Orukpe’s long path to Wichita State winds down

03/18/2013 5:58 PM

08/06/2014 12:23 AM

The conversation thread on Shockernet.net is the stuff of legend in the world of Internet fan forums — 3,912 messages dating to 2007. It is a voluminous amount of talk about Wichita State’s quietest basketball player, senior Ehimen Orukpe.

“Any news on Orukpe?” the topic begins, and it careens through his on-again, off-again departure from Nigeria, his attempt to get eligible, two seasons at a junior college and three with the Shockers.

Five years and so many cheers.

Fans, inspired by his story, adopted him as a favorite in Koch Arena. His playing time didn’t matter. His sometimes-awkward attempts at scoring didn’t matter. When Orukpe dunked or blocked a shot, fans cheered his successes with an investment that surpassed wins and losses.

“Sometimes, it’s still overwhelming,” he said. “They showed me a lot of love. I just look at it as sometimes, when I do something to help our team, they cheer for it.”

Orukpe, a 7-foot center from Lagos, Nigeria, is winding down a Shocker career that started when he signed in May 2007. He came to the United States a year later and, unable to win approval from the NCAA despite outstanding academic performances, attended Three Rivers (Mo.) Community College. He redshirted one season and played in 2009-10 before returning to WSU. His playing time increased each season as he improved his skills to match his height and athletic ability.

As a senior, he’s started 28 games and averaged 2.8 points and 4.5 rebounds. His 54 blocks are tied for sixth on WSU’s single-season list.

“Everybody on the team wants the best for him,” guard Tekele Cotton said. “He went through a lot to try and get into the school. He’s here and he’s able to play, and (fans) root for him a lot.”

He played his best stretch at a crucial time, helping the Shockers survive an injury to forward Carl Hall that cost him seven games in December and January. In those games, Orukpe averaged 5.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks, all while recovering from a sprained ankle that cost him three games.

The height, the story and the academic skills add up to a person who naturally attracts attention. Orukpe stands out in a crowd, even in the classroom. He carries a 3.52 grade-point average in mathematics, with a business minor. He earned a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference Scholar-Athlete team.

“A joy,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Zero maintenance.”

Orukpe prefers to work in the background, speak softly and stay humble. Like former teammate Garrett Stutz, also a 7-footer, he often exits the locker room wearing his hood as a barrier against stares.

“He’s very shy,” said Dominic Okon, WSU’s director of operations and a fellow Nigerian. “He doesn’t want people to see him as a smart person, or just as a basketball player because of his height.”

Don’t mistake shyness for aloofness. Orukpe is touched by the fans and may have tried too hard to reward them on the court.

“Everybody in Wichita was invested, and they feel they are a part of his journey,” Okon said. “That, in itself, is a burden to him because he always wants to show his appreciation and gets ahead of himself on the court.”

His classwork offers a different kind of payback to fans.

His favorite class at WSU was Calculus II. At Three Rivers, he earned an A in American History to 1877 in his first semester in the United States. While his practice schedule kept him from an engineering major, he plans to work in the field after he is done with basketball.

Smart guy, but not one to talk big. Cotton, Orukpe’s closest friend on the team, sees that humility often. While he gladly talks to fans, he also gladly lets others take the bulk of the attention.

“He’s 7-feet, so if we go somewhere people are going to notice he’s on the basketball team,” Cotton said. “He really doesn’t like to talk about basketball or brag that he’s smart. He’s humble.”

A demanding sports life and a demanding major can be an exhausting combination. His afternoon routine usually includes an hour of weights, video study with the team and around two hours of practice. Evenings are devoted to homework and rest. His studies in Nigeria and his family’s emphasis on education prepared him well for class work in college.

“I never wanted to come home with bad grades, because my dad would be mad at me,” he said. “I made good grades and I studied. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”

Free time is rare. “Anger Management” and “Two And A Half Men” are his favorite TV shows. He plays video games such as Mortal Kombat and Batman. His musical tastes range from reggae to hip-hop.

“I like to play adventure games,” he said. “My teammates always make fun of me because I don’t play a lot of basketball video games.”

With Okon’s sons or on rides with Cotton, Orukpe’s humor comes out. He plays video games with Okon’s sons, Jaden and Jordan, during his frequent visits to their house.

“He’s a normal kid,” Cotton said. “He’s fun to be around. We drive home and we talk about a lot of different things. The stuff he brings up is funny, stuff that happens. He likes to joke.”

Orukpe wants to play basketball professionally after college. When that is finished, engineering beckons, following in his father’s footsteps. He is prepared to live anywhere, wherever his careers take him.

“Building stuff,” he said. “I’ve been around a lot of construction work, building bridges, factories. I want to be around that.”

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