson, the Grizzlies' president and general manager. "He's a first-rate individual who exemplifies what a professional should be about."

Before leaving, Ekezie toured the Canadian city and took part in a basketball clinic for underprivileged kids. Residents took note.

"Obinna came here and said all the right things -- how beautiful the city was and how he looked forward to playing here," said Rick Daliwahl, a sports announcer for CKWX radio in Vancouver. "He was well-spoken and mature -- everything that Mr. Francis was not."

Ekezie is grateful to have been drafted, period. Sidelined in February, he underwent surgery to repair the ruptured tendon, plus months of therapy in his race to rehabilitate his right foot.

He has labored all summer, lifting weights and running up and down the aisles inside Cole Field House (1,000 steps in all) three times a week.

In July, he took part in a two-week NBA camp in Los Angeles, rubbing elbows -- literally -- with Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, Vancouver's 7-foot center.

The travel disrupted Ekezie's academic pursuits. An engineering major, he is scrambling to finish two summer-school courses at Maryland, where he remains eight courses shy of his five-year degree.

"When I'm finished playing [pro ball], I'll have that degree," he said. "It will be done."

Ekezie plans to chip away at those courses over the next three years, both on the Internet during basketball season and during summers, back at College Park.

Last week, he sought to close the book on his senior year. Ekezie scrambled to finish a term paper and a final exam before shipping out. He also played several pickup games in which, for the first time, no one cared about stepping on his feet.

The injury to his Achilles' tendon left him with a six-inch scar, the need to wear protective orthotics in his sneakers, but no hitch in his step.

"I'm raring to go," Ekezie said. "How many people get a chance to play in the NBA? I never expected this when I started playing basketball six years ago.

"I feel blessed."

But making the Grizzlies is no sure thing. Projected as a power forward -- he played that spot and center at Maryland -- Ekezie stands no better than fourth on Vancouver's depth chart. He is overshadowed by likely starters Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Othella Harrington and veteran Cherokee Parks.

The Grizzlies say they'll coddle Ekezie, though he and his doctors say his foot is fine. "It's an opportunity for Obinna to break in slowly, to learn behind quality NBA players," Jackson said.

"We're counting on his work ethic to help ease his transition into the league. If by chance his growth curve is swifter than expected, that's a nice problem for the team to have."

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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