UT Basketball Star’s Success Turns Her Nigerian Parents Into Fans
By Melissa Menashe
He had never seen his daughter race.
The night before her last track meet in the spring of 2006, Nneka Enemkpali asked her dad Chinedu to come watch. “This is your last chance to see me run this year,” she told him.
“OK,” he replied, brushing it off. It was unclear whether he would show up.
But the next day, Chinedu Enemkpali left work early and headed to the meet at a school in Pflugerville.
It was Nneka’s first year playing sports, and she already had made a name for herself in volleyball, basketball and track at Pflugerville Middle School. Now, the 5-foot-10 seventh grader was breaking high school track records, which didn’t count because she was in middle school. She was already a local legend, someone who could dunk a tennis ball while jumping in her bare feet, remembers Pflugerville High School volleyball coach Jeff Coward.
But for her parents, the priority was getting an education, and anything that didn’t directly contribute to their daughter’s schoolwork was impeding it.
“Most Nigerian parents will tell you that education is number one,” Chinedu Enemkpali said. “Sports is secondary. They really wouldn’t even want their kids to venture into sports. The same happened in this family.”
So when he arrived at the track and took his seat in the bleachers, nobody knew him.
“Are you Nneka’s dad?” the other parents asked. “Why don’t you ever come to see her run?”
They had seen her athletic talent; he had not.
“It was kind of a rough deal getting him to understand her full potential and what she can do,” Karen Hamilton, her middle school coach, said.
But that day at the middle school meet, at Hendrickson High School, Chinedu Enemkpali began to understand. He watched as his daughter finished first in all six races, although she was disqualified in the 100-meter dash for running into a competitor’s lane.
On it went: She became a standout basketball player in high school and earned a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. She was a second-team All-American forward until a knee injury ended her season in the game against Baylor in January. She graduated in May.
Now 23, she was drafted by the Seattle Storm in the 2015 WNBA draft and is now among a growing group of Nigerians from the Austin suburb of Pflugerville who play professional and collegiate sports. Others include her brother, IK, who plays football for the Buffalo Bills, and Alex Okafor, who plays for the Arizona Cardinals.
They are all part of a well established Nigerian community in Pflugerville. According to 2013 U.S. census data, 428 Nigerians live in Pflugerville out of 50,127 residents. Although that seems small, it accounts for 0.85 percent of the community, slightly larger than the 0.08 percent of Nigerians in the U.S. population.
Chinedu Enemkpali left Nigeria in December 1976 to attend Union University in Jackson, Tenn. All three of his U.S.-born children have been drawn to sports; the third child, Osi, played football at Pflugerville High.
Like the Enemkpalis, many other children of Nigerian immigrants in the U.S. are finding their own identity and stumbling into the sports world, almost by accident. The Enemkpalis discovered sports through school. Their parents didn’t necessarily forbid their participation, but certainty did not hide their lack of enthusiasm.
“The biggest push for me was getting my parents to kind of support me. I think that was probably the hardest part,” Nneka Enemkpali said. “They didn’t see the value” in sports.
Middle and high school coaches in Pflugerville have noticed that Nigerian parents often don’t attend games.
“The Nigerian parents have this unbelievable influence on their children, yet they’re not hovering. You don’t see them,” Coward said. “They don’t even seem to care about the athletic participation.”
Chinedu and Justina Enemkpali tried to discourage their son from playing football. When IK decided he wanted to play in the seventh grade, his parents refused to drive him to practice. They didn’t want him in sports, let alone a dangerous one. For the first two weeks, he rode his bike to practice. His parents reluctantly gave in, but only with the understanding that his education was supreme.
There is some evidence that demonstrates how serious education is to the African culture. According to a 2014 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, immigrants from Africa had higher levels of educational attainment compared to the overall foreign-born population between 2008-2012. The survey showed that 41 percent of the African-born population had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 28 percent of the overall foreign born population. Among African-born immigrants, Nigerians had the second highest proportion of bachelor’s degrees or higher at 61 percent.
“I think sometimes parents have a hard time with the number of hours that are required to participate in a sport because they want to see them studying more,” Pflugerville High teacher Anne Dyess said, adding that a majority of her Nigerian students successfully balance academics and sports.
Some Nigerian-American students are earning scholarships to prominent schools: Nneka got a full-ride scholarship to UT; IK accepted a scholarship to Louisiana Tech; Adesuwa Ebomwonyi, who played with Nneka Enemkpali at Pflugerville High, received a basketball scholarship to Tulane University; and Alex Okafor played for UT.
The trend is occurring all over the country. Prince Amukamara, the son of Nigerian immigrants, plays football for the New York Giants and grew up in Glendale, Ariz.. In 2007, he received a scholarship to the University of Nebraska.
“It’s just a different avenue that I don’t think they realized they could take to help them achieve their academic goals and success,” said Nancy Walling, the basketball coach at Pflugerville High for 26 years before retiring in 2014.
Dyess has a theory about why some Nigerian families remain uncertain about sports.
“How would you know that American sports could be a ticket to a university unless you had seen that become a reality?” she said.
Coaches are noticing that Nigerian parents are becoming more active in their children’s athletic lives.
Today the Enemkpali home is a shrine to the athletic achievements of their children, with awards, jerseys and sports pictures filling shelves and walls. The parents never imagined 10 years ago it would be like this. They now understand there is potential for success in sports. The community is beginning to understand too.
“It is very obvious now in the Nigerian community ,” Chinedu Enemkpali said. “My kids have proven that.”