From Nigeria to Citadel, Ezekiel Balogun chases American dream
When Ezekiel Balogun was 14 years old, he got on a plane by himself in Lagos, Nigeria, for a 13-hour flight from Africa to America.
What awaited him in the U.S., Balogun hoped, was a chance at a better life.
“It was because of the opportunities that America provides,” said Balogun, now 19 and a freshman on The Citadel’s basketball team. “Back home, if I had just gone to school, getting a job would have been much more difficult. My dreams of playing basketball would be dead for me.
“Over here, the opportunities are like ... wow. They are so numerous. That’s why I chose to come here.”
Balogun, 6-6 and 235 pounds, has made the most of the opportunity he and his father dreamt of when they decided Ezekiel should leave Nigeria five years ago. Mark Balogun, a basketball coach who also works for the police in Lagos, told his son about Hakeem Olajuwon, another kid from Nigeria. Olajuwon, of course, went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA.
“My dad always talked about Hakeem,” said Balogun, who speaks with a soft British accent. “He said, ‘If he can do it, you can do it. He had the same hopes and dreams that you do.’”
Through his coaching, Balogun’s father knew a scout looking for prospects. That’s how Balogun and countryman Abdul Ado, a 6-11 freshman now at Mississippi State, wound up at Hamilton Heights High School, a private school in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“It was really scary,” Balogun said, recalling that first flight from Lagos. “I remember leaving the airport and looking at my dad. I was full of emotion because it was the first time I left my parents.
“It took me a while to adjust to the food, the weather, the communication. I think I miss the food most of all.”
Balogun score more than 1,000 career points and led Hamilton Heights to a 105-28 record in four seasons there. His wingspan of six feet, 11 inches, 36-inch vertical jump and singing voice impressed Citadel coach Duggar Baucom, who says Balogun “sounds like John Legend.”
“When he came here, EZ had everything he owned for the last four years in two bags,” Baucom said. “That gives you some perspective.
“He’s a very appreciative kid. A lot of kids don’t commit on their visit; they will wait a while to decide. But he committed here after just one day, and we’re glad to have him.”
Balogun is averaging 4.7 points and 3.2 rebounds for the Bulldogs, who will try to snap a 10-game skid against Western Carolina on Wednesday at McAlister Field House. He flashed his potential with 19 points and 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes against Furman.
Balogun, whose mother died of cancer in 2012, also is blazing a trail for his younger sisters, Elizabeth and Ruth. They both followed him from Lagos to Hamilton Heights, and Elizabeth, a 6-0 junior, is one of the top women’s prospects in the country for the class of 2018.
“He’s very serious-minded, and I think that comes from his background,” Baucom said. “He’s got host families and coaches over here, but he knows he’s fending for himself, trying to make the future better for his family. He sees the big picture.”
Western Carolina at The Citadel
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: McAlister Field House
RECORDS: Western Carolina 7-21, 2-13; The Citadel 9-19, 2-13
RADIO: 98.5-FM, 1340-AM. WEB: ESPN3
NOTES: The Citadel tries to snap a 10-game skid, coming off an 89-78 loss to Mercer … Freshman Preston Parks scored 24 points in that game, and has led the Bulldogs in scoring in the last three games … Western Carolina has lost six in a row, the latest an 84-56 loss to Wofford … WCU defeated The Citadel, 100-95, on Jan. 19 behind 28 points from Elijah Pughsley … Haboubacar Mutombo leads the Catamounts with 11.2 ppg.