The man who changed the college basketball landscape in the Philippines touched base with the team that made him a local icon. Nigerian Samuel Ekwe now lives in Los Angeles and visited the San Beda Red Lions in Reseda during their annual training in the City of Angels two weeks ago.
Ekwe was the first African student-athlete that made a huge impact in college basketball, leading San Beda to the 2006 NCAA crown and ending its 28-year title drought. That year, Sam bagged both MVP and Rookie of the Year honors. Since then, majority of the UAAP and NCAA teams have recruited players from Africa, mostly from Cameroon and Nigeria.
The present-day Red Lions have another Nigerian behemoth, Olaide Adeogun, who will play his sophomore year in the NCAA this season. Sam and Ola met for the first time in Reseda during the former’s visit. But Ekwe has already played with some of the senior players in the team before he graduated like skipper Rome dela Rosa, Kyle Pascual, Michole Sorela and Jaypee Mendoza. He had been to the same training camp in LA in 2007 and 2008.
Ekwe helped SBC to win three straight NCAA diadems, from 2006 to 2008. He bagged MVP honors in 2006 and 2008. In 2007, he was disqualified from the MVP race after being ejected in one game for kicking an opposing player.
When he graduated from San Beda with a marketing degree in 2009, his student visa in the Philippines also expired. He wanted to stay in the country and tryout as an import in the PBA but renewing his visa had become difficult. After a brief stint with the Laguna Stallions in the Liga Pilipinas’ maiden season, Sam decided to test the waters in the USA. Because of his previous travels to LA with the Red Lions, he had acquired a multiple entry visa.
When in the US, Ekwe made contact with a player agent he had met before during one of San Beda’s friendly games in LA. The agent liked what he saw in that game and has since been trying to lure Sam into playing in the US. But Ekwe insisted on finishing his studies in the Philippines.
While in the States, Sam developed a dream of playing in the NBA. He saw action in the Drew League, a long-running summer basketball league in LA that drew much attention during the NBA lockout when superstars like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Lebron James suited up in some games. Ekwe played for the Los Angeles Cheetahs well enough to be invited by the Denver Nuggets to be part of their NBA Summer League pool. Unfortunately, he sustained a wrist injury in the Drew League just days before he was supposed to fly to Denver. He also tried out with NBA Developmental League teams Bakersfield Jam and Idaho Stampede but was cut in the last phase.
Occasionally, Ekwe gets tours of duty outside the US as an import. He has played in China, Malaysia and Luxemburg between 2009 and 2012.
But now, playing hoops is just a hobby for Sam, as he has become a successful entrepreneur in the US. He has been trading automobiles from the US to his home country of Nigeria and this has sustained his stay in California. He is now a permanent resident in Manhattan Beach, a posh beachfront city on the California Coast. Ekwe also owns a real estate business in his hometown of Lagos, which is managed by his brother Christopher.
Someday, Ekwe hopes to bring his family to the US. “It’s been really good for me here. I’m contended with my life. But for as long as you’re alive and healthy, good things will happen to you,” said Ekwe.
But Ekwe also hopes to return to the Philippines someday. “I love the Philippines. I love the people. Everywhere you go, people greet you with a smile. It’s unlike anywhere in the world. Maybe one day I will be back. I miss my friends there. I miss playing there, where fans really show their passion. I miss the school. I owe San Beda a lot. Everything I’ve achieved here, I owe to the school, to Boss MVP and Boss Mike Advani.”
Ekwe stayed to watch the team’s morning workout at Joe Abunassar’s Impact training facility in Reseda then went with the coaches to the Oakwood Apartments in Woodland Hills, where the team stays. By mid afternoon, he proceeded for his own workout before his business meetings. This has been his daily routine in LA if there are no games to play.
It’s amazing how a young dreamer like Sam can bring himself to a foreign country to have an education and start a basketball career. The same education and basketball experience have allowed him to dream even more, and become successful in yet another foreign country.
"This is God's plan for me and I'm glad of what I have become," said the young man who once planned to pursue priesthood in Manila before he fell in love with basketball.