Okoro’s Unusual Journey to Cedarville

by Tim Miller

For most collegiate athletes, it takes dedication from a young age to become good enough to be successful in high-level college sports. For Cedarville University junior basketball player Robert Okoro, basketball was far from his mind for most of his life.

Okoro, a native of Imo State, Nigeria, didn’t enter a basketball gym until Dec. 19, 2009. Okoro said he remembered watching the sport on the Olympics and thought it looked elementary, but there’s a reason he remembers the exact date of the first time he played.

“I decided to go to the basketball court to find what it looks like,” Okoro said. “When I was watching it on TV I thought it was really easy since you can just bounce the ball with your hand.”

Okoro found out that day that basketball isn’t quite as simple as he thought it would be. His soccer coach encouraged him to look into playing the sport due to his 6-foot-6 stature, but Okoro said he struggled to pick up the sport at first.

Robert Okoro overcame many challenges to play basketball in the United States, a goal he had never imagined before he began playing in 2009. [Photo by Lydia Wolterman]

Imo State is a town just like Cedarville. Okoro spent most of his childhood playing soccer, per tradition in Nigeria. The junior participated in other sports and activities growing up but never took too much interest in basketball.

As Okoro continued to play basketball, he did so recreationally. He went to a basketball camp in 2012, where some American coaches came to watch. This was the initial spark that led Okoro to seeing a future in basketball.

One coach spotted Okoro at the camp and approached him about the possibility of playing basketball in the United States. Although Okoro went to the camp to have fun with his friends, he left the camp with a coach’s email and stayed in contact with him during the next year.

The coach, who would end up being his high school coach and mentor upon arrival in the United States, wanted him to visit the United States in 2012. However, Okoro’s father was stricken with illness and needed surgery. His family didn’t have the money to send Okoro to visit the United States and also pay for the surgery, so Okoro elected to stay in Nigeria.

His coach told him to come back to the basketball camp the next year, and Okoro agreed. Okoro’s eventual basketball academy coach spotted Okoro at the camp and was serious about adding Okoro to his squad.

Okoro elected to attend Cornerstone Christian Academy in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, for his junior year of high school. The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) barred Okoro from playing for Cornerstone because he had an F1 visa rather than a J1 visa, but Okoro was still permitted to practice with the team.

According to Okoro, the OHSAA told him that so long as he sat out his junior season, he’d be free to play in his senior season. However, when his senior year came around, the OHSAA again blocked Okoro from playing.

This led Okoro to play with SPIRE Institute in Northeast Ohio. The academy is “an international high school and post-graduate academy focused on developing and preparing student-athletes to be successful in college,” according to its website. The program is prestigious and plays top teams, so the learning curve for Okoro was steep.

“It went up really high,” Okoro said. “We played mostly JUCO and prep schools and some college JV teams. It was really good for me. It was a really high jump for me.”

Okoro averaged 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game with SPIRE. His ability to quickly learn the game of basketball intrigued many collegiate coaches, and Okoro began receiving offers from D-I schools like Denver, and D-II schools like Cedarville and G-MAC foe Lake Erie.

Okoro chose Cedarville not only because of the counsel of his teachers at Cornerstone, many of which went to Cedarville, but also because of his visit to campus.

“I came to visit and saw things for myself,” Okoro said. “I didn’t choose other schools because I didn’t want to go crazy in the college life. Cedarville was a big difference from other schools.”

Entering his third season with the Yellow Jackets, Okoro said he still can’t believe the journey he’s been on.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m still dreaming,” Okoro said. “Jumping from Nigeria to the U.S. has just been a big dream for me. I don’t know if I can wake up from it. I thank God for everything.”

Tim Miller is a sophomore marketing major and sports editor for Cedars. He enjoys having a baby face, sipping Dunkin Donuts coffee and striving to be the optimal combination of Dwight Schrute and Ron Swanson.

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