Nigerian teen taking courts by storm

Demola Onifade says, "I want to be an engineer,
Demola Onifade says, "I want to be an engineer, (but first I want to play professional basketball." STEVEN M. FALK / Staff)
Posted: May 20, 2013

It took one road trip for Demola Onifade to astound his new basketball teammates and coaches.

But it was nothing that the 16-year-old from Lagos, Nigeria, did on the court.

"We're together as a team, back at the hotel," said Rob DePersia, a local attorney who is the coach of Team Speed, an AAU squad that features top teenage players from South Jersey. "Demola said, 'I have to go and study.' He went and did his homework twice.

"He has that inner drive. That's why he's going to be great."

Onifade has more than determination. He also has the height, wing span, agility, and speed to make a major impact on the South Jersey basketball scene over the next two seasons.

The 6-foot-9 athlete enrolled at Camden Catholic on April 12. He lives in the school's Nazareth House, a dormitory on campus for international students.

Onifade's journey to the United States was arranged by Youth Interlock Society, a nonprofit organization based in Chester, Pa., that provides educational and athletic programs as well as mentoring services for at-risk youth.

The organization sponsors Team Speed, which includes South Jersey players such as junior Matt Klinewski of Eastern, junior Rodney Williams of Cherry Hill West, and sophomore Theo Holloway of Paulsboro, among other South Jersey players.

Youth Interlock Society's founder and director, Earl Pearsall, said he is paying Onifade's tuition, room, and board at Camden Catholic with help from donations from friends and supporters of his organization.

Pearsall said he learned of Camden Catholic's housing arrangements for international students and strong academic reputation through DePersia, whose twin sons, Rob and Nick, are members of Team Speed as well as sophomores at Haddonfield High School.

"That's a great place for Demola because he will be challenged academically," Pearsall said of Camden Catholic. "He wants that."

DePersia and Pearsall said that nobody from Camden Catholic was involved in the process to bring Onifade to America or to enroll him in the school.

Msgr. Andrew Martin, Camden Catholic president emeritus, resides at the Nazareth House with the international students who live there.

Martin said has been "amazed" at how well Onifade has adjusted to Camden Catholic as well as dormitory life.

"He's such a nice young man," Martin said. "He has fit in so well. Just the other day, I had to drive him to Somerdale because he was meeting a friend to go to the movies."

Martin said Camden Catholic created the Nazareth House two years ago at the site of an old convent as a way to increase enrollment and add diversity to the student population.

The dormitory currently houses about 35 students, most of whom are from China. Onifade rooms with two other boys, one from Mexico and one from China.

Onifade is one of two Nigerians on the Team Speed squad who were brought to this country through Youth Interlock Society. The other is 6-foot-8 Adelou "Gabe" Adesina, who is a junior at Chester High School.

Onifade said he began dreaming about coming to the United States to play basketball a little more than a year ago. He said he has been playing the game for about three years.

"I knew I would find better basketball here," Onifade said. "That's what I wanted."

Onifade said he attended Ikosi High School in Lagos. He also was enrolled in the city's Rapid Basketball Academy, which facilitated his move to the United States.

DePersia said the process of bringing Onifade to this country took nearly a year and involved layers of bureaucratic complications.

"It was incredibly complicated," DePersia said.

Onifade said he left behind a family that includes his mother, Sola, and father, Kola, as well as an older brother and sister and younger twin brothers.

He said his mother was "happy and sad" that he was leaving home and that he talks with her regularly on the telephone.

"Maybe when I graduate, my parents will come over to see me," Onifade said.

Onifade said one thing bothers him about South Jersey: The weather.

"It's cold," he said.

He likes the food, especially "fries and burgers." He said his diet in Nigeria consisted mostly of rice. He said he has gained about 15 pounds in his first month in this country.

Onifade said he likes "science and algebra" as school subjects. He hopes to go to college on a basketball scholarship and major in engineering.

"I want to be an engineer, but first I want to play professional basketball," Onifade said.

Onifade has unpolished shooting and ballhandling skills. He has struggled against some of the better competition that Team Speed has faced in a few tournaments, according to DePersia.

But the coach said Onifade is getting better and better. He's been averaging "double-digit rebounds" and about six points in recent games.

At a recent practice, Onifade dunked effortlessly and ran the floor like a much shorter athlete.

"He's gotten a lot better," said the 6-8 Klinewski, a second-team all-South Jersey selection last season who recently committed to attend Lafayette on a basketball scholarship. "He's lifting weights, getting stronger. You can tell he's going to be really good."

DePersia said he expects Onifade to improve dramatically as he continues to gain weight and strength and develop a deeper understanding of the sport.

"He's adamant that he has to become a great player," DePersia said. "He takes the same approach to basketball that he does in the classroom."

Asked what he likes best about his new home, Onifade said, "The way schoolwork and basketball go together. I know I have to do well in school if I want to play basketball."

Klinewski said he won't forget Onifade's first road trip, when Team Speed traveled to Pittsburgh the weekend of April 19-21 for a tournament.

"We were all together in one room, and I walked into my room, and there he is studying," Klinewski said of Onifade. "I was like, 'D, come on.' But that's the way he is. He knows this is the opportunity of a lifetime."


Contact Phil Anastasia

at panastasia@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @PhilAnastasia. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.inquirer.com/

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