The first time Ikenna Smart ever touched a basketball was in his homeland of Nigeria at age 15.
That was just five years ago. Now the 6-foot-10, 20-year-old is the starting center for the University at Buffalo basketball team.
“I’ve come a long way,” Smart said Monday as he and the Bulls prepared for Tuesday’s Mid-American Conference game against Toledo at Alumni Arena.
Smart plays a key role for the Bulls, even though he’s averaging only 17 minutes and 4 points a game. UB doesn’t need points from Smart, because it has plenty of scoring at guard and on the wing.
But UB is young and thin on the low post. It’s a big boost to the Bulls when Smart can give them 20 solid minutes, stay out of foul trouble and play tough defense. It’s especially key for him to contribute when UB faces a quality big man, such as Toledo’s 6-10 center, Nathan Boothe. He’s leading the MAC in scoring at 18.5 ppg.
“I feel like my role on this team is playing hard every game, trying to get all the rebounds, stopping drives to the basket, all those little things,” Smart said.
Like many children in Nigeria, Smart grew up playing soccer. The first time a coach showed him a basketball and told him to put it in the hoop, Smart dunked it.
“I didn’t even know what a dunk was,” he says. “As soon as I started playing the game, I adapted to it really quickly. I loved the game. I already had the quickness and athleticism.”
Smart got noticed by a basketball scout at age 16.
“Every once in awhile, they have a camp in Nigeria where they give the youth the chance to show off their talent, and they bring in foreign coaches from all over the world,” he said.
Smart got an offer to enroll in a U.S. high school and live with a host family.
“I talked to my mom,” he said. “She wasn’t fine with it at the time. But when she found out the school was a Christian school and the man who wanted me was a pastor, my parents agreed.”
Smart landed at New Garden Friends School, an independent Quaker school in Greensboro, N.C.
Smart has a sister and two older brothers back in Nigeria and one younger brother, Osinachi, who followed him to North Carolina. Osinachi is a senior at New Garden Friends and one of the top 25-rated players in North Carolina. It was not easy to leave the family, but Smart is highly motivated.
“It’s been tough,” Smart said. “At first it was hard to adjust to the food and the culture. But I just had to grow up and realize I’m here on a journey. I have to make it. I have to get an education. And I have to see how much better I can get in basketball, see what my opportunities might be in basketball.”
Smart was recruited to UB by former assistant coach Levi Watkins, who is a North Carolina native. Smart sat out as a red-shirt and was not supposed to start this season. But UB senior Raheem Johnson was lost for the year with a foot injury.
Smart is improving. In five of the last 10 games he has given UB 18 or more minutes and at least 10 points and rebounds combined. He runs the floor very well.
“Defensively he gives us a presence at the rim we haven’t always had,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “And he always works hard,” Oats said. “He comes in early, stays late. He shoots way better from 15 to 18 feet than he did last year. It’s just he hasn’t had enough reps, because he didn’t play growing up.”
Smart has not seen his family since he left Nigeria at age 16. He speaks to his parents regularly. He misses the food back home, especially his mom’s Egusi soup, which is a Nigerian staple, typically made with Egusi (melon) seeds, Nigerian pumpkin leaves and meat or fish.
“In Nigeria we eat a lot of fresh food,” he said. “We don’t store a lot of stuff in the fridge like you do here. It’s more right off the farm, and it’s really fresh and healthy.”
Smart is majoring in international trade.
“If I don’t go back this summer, my mother probably will come visit me,” he said. “The only time my whole family will come here is when I graduate.”