Men's basketball's Nwoko reflects on Nigerian soccer dream

Innocent Nwoko palms a basketball prior to practice on Thursday, Jan. 18 at McGuirk Arena.

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Innocent Nwoko had no intention to play basketball.

“I played soccer a lot in Nigeria,” Nwoko said. “I came to Michigan and had the opportunity to play in high school too. Growing up in Nigeria, nobody had to teach me to play soccer. It’s just what every kid does.” 

When Nwoko arrived at New Haven High School in Michigan, head coach Tedaro France handed him a basketball. He could not shoot or dribble and didn't understand the rules. 

Nwoko had no plans of finding a passion for basketball. Instead, he wanted to develop his soccer career while recieving a good education. 

Playing professional soccer was Nwoko's dream for as long as he could remember, but as he grew, he quickly realized it would not be an option. 

“When I was playing (soccer) in high school, I was too tall playing with kids that were small,” Nwoko said. “Sometimes I couldn’t keep the ball on my feet because they could steal it easier than when I used to be smaller.” 

During his two years as a basketball player in for New Haven, Nwoko stuck to his soccer roots and used his footwork to lead his team. 

The 6-foot-11, 232-pound redshirt freshman center led New Haven basketball to a 25-1 record in the 2015-16 season, which included a Macomb Area Conference Gold, district, and regional championship. He also played AAU basketball for the Spiece Indy Heat.

CMU head coach Keno Davis runs an offense that pushes the ball in the fastbreak, which fits perfectly for a big man like Nwoko due to his former speed on the soccer field.

“We’ve always liked the versatility of players to be able to stretch the floor,” Davis said. “Even though Innocent’s not a stretch player, he has the speed we want to play with. We had something special in him with his ability to be able to run up and down the floor.

“Sometimes it takes bigger guys a little longer to develop, but he’s coming along and will be an impact player here sooner than later. "

Redshirt freshman center Innocent Nwoko dunks the basketball on Nov. 10 at McGuirk Arena. 

In Nigeria, basketball is not a popular sport. In the NBA, there are only two current players of Nigerian nationality but were not born in Nigeria – Al-Farouq Aminu and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

"Recently, (Nigerian) people have started to try playing basketball more," Nwoko said. 

Even though he spends most of his time on the hardwood, the center still follows professional soccer. 

Nwoko's favorite player is Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and he watches Arsenal of the English Premier League. His favorite basketball player is Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors. 

With basketball and soccer under his belt, Nwoko plans to expand his sporting abilities this summer with sophomore guard David DiLeo, who has always been interested in tennis.

“I haven’t played before, but yeah, (I’ll beat him),” Nwoko said. “I’m excited to play with him sometime this summer.” 

In the eyes of DiLeo, playing multiples sports in high school is something all athletes should attempt to do in their career. 

“Tennis helps with footwork and I think there are other sports that complement each other,” DiLeo said. “With tennis, you are working individually and with basketball, you are working with a group of five. Playing multiple sports can help with both aspects.”

Nwoko averages over three minutes per game. He has 13 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks and three steals this season.