Blessing Ekeshili used to play barefoot on concrete slabs, just trying to find his way through a sport he had only just heard of.
Before he started playing basketball, strangers constantly asked whether he played. All he knew was soccer. That was what children did there.
“I was like, ‘What is this basketball?’ ” he said. “It’s just something where you bounce the ball? I said, ‘No, I don’t wanna do that.’ Let me keep kicking the ball with my legs.”
Four years later he is still learning the game, still trying to learn his new home but impressing in doing both.
Ekeshili is a sophomore at Trinity Academy, but that is the least interesting trait about him.
He was raised in Lagos, Nigeria, on the Gulf of Guinea. The city, with 21 million residents, is one of the most-populated in Africa — the population of Wichita wouldn’t make up 2 percent of Lagos’.
Playing soccer in the streets at 6 feet, 5 inches, he skied over other children. When he started playing basketball his potential was clear.
The hoops in Nigeria were taller than in the U.S., but his height was unparalleled.
And his parents knew it.
They signed him up for adoption in America. Soon, Heidi Perez in Wichita adopted Ekeshili, and he flew to the states and enrolled at Trinity Academy.
Playing and living in America was different at first. There were few concrete courts, few kids playing soccer and none kicking the ball in the streets.
The city was smaller, and the culture vastly shifted. Ekeshili’s family was more than a $1,000 flight away.
There were positives.
The language was unexpectedly easier in the U.S. Hundreds of dialects and languages are used in Nigeria. Although English is the official language in Nigeria, few speak it fluently.
Communicating with anyone other than family was always a struggle in Nigeria; it made for mass confusion and a “crazy” way to live, especially in a city as diverse as Lagos.
Ekeshili’s father knows little English, and his mom knows none.
He picked up on the problem and started listening to songs from the U.S.
“When I was back home, I listed to a lot of Drake,” he said. “He speaks the words and says a lot. And I listen to a lot of slow songs, so I can listen to what he’s saying.”
That’s how he learned the language, not through class. He said the teachers never got it right.
So coming to America, he was already relatively well-versed, which helped at Trinity.
“I’ve been blessed to coach a variety of athletes from across the world, and I think they bring a wonderful dynamic to your team,” coach Chance Lindley said. “They appreciate certain things that we take for granted, but they learn from our kids as well.”
There were other road blocks, mostly with Ekeshili’s health.
Going into his freshman season at Trinity, Ekeshili was still trying to get accustomed to playing on hardwood with high-dollar shoes covering his feet. The jumps were different, and with the hoops lower, the game seemed easier.
“When I saw it was a 10-foot, I was like, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” he said. “I’m gonna dunk this, and I still try to do that. Every ball I see, I’m trying to put it back, dunk it, do crazy stuff.”
Then Ekeshili tore his ACL after landing awkwardly. The injury set his growth back when he needed it most.
Ekeshili, now 6-8, is still getting back into game shape. He came off the bench Tuesday night and scored eight points in Trinity’s 57-39 win against Cheney.
The win was huge for the Knights, keeping them atop the Cental Plains Leaue while fending off their top contender in impressive fashion.
Although Ekeshili’s point total might not jump off the stat sheet, he was effective protecting the rim, blocking shots and rebounding. And there is more to come with two more years of eligibility.
“If you’re looking at me on the court and you’re thinking, ‘OK, he can’t do that,’ well, I’m coming,” Ekeshili said. “I’m still working on myself.”
His shot and footwork need molding, and his 6-8 frame is still a bit awkward at times. But his mind is getting sharper after picking up a basketball for the first time four years ago.
Lindley sees the potential, too. Throughout the game, he worked with Ekeshili, talking with him more than most of his other players.
He has a way to go before Division-I coaches come knocking at his door, but Ekeshili has the size to turn heads.
After his journey from Lagos to Wichita, he said there are still hard days. Sometimes he misses his family, but he said he has found a new one at Trinity.
He said all that he has been through is just like his name, a real-life Blessing.
“Your name reps you if you think about it,” he said. “Your name reps you everywhere you go. So it’s just a blessing to be around blessed people.”