Holding the Nigerian flag, Melvin Ejim smiles wide, his national pride and family heritage showing through.
A native of Toronto, Ontario, it is not easy to place Ejim as being Nigerian, yet because of his family’s past, he feels part of both worlds.
“As much as I’m Canadian — a lot of people don’t know that I’m just as much Nigerian," he said. "Both of my parents are from Nigeria, and my entire family is Nigerian. Me and my brothers and cousins are first-generation Canadian, so we go farther Nigerian than we do Canadian.”
Through the month of June, Ejim will be one of 15 players trying out to make the Nigerian national basketball team. He said the opportunity came from an act of kindness, after Vaughan Daley, a basketball trainer in the Toronto area, talked with the Nigerian coaches.
“This is one of those things where it just kind of panned out,” Daley said. “A conversation to look at having him maybe train with the Nigerian national team in the summer, just to get the training, turned into a huge opportunity.”
Now Ejim hopes to have an opportunity to play in the London Olympics, many years after the idea of him playing basketball was first debated.
Starting in the game of basketball
Elizabeth Omoghan, Ejim's mother, was not sure about him playing basketball; the travel and the cost were both worries. When her brother David Omoghan approached her with the idea, she initially shook it off.
“He said, ‘You know what, if you’re not interested, I’m going to take him myself,’” Elizabeth said. “That’s when I knew he was really serious about [Melvin playing basketball.]”
With his family’s support, Ejim began to play during the seventh grade. Playing for a team in the Amateur Athletic Union after his first year of high school in Canada, Melvin began garnering interest from high school coaches at boarding schools on the U.S. East Coast. His mother did not believe it.
“He said when he went to the States, there was a coach that really was interested in him and would like him to go to school there, and I looked at him and said, ‘Ah, that’s not true,’” Elizabeth said. “And he goes, ‘Mom, I’m serious.’”
When the calls kept coming, a future in basketball began to look promising. During his sophomore year of high school, Ejim attended St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Maryland.
After that season, Ejim transferred to Brewster Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire. In 2010, following his senior season, Ejim was named the New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year.
Last season as a sophomore at Iowa State, Ejim averaged 9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game for the Cyclones as they advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
Today, Elizabeth is happy she let her son play basketball.
“Believe me, if I had to look at the future then, I would have never seen any of this — I didn’t look at it like he could go so far,” Elizabeth said. “Even the first time I saw him on TV when he was playing basketball, I was like, “Wow, we’re actually watching my son on TV.”
Representing his ‘second country’
When Ejim was 5 years old, his mother took him and two of his four brothers to Nigeria. Walking through the streets, Ejim remembers the chickens and the oddly-timed loss of power — it was here, his mother said, that Ejim got a sense of his heritage.
Back in Canada growing up, Ejim continued to follow Nigeria.
“We grew up watching the Nigerian national teams every Olympics. Every time they had any tournaments, we were watching them,” Ejim said. “The idea of me possibly playing and representing our country is something I never really thought could happen.”
If Ejim makes the 12-man team during the month of June, he will spend the month of July attempting to help Nigeria take one of the three remaining spots for the upcoming Olympics. It is now that Ejim has the chance to become connected to his lineage.
“I always tell him that’s where he is from too, because I was born in Nigeria and came to Canada when I was about 5 years old,” Elizabeth said. “He was born in Canada, but his roots are still from Nigeria.”
While Ejim’s goal is to make the Olympic team, regardless of the outcome, he aims to be a part of Nigeria’s future with the possibility of more tournaments in the future.
Elizabeth said she could not imagine how she will feel if her son does make the Olympics.
“I can’t even express how I’ll feel,” Omoghan said. “Not only me but the entire family and the entire Nigerian community that knows him here — because he has a lot people that have known him since he was a kid.”
The coming months will allow Ejim to play for those people and attempt something he has always dreamed of.
“To represent not only my parents’ country but team Africa is something I’ve always wanted to do, just being an African,” Ejim said. “Everyone wants to play for their country, and I kind of feel like I have two countries.”