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Brothers ensure basketball players from their home country have proper footwear

Basketball shoes are generally made up of rubber, leather and synthetic materials.

While brothers Ikenna and Osinachi Smart were growing up in Nigeria, they might as well have been made of gold.

“I remember trying to buy a basketball shoe when I was back home. It’s hard to find one, and even if you find it, it’s going to be expensive,” Osinachi says. “And I know kids back there right now, they can’t afford to buy new shoes.” 

Now a College of Charleston sophomore, Osinachi was named to the 2018 National Association of Basketball Coaches Give Back Team for what he and his brother, Ikenna, a graduate transfer at Wake Forest, decided to do about that.

Amazed by the abundance of free shoes given to high school and college basketball players, the Smarts went about collecting used shoes to take back to Nigeria. Many came straight from their teammates’ closets and lockers.

In June 2017, the brothers ran an informal scrimmage and clinic for close to 50 mostly high school-aged boys in their hometown of Umuahia, the capital of the Abia State in southeastern Nigeria. Each participant received a pair of basketball shoes.

The effort was a no-brainer for the brothers, who were once in these kids’ shoes.

“It’s hard for them to go for their dreams if they don’t have access to sneakers,” Ikenna says.

Seeing the boys’ faces light up made Osinachi’s day.

“They all really appreciate what we did for them,” says Osinachi, 20. “And if I get the chance, I want to do it again. Giving back to the community where you grew up, that’s the most important thing. ... It’s a miracle to see those kids with the shoes because I used to be one of them.”

Says Ikenna, 22: “Being in Nigeria, you understand the struggle, and when you make it over here, it’s still good to remember where you came from.”

Growing up, the brothers spoke Igbo and played soccer like so many other kids in Nigeria. But their raw physical talent and height led them to embrace the orange ball over the black and white one and seek opportunities in the U.S.

The 6-10, 240-pound Ikenna can lay claim as the biggest brother as well as the big brother. Osinachi, who goes by the nickname Osi, is 6-8 and 235 pounds. Both wear size 17 shoes, making a pair especially difficult to find back home.

According to Ikenna, fledgling players from the east side of the country don’t get the same exposure as those in areas like Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city on the country’s southwest side.

“I felt like I couldn’t compete with the guys up in the north or the south, so being from the east, I understand,” Ikenna says.

Going home was an emotional experience for the brothers. Ikenna hadn’t been back in Nigeria in six years; for Osinachi, it had been four. The two were reunited with their parents; their brothers, Godsent and Lucky; and their sister, Blessing.

Ikenna came to the U.S. in 2011 and Osinachi followed two years later, also at age 15, with little experience in the English language or organized basketball. Both brothers eventually graduated from New Garden Friends School in Greensboro, North Carolina, where they starred on the basketball team.

Both have thrived in the U.S. education system. Ikenna’s undergraduate degree in international trade and geography led him to pursue a master’s degree in liberal studies with a concentration in global studies. Osinachi chose sociology as his major because he’s “fascinated by how we picture the world.”

Ever the big brother, Ikenna often will call to check on Osinachi. They remain grateful to host parents Nick and Cinda Purrington, who treated the Smarts like their own children and keep in close contact.

The uncertain immigration situation in the U.S. did impact their trip. A third Nigerian student who had collected shoes and was hosted by the Purringtons, former McKendree basketball player Joel Atabo, encountered visa problems and was unable to return to the U.S.

Given the impact they saw on their home community, Ikenna already has started collecting about 30 pairs of shoes for a next time, whenever it may be. He would like to get more smaller sizes — in the 10 to 12 range — for smaller players.

“I wish this would give me a chance to use the platform and do it in a big way,” he says. “How can I get other schools to buy into this idea? What do they do with their own shoes? I know some just throw them away.”

More Acts of Kindness

At Indiana, the Goal Is That Everybody Plays: Indiana athletes and the school’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee are involved in Everybody Plays, a club that offers sport-themed events for athletes of all ages with intellectual and physical disabilities. The program provides an opportunity to interact and learn from current athletes for the Hoosiers. It was the brainchild of Allison Jorden, a women’s soccer player and the SAAC president.

Cancer Meets Its Match: In April, the Rose-Hulman men’s tennis team played in support of those affected by cancer, raising awareness during a home match against Mount St. Joseph.

First-Class Greeting: Albany State (Georgia) football student-athletes welcomed students and staff from three local schools — Robert Cross Middle Magnet School, Turner Elementary and Morningside Elementary — on their first days of school for this academic year.

SPARK Ignites Student-Athletes To Do Good Deeds at UIC: A group of University of Illinois at Chicago student-athletes started the Students Performing Acts of Random Kindness organization three years ago to give back to the community. SPARK participants go around the city and try to change someone’s day with a random act of kindness. During the 2017-18 school year, SPARK fed and clothed the homeless, gave out coffee and appreciation letters to janitors at UIC, distributed snack bags to students at the library and cookies around the athletics department, and partnered with A Safe Haven to help make and distribute food.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.