It’s not like there haven’t been other coaches who have tried to coax Bulldogs forward/center Derek Ogbeide onto a football field. Being 6-foot-8 and built as sturdy as a survivalist’s bunker, he was bound to draw certain overtures once he showed up in the American South.
Having resisted all offers to try something exciting, new and concussive so he could focus on his basketball, where does Ogbeide find himself on select, sweltering summer days in Athens?
On a football field. Pushing a sled. Like he’s investing in a pass rush that he’ll never use.
Part of the basketball team’s offseason conditioning includes these field trips in which players take turns attacking the weighted sled, pushing it 30 yards at a time, if they can. Mark Fox makes it sound particularly horrible. “Guys are throwing up, tapping out,” Georgia’s basketball coach said.
This one time, on the last set of the day, the Dogs’ conditioning coach tells his guys to go only as far as they can, and then enlist relief from a teammate.
“And I see Derek taking it the whole 100 (yards),” Fox said. “Other guys are vomiting, getting light-headed and this guy pushed it the whole 100 the last set. I thought, well, that’s impressive.”
Bulldogs fans are left to only dream of what they might have had if only somewhere between stops on three continents and five countries Ogbeide had tripped over a football.
But it was a basketball his father sent from America years ago to his 11-year-old son still in Nigeria. Derek had displayed the shocking habit of placing hands on a soccer ball and bouncing it in violation of every norm. Now he had a more approved sporting good, which at first, with no rim around, he would toss against a wall and imagine it drawing iron.
The Georgia big man, currently averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, one block and at least a handful of hard picks a game, is not the slickest player in the SEC. But he is getting slicker. He is not the most schooled player, given all the global travels that made it that much more difficult for basketball to find him. But he is getting wilier.
His childhood model was another Nigerian-born player, Hakeem Olajuwon. He is far from as natural as Olajuwon. But he is growing instincts along with a few deft offensive moves, so long as he stays in the shadow of the basket.
He is, points out Fox, “a much-improved player and sometimes you don’t see it because he plays next to such a dominant player in Yante.” That’s Yante Maten, the Bulldogs leader, the forward to whom all this seems to come so naturally.
“He’s much improved, he’s extremely hard-working,” said Fox, who then adds one important quality that does not directly translate to points or rebounds.
“And he has a great spirit for life.”
What Ogbeide contributes beyond the stat sheet is a fresh perspective on a familiar game, a background that stretches the story of the making of D-I basketball player over the broadest frame imaginable.
Start with the fact that Ogbeide, while following his mother to where the work was, has lived in Nigeria, England, Sweden, Canada and the United States. Justina Ogbeide, who now lives in Texas, has worked such disparate jobs as brokering African gold and working in nursing homes.
Asked which of these stops he might call home, Ogbeide tilts English. “London is where most of my childhood was spent, going on five years. When I think of me as a child, that’s the first place my mind goes to,” he said.
So, where’s the accent? “My accent fluctuates back and forth depending on the situation. When I get heated, I get a good Brit in me. In other situations, I can sound more Nigerian.”
And when really worked up, does he cuss in British? “I’ll say, ‘bloody’ a lot,” he said. That very well might save on the technicals.
Yet, by the time Ogbeide, a junior, leaves UGA, he will have spent more time in Georgia than at any other stop. That includes the two years he spent in at Pebblebrook High, emigrating from Toronto at the time to be with his father as well as to flesh out his basketball resume.
Some people have a passport. Ogbeide has a signature collection. He said he has had passports from Nigeria, England and the U.S. – his American citizenship, gained through his father, naturally being the one in play now.
He said the rap music he listens to before a game may come from here or overseas. The gospel stuff he employs to smooth the edge is more domestic.
With such a diverse upbringing, you learn to adapt, learn to do whatever is necessary to fit into your current situation. Which is helpful for a player often asked to do the unglamorous work that lives down low, like rebounding and trying to dig out a few square feet of territory in the paint. (He currently is wearing a lump over his left eye, courtesy of those labors).
Ogbeide is the product of his travels. “(Moving from place to place) affected me greatly, has given me a certain level of maturity that I had to get at a younger age. It opened my eyes to the world, to grow up faster than kids my age,” he said.
“He’s the team pontificator,” Fox said. “He’s educated. He can speak about life in different countries and his experiences, and he does so with substance – a lot of guys just jabber. He’s had great experiences in life, and I think he sees things through a little more mature lens.”
His has been a physical journey, as well. There is no telling it by the chiseled figure he cuts now on the court, but Ogbeide is a reformed softie. The guy who can push that sled all over Athens was once “an under-the-radar, chubby, out-of-shape kid.” That being the testimony of Vidal Massiah, the director of the Northern Kings AAU program in Toronto, where Ogbeide played.
Massiah saw a kid who could jump seemingly without effort and, while raw, was a quick study. He also saw a kid with vast playing potential who would benefit from a move to the States. So, he helped work out Ogbeide’s move south to be with his father.
Arriving at UGA, Ogbeide was still in some ways the lump of clay requiring considerably more form. There was a whole other level of conditioning required for the college game.
Once more, he adapted. “He deserves all the credit, he and his strength coach,” Fox said.
With their formidable front court, these Bulldogs have the look of a NCAA Tournament team. Yet, after a January in which they lost five of six, they have been consigned to the bubble.
If they wish to escape tournament purgatory, they would do well to heed a certain big man who is the best kind of citizen a basketball team can have.
“With all the adversity, it’s easy for your resolve to be questioned. Of course, ours has been questioned,” Ogbeide said.
“I really do believe we won’t crumble as a team or as individuals. I believe in us.”