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Cross-Continental: Far from family, John Egbunu finds home

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Egbunu

John Egbunu (15) high-fives teammates during Florida's 95-63 win over Auburn on Jan. 23, 2016, in the O'Connell Center.

Faith Egbunu can’t watch her son play basketball.

ESPN is hard to come by in Nigeria.

Instead, she looks up John’s stats and scores online and talks about his performances with him over the phone.

Florida’s 6-foot-11 center has not returned home to Nigeria since moving to the United States in 2011 to pursue basketball. He sees his mother only when they talk on FaceTime.

John has been on the move since first landing in the U.S. when he was 15 years old, traveling between three different states on his basketball journey. Now, the redshirt sophomore finds himself in Gainesville having finished his first full season at UF, averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

After moving from state to state and traveling across continents to pursue his dreams, he’s finally found a place to settle.

"I want to stay here until when God says it’s time for me to leave or go somewhere or do something different," he said.

• • •

When John stepped off the plane after crossing the Atlantic Ocean, he was already running late to class.

"We went to the airport, met him, we collected his stuff and he went to school," said Millicent Seriki, John’s aunt.

John, now 21, moved to the U.S. from Bauchi, Nigeria, but is originally from the state of Kogi.

He grew up playing a lot of soccer, Seriki said, and didn’t begin playing basketball until five months before he arrived in the U.S.

"I’m quick to learn," Egbunu said. "Especially when I’m really into something or I really want to be good at something."

In many ways, living in Nigeria was simpler than living in the United States.

But in other ways, it’s similar, John said.

Back home, John would wake up early for school, deal with strict teachers and hang out with friends — many of the same things he does in Gainesville.

And while he left much of his life in Nigeria, he still has family nearby.

"I was excited, I mean, having one of my ancestor’s kids come over," Seriki said. "I have one biological daughter, so when he came, he was my son coming home."

Seriki, who lives in suburban Atlanta, moved to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2000.

Her daughter Tobi, John’s cousin of about the same age, studies at the University of South Florida. The two were instrumental in John’s adjustment to life in a new country and the main reason why John’s mother was OK with him leaving home.

"They knew my aunt was gonna watch over me," Egbunu said. "So they weren’t really like freaking out about that."

When Seriki met John at the airport on his first day in the United States, John was on his way to Durham, North Carolina, to begin school and his basketball career. In his junior year, John moved to Atlanta to live with his aunt and attended Eagle’s Landing High School — he said the basketball program at his school in North Carolina was being closed down.

But soon, he was on the move again.

John transferred to Fort Walton Beach High School in northwest Florida.

"I’ve just got to understand that everything is a process and everybody has a different path in life and that’s kind of how I always looked at it," John said.

While many aspects of life in America were similar to those of back home, the culture change was still a difficult adjustment.

In one instance, John’s friend asked to use his cellphone, making international calls and racking up an expensive phone bill.

"In Nigeria, we are kind of, like, very generous. You can just give somebody your stuff to use," Seriki said. "...There were so many things that you have to just let him know and let him see that here it’s not done the way it’s done back home."

With his mother back in Nigeria, John maintains a strong bond with Seriki. She and Tobi attend as many of John’s home games as possible.

"I call him my son because that’s what he is," Seriki said. "I’ve talked to him like four times today. … I talk to him every night."

• • •

When John started playing basketball in Nigeria, he was far from the best player on the court.

"There were people who were way bigger than me," the 255-pounder said.

Now, he’s the most imposing force on one of college basketball’s premier Division I teams.

"He’s a man-child. He gets the ball, it’s going in," sophomore Devin Robinson said of Egbunu. "He’s dunking everything. He’s rebounding. He’s a man."

John’s size is striking.

His large frame gives him the look of a natural center, but being so new to the game, Egbunu is still working on matching his skillset to his size. He said high school basketball was an exciting, rewarding experience, but that his size played a bigger factor on the court than anything else.

"(It) really helped me, kind of helped cover for a lot of my flaws or a lot of areas that I needed to get better at," Egbunu said.

After high school, John committed to play basketball at the University of South Florida.

In his freshman season at USF, John averaged 6.2 rebounds per game — most among freshmen in the American Athletic Conference — along with 7.4 points per game. His 198 rebounds were the most ever by a freshman at USF, and he was named to the AAC All-Rookie Team.

Then, in 2014, John was on the move again.

This time, he transferred to Florida.

"He’s been through the wringer," UF coach Mike White said. "I think it’s kind of stunted his growth a little bit in that he’s not only new to the game, but he’s new to the game and he’s had all these different ways of it being taught to him and different philosophies and schemes. I think he’s just now settling in for the first time."

After sitting out his first year at Florida due to NCAA transfer rules, John’s first season as a Gator was impressive. Among UF players who had at least 100 shot attempts, Egbunu led the team in field-goal percentage (59.1) and blocks (48) while slamming down a school-record 75 dunks.

John’s production this season was encouraging, especially for a player as raw and early in the development process as he was.

His season came to an end before Florida’s did, however, when a torn ligament in his right thumb forced him to undergo surgery on March 17 after the Gators’ first-round National Invitation Tournament win against North Florida.

Now, John has all summer to heal, train and come back in the fall even better than he was. After having moved around from school to school and coach to coach throughout high school and early in his college career, John hopes his time at Florida will elevate his game to a new level.

"It’s going to be a while before he is back on the floor at full speed, but I think he understands that he’s got a chance to be one of the better big guys in this league and have a really big junior year," White said. "And that’s certainly our expectation of him."

• • •

John is still relatively new to the game of basketball. He’s still learning the game while also settling into a new home.

"I think you’ve got to be pretty dedicated and you’ve got to be mature beyond your years to leave your family a world away to come enroll in high school in America," White said of Egbunu.

It’s been an eventful five years for John since moving to the United States.

But three different high schools in three different states and two colleges later, the redshirt sophomore has found a new home.

"Right now, I’m not focused on doing anything but staying here and getting better and working on my game and enjoying my teammates," Egbunu said.

"Gainesville is a fun place to be."

Contact Alex Maminakis at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @alexmaminakis.