Oct. 30, 2006
Imagine the difficulty of adjusting to life at college. Imagine you’re 18, leaving home for an unfamiliar city, to live with unfamiliar people and take on a challenging curriculum at one of the top ten universities in the country. Well most of you have embraced this challenge or know someone who has here at Georgia Tech. Now imagine you had to cross an ocean to get here and speak a new language just to study that curriculum. Then throw in the strenuous workouts, intense practices, exhaustive pressure and travel that go with playing college basketball at the highest level.
Meet Georgia Tech’s Chioma Nnamaka, a six-foot junior guard with a three pointer that rarely misses, and a spot on the Dean’s List at the eighth ranked public university in the country. She is Georgia Tech’s top scorer, was recently named co-captain and ranks among the top ten in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring. This international sensation came to Georgia Tech from Uppsala, Sweden, a town of 130,000 just north of Stockholm, to get an education and play hoops in college basketball’s toughest conference.
“I was excited to play in the ACC, I guess. I really was just excited to come here and play with this team. I just wanted to play basketball,” says Nnamaka.
Before crossing the Atlantic to come to college, Nnamaka won three Swedish Championships, was named the MVP of the 2003 Swedish Championship Game, earned a spot on the all-star team for the 2003 Swedish Championships, and was a two-time all-star in Sweden’s highest league, the Damligan League.
Nnamaka’s two older sisters, Azuka, 25, and Ifeanyi, 23, play in the Damligan League, while brother Oluoma, a Marquette graduate, plays basketball in Italy. Nnamaka credits them with inspiring her to pick up the sport. Growing up in Sweden, she didn’t have the luxury of watching basketball on television, and says it was watching her brother and sisters play that opened hers eyes to this sport she loves so much.
“My older brother started playing basketball, then my two sisters picked it up,” said Nnamaka. “When it was my middle sister’s turn to start playing, I was eight and I just started going to practice with her. My parents were never into basketball, never really into sports at all.
“It’s funny because we grew up together, we all play basketball, we all love basketball, but we never watch it and we never really talk about it when we’re together.”
Nnamaka’s father, Jonathan was born in Nigeria and as a teenager, was introduced to a Swedish professor that was studying in his African nation. The professor persuaded Jonathan to come to Uppsala to attend the University there. Jonathan accepted the offer and moved to Sweden where he met AnnKatrin. The couple where soon married in Uppsala where they would raise Nnamaka and her three older siblings.
Nnamaka and her family spent two weeks visiting her father’s homeland this summer, meeting some of their Nigerian family members for the first time.
“My father is from a village there [Nigeria],” explains Nnamaka. “I loved the village he was from and loved meeting my grandmother and all my cousins. I had some trouble communicating with them, which was frustrating, but I really liked just being with them.
“It was very different. They didn’t even have a television. My dad actually brought them a T.V. The lights would just go on and off, randomly. They didn’t have a real shower and I had to go get the water and heat it up to bathe,” says Nnamaka. “It was just so different, but a great experience. I’m so glad I did it and I will go back.”
The star athlete was courted by Miami, Minnesota and Georgia Tech, but Nnamaka felt an immediate connection with Tech’s head coach, MaChelle Joseph, and was touched when the tenacious coach traveled nearly 5,000 miles to Sweden to watch her play.
“Coach Joseph came to Sweden to watch me play and after the game spent a lot of time talking with my mom. They got along real well and talked for so long,” says Nnamaka. “When they finished talking, my mom turned to me and said, “You’re going to Georgia Tech.”
Nnamaka found in her new coach a mentor, a friend and someone to lean on with her family so far away. She admires Joseph’s coaching style, her toughness and loves knowing that she can always count on her coach to be there for her, on and off the court.
“Coach Joseph is a great person. She is so great to us and really looks out for us. I trust her, I play hard for her and am so thankful she’s our coach. I really love Coach Jo,” says Nnamaka.
Nnamaka also leans on her teammates to fill the void left from being an ocean away from her family. Fellow junior and teammate, Jill Ingram has been a close friend of Nnamaka’s since the two came to Georgia Tech in 2004 as part of a highly touted recruiting class. Ingram’s family in Charlotte, N.C. has embraced Nnamaka since meeting her two years ago, so Charlotte is where Nnamaka spends her holidays and breaks from school.
“I’m real close with Jill’s family. They come to every game, so it feels like I have family there. Jill and I are like sisters and I always go to Charlotte with her,” says Nnamaka.
Nnamaka plans on having her parents here for Georgia Tech’s game against Longwood on Sunday, February 25, which is also Senior Night at Georgia Tech. This will be the first time her parents have seen her play college basketball.
“It will be great to have them here to see how I live, to see what Atlanta is like. I just want them to see what my life is like and meet my friends here,” says Nnamaka.
With six members of the 2006 NBA All-Star team and two WNBA All-Stars from outside the U.S, it is clear that both leagues have reaped the benefits of international players and their exceptional fundamentals. While most American high school athletes are competing within the school systems, these international players are stepping up to adult size competition, sometimes representing their countries in international play.
The Yellow Jackets saw the advantage of bringing in players with this type of experience and currently have three players on their roster from other countries. Aside from Nnamaka, there’s junior Guillett Ancora and freshman Brigette Ardossi who both hail from Melbourne, Australia.
“I think it makes us a better team having players from other countries,” said freshman forward Nia Josiah. “Not just because of their skills, but because we are so different, and we can learn so much from them, on and off the court.”
Nnamaka lives with her Australian teammates, but claims that international connection is only a coincidence. All three players say it helps to have girls on their team from other countries to relate to.
With a fun loving personality, a bright smile and impeccable English, you’d never know this young woman was far from home, missing her mother’s cooking, and trying to adjust to life in the States. She doesn’t complain or struggle. She just shrugs it off and treats this journey as a blessing; an opportunity to earn top-notch education and play the sport she loves with a team she believes in, for a coach she admires.