Few players in Kansas bring the spirit he does.
Wichita Heights’ Sam Kiguru likely won’t hit a game-winning shot this season. He likely won’t play college basketball, either, but coach Joe Auer said he is the most important player in the Falcons’ early season success in 2018-19 and is “having the time of his life” doing it.
“Sam is our leader,” he said. “Every kid in there would tell you that even though he isn’t going to score hardly any points, we can’t win without him because he is the glue. He keeps everybody connected. He always has a smile on his face. He’s always going to be the first guy on the floor. He does all the little things. ... He’s a garbage man.”
Kiguru’s family is from Nairobi, Kenya, the fifth most populous city in Africa. His mother came to the U.S. after she was offered a job opportunity in Philadelphia. A few jobs later, and Kiguru found himself on one of the most historic high school basketball floors in the country. Kiguru said his mom tells him it hurt to leave her family in Africa; she was the only one to leave, he said.
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Growing up African, basketball wasn’t the first sport he was introduced to; soccer was. Kiguru said it took an icon to find basketball.
“I was watching Kobe Bryant play,” he said. “I said, ‘That looks fun.’ So my mom made me choose: Boy Scouts or basketball.”
Kiguru isn’t the only African on the courts in Wichita. He isn’t even the only on his team. Fellow senior forward Jaden Okon’s father, Dominic, is from Ibadan, Nigeria.
Unlike Kiguru, basketball was Okon’s first love because of his father. Dominic was an outstanding athlete who played at Liberty University, Three Rivers Community College and finally at Loyola-Chicago.
He represented the Nigerian National Team in several international tournaments and helped his country to the Nations Cup in Africa in 1997.
Okon said basketball is in his blood.
“There are a lot of expectations, but I just try to go out there and play my best every single night for my family,” he said.
Okon is one of the top players in the Wichita area. He loads the stats book with 10.2 points, 6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 blocks and a steal per game. Wichita Heights is the No. 1 team in Class 5A, according to the latest Kansas Basketball Coaches Association rankings. The Falcons are packed with talent, but Auer said Okon might have the highest ceiling. He holds two Division II offers, including one from Washburn.
“Jaden is blessed with tremendous athletic ability,” he said. “He is our most physically talented guy. He’s a guy who can try to do too much, but he’s starting to grow up a little bit and focus on the things that help this team win. As he has calmed down on the offensive end, he has become a very successful basketball player.”
Kiguru and Okon are different types of leaders. Kiguru is emotional. He can be loud and passionate. Okon is more reserved and composed but lethal on the court. Each credits his upbringing and culture for the guy fans see on the court.
Both said they still go back to Africa occasionally. Kiguru said he has been to Kenya four times to see his mother’s family and is stunned with how different some things are — but how similar others are.
“The food, the weddings — they can last seven, eight, 10, 12 hours,” Kiguru said. “I love it.”
Okon said people don’t understand how skewed some people’s perception of Africa is. He said that in a way his home continent is like Wichita on a bigger, more condensed scale. Kiguru said it’s similar to New York City, with vendors on the streets and millions packed into a metropolis.
Both said they wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
They have helped shape who they are and have given them an identity.
“There’s African-American and then there’s African,” Kiguru said. “It’s all about culture.”