Feb. 6, 2018
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Sylvester Ogbonda does things by the book … books, actually. Lots of them.
It’s a habit he traces all the way back to growing up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
“I remember my mom always making me read my books,” he recalled. “I played sports, just like a Saturday kind of thing, but my mom always stressed academics, read my books. Circumstances made me go into sports real big. Because I was tall, and I was still young they were like, `You could actually play basketball.’ So I learned the game, came here in ninth grade, couldn’t make a lay-up to save my life, but I just kept on working and here I am today.”
That desire to read and to learn has served Ogbonda, who has grown to 6-10 and 239 pounds, quite well. It’s come in especially handy during Georgia Tech’s 2017-18 season, which has seen a sprained knee cost him most of preseason and non-conference play and a sprained ankle contribute to keeping him out of ACC action.
But through it all his spirits have stayed high.
“The team’s success comes before everything,” he said. “Seeing us doing well, everybody on the team is playing well, I think that keeps me confident. I talk to my mom a lot now since she’s in Texas. She helps me be positive. I’m just trying to get myself better, trying to get more healthy, get my legs back.”
While strongly self-motivated to get back, Ogbonda knows he can count on his teammates and coaches for the occasional little extra push when needed.
Ogbonda speaks to Georgia Tech’s annual Endowment Dinner in January
“Honestly, being around A.D. (Abdoulaye Gueye) keeps me going. He motivates me to keep on pushing,” he said. “Coach Rev (assistant coach Eric Reveno) the same thing, `Just keep on pushing, just keep working.’ D.T. (Player Development Coach Dan Taylor) and I are always in the weight room talking, `Keep on pushing, keep on working.’ The one thing I believe, I believe that the time is going to come. So I just keep on working, staying ready and whenever it comes, make the best out of it.”
That positive attitude has made Ogbonda a positive on the squad.
“He’s such a high-character kid,” said Reveno. “You see him struggling with the injuries and not being 100 percent, but he still wants to try to get better and do his best and do his best for the team and help the team succeed. He puts the team first. He’s able to push through because of character.”
“He’s a positive person,” agreed Gueye. “We talk every day. He’s getting better on the scout team. He just has to stay ready. It’s a long season. You never know. He’s coming in early, putting in work, he’s staying in the gym doing extra stuff. You have to stay ready for whatever your name is called.”
Being prepared for that opportunity shouldn’t be a problem for `Ves as he’s already showed he’s prepared for opportunities off it.
Never was that more apparent than on Nov. 6, when, as part of Georgia Tech’s visit to China the team got a tour of Chinese e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba’s corporate headquarters and had an audience with its vice-president and co-founder Joe Tsai. The visit and Tsai’s speech made a deep impression on Ogbonda.
“It was a different part of life beside basketball, seeing the business side of the world outside of the United States and seeing how he built the dynasty of the Alibaba Foundation,” said Ogbonda, a business administration major. “It was pretty big listening to him, getting some key concepts. Basically stay positive, work hard, just keep on pushing because at some point he wasn’t Alibaba. He was just a regular person, and he just worked his way gradually to where he is right now.”
Ogbonda, who prefers sitting in the first three rows of all his Georgia Tech classes — “so I won’t get easily distracted, basically” — was locked in to Tsai’s speech, taking copious notes all the while. He did notice that he was sitting next to Georgia Tech President Dr. G.P. “Bud” Peterson.
“I wanted to sit in front so I could pay attention,” he said. “(Dr. Peterson) was right next to me. He impressed me taking notes, too. It was a privilege sitting next to him.”
`Ves said he keeps the notes from the speech in a special folder that also contains important things as his birth certificate, banking information and “documents I’m going to need.” While he doesn’t regularly refer to those notes, he admits that he has banked away the important pieces of info. He got from the speech — especially Tsai’s remarks about positivity and hard work, which have proved vital to him in helping deal with this season’s frustrations.
Reveno isn’t surprised by how Ogbonda treated the Alibaba trip.
“That’s consistent with who he is,” said Reveno. “He wants to always be taking take the most advantage of every situation. He embraces everything and is very appreciative and very much engaged in anything he does.”
Reveno believes that Ogbonda’s ability to process information, stay engaged and pass on that information would make him a good candidate to coach down the road.
“(Ogbonda’s) very smart about the game, very cerebral, has a very good feel,” he said. “He embraces the grunt work, the repetition, the behind-the-scenes, when-no-one-is-watching-type aspect of basketball and that’s something he seems to enjoy. Those are characteristics of a good coach. He’s also a very good person and a good communicator. So he could be a good coach.”
“He’s helped me,” Gueye said. “I like playing one-on-one with him because he’s physical and I can play defense on him. So we’re really helping each other. He’s a good scout. He wants to play but after he’s done playing he’s going to be a great coach. I can see him being a great big-man coach.”
That he could be a basketball coach is both flattering and a little surprising to Ogbonda, who grew up playing soccer and didn’t start playing basketball until ninth grade.
He was literally head and shoulders above most of his competition, something he joked led to him winning just about every ball in the air. He also credited soccer with helping him learn to play basketball in the post.
“Coming from soccer to basketball, footwork is the biggest thing,” he said.
“But I never was good at it,” he added, with a laugh. “I was just tall so they were like, `Tall people play basketball.’ So I was like, `Okay, it’s worth a shot.’ I met a couple of coaches and I started dribbling the ball in like eighth grade. It just worked out for me.”
When he came to the U.S. to play high school ball at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Maryland, he relied mostly on his legs as he learned his craft.
“I was scared because I didn’t know what to expect,” he recalled. “I had never played basketball before and coming to a place where the dominant sport was basketball was kind of intimidating. I just did the best I could running the floor. I RAN the floor. I did that perfectly well, just run up and down. I didn’t know what I was doing, just running. It was pretty tough there but I adjusted to it.”
He adjusted well enough to average 13 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks as a senior, earning third-team All-Metro status and leading the team to a 20-6 mark.
He made the equally tough adjustment getting used to the culture.
“It was tough. I’m a very emotional person so I used to cry every time I would speak to my mom. I couldn’t really speak to my mom frequently because of the cost of calling back home,” he said. “All my friends were back in Nigeria, so to come here, I had to start all over again, getting new friends, the school I’m in, my accent, people would always make fun of it sometimes when I didn’t pronounce words well and all that. But with time I got used to it, and with time everything got better.”
So much better that he was named valedictorian of his high school class. Being the complete student-athlete made him a natural for Georgia Tech.
After redshirting as a freshman, Ogbonda became a valuable piece off the bench last season, averaging 5.2 minutes and shooting 48.1 percent, in spelling Ben Lammers.
This season hasn’t gone as he planned, but he’s staying positive and is positive he can make the most of any opportunity this season then in his final two years.
Once he’s done playing, Ogbonda will address his basketball future and, yes, he’s even open to coaching. He actually sees himself taking the first steps towards that as he rehabs this season.
“Just the fact that you’re sitting on the bench watching the game, you see things that you can actually change,” he said. “Coaching might not be a bad idea — teaching people just little things, little hints here and there, especially about the post position from what I’ve learned and what I got to observe. It wouldn’t be a bad option for me but it’s just something that might be down the road.”