A New Kind of Dream Team
Basketball prodigy Sean Obi comes to Greenwich and the Eggers find a new family member towering over them
Here’s a fun exercise: Take a six-foot-eight, 200-pound, fifteen-year-old Nigerian; plunk him down in a home in midcountry Greenwich, with an affluent hoops-obsessed family; enroll him in a school with ten students per class—ninety fewer than he’s used to—and a basketball team that lost all but one game last year; and see what happens. It’s The Blind Side right here in Fairfield County, and Division 1 college recruiters are tuning in, if not Hollywood. Yet.
Steven Eggers, an oil trader from Greenwich, first heard about Sean Obi back in the summer of 2010 through a basketball pal and business associate in Nigeria. “I’m in Africa all of the time for business,” explains Steve, during an interview in the Eggers’s elegant, fit-for-a-giant home. “I play basketball in my downtime. One of my friends in Kaduna called me up and said, ‘Steve, I have the next LeBron James. He’s really talented and smart. He’s not going to get the education he needs here.’” The friend, Ahmad Ahmad, frequently watched the team play at the basketball academy in Kaduna, and that’s where he spotted Sean.
“I wasn’t even thinking about us as a host family,” says Steve. It was his son, Hunter, the first freshman to play on the Greens Farms Academy varsity basketball team in fourteen years, who saw a video of Sean’s handiwork on the court and suggested taking in the fellow fifteen-year-old. Hunter’s oldest sister, Mary Ann, was packing up for Dickinson College that August and the following year his sister Madison would be graduating from high school. Hunter anticipated needing some company at home and on the practice court in front of it. His teammates enthusiastically agreed that Sean would be a great addition to GFA’s sputtering basketball program. GFA was looking to increase diversity, create more of an international presence and improve the sports program. Steve says, “With Sean, we had a triple header.”
It didn’t take much to convince Mrs. Eggers either. “One of my best friends has a Brunswick student from Zimbabwe who has been with them a few years. Another friend has two boys from Mozambique. Everyone said it’s the best experience of your life,” says Bobbi, who would soon become “Mom” to a kid from a place nothing like Greenwich.
FOLLOWING HIS PATH
Sean Obi was born in Kaduna, a city of about 1.5 million in Nigeria. He is the youngest of six in a middle– class family of three boys and three girls. Should a Brady Bunch image come to mind, imagine the happy family’s house being burned to the ground during religious riots. This is what happened to Sean when he was six years old.
“We lost everything,” says Sean, who is sitting on a couch, looking relaxed as he joins in the family-style interview. He doesn’t have the awkwardness typical of a teen, particularly an oversized one.
Steve jumps in with a quick history lesson: “The Christians there traditionally are farmers. (The Obis are Christian.) The Muslims are herders.” Living on the edge of the desert, “they were really fighting over water rights to feed their crops and herds, not religion.” He notes that Sean’s basketball coach at home was a Muslim, as was his best friend on the team.
After losing the house, Sean’s father decided to move his family, descendants of the Igbo tribe, sixty miles away to their original hometown in Anambra. Over the years, one by one, they moved back to Kaduna, starting with Sean at age thirteen.
“He was very tall,” says Bobbi, who’s about half Sean’s size and twice as eager as the humble teen to tell his story. “A coach, Sani Turi, saw him playing basketball in his village and asked if he was interested in coming to play in Kaduna.”
A newbie on the court, Sean had played soccer as a kid—which, he noted, is what children do most of the time where he is from, not watch TV or play on iPads. “In Nigeria, everyone plays soccer,” he says, his words rolling together in a soothing, musical accent. Sean was lured as much by his new sport as by the opportunity for a better education—a top priority of his parents, who work selling Land Rover parts. “I have a very lovely family. I’m very close to my siblings,” says Sean. His move away from them to the big city—where he lived with his coach’s family for two years—turned out to be the first stop on a bigger journey.
Sean arrived in the States at the end of August 2010. The Eggers welcomed him into their home, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, beautiful gardens and a formal dining room where healthy American fare is served—including green vegetables, which Sean has yet to sample. The culture shock must have been extreme for a kid from a place where almost half the population survives on less than a dollar a day.
He had watched TV, though, and was on Facebook before hitting U.S. turf. “I thought everyone here lived like the Kardashians,” he says, a smile brightening his thoughtful countenance.
Hunter jokes, “He arrived and found out we did!” Chuckles fill the room, which feels cozy despite the grand proportions of the house.
Aside from the food—Sean subsisted on rice and ketchup—his adjustment into the Eggers’s home, into the very fiber of the family, was “seamless,” according to Steve. Observing Sean, all 250 pounds of him (he’s gained fifty—in muscle—since his arrival), nestled into a couch, totally at ease, bolstered by supportive “siblings” and proud “parents,” the statement is believable—the Eggers would balk at the quotation marks. “I didn’t realize until he got here, that this is permanent,” says Steve. “I always laugh when Madison introduces Sean as her brother, but that’s how we think of him.”
The feeling is mutual. “I don’t know if I have the words for them,” says Sean, shaking his head in awe. “It’s been marvelous. My Mom here, she is so loving and caring. My Dad, I just came back from a bike ride with him. My brother, we’re always together. I shop with my sisters. The whole family—we’re always together. We play basketball together. We eat dinner together most nights.” Thanks to Skype, Sean also has daily contact with his family in Africa. Last summer he made a long awaited visit home, laden down with gifts for everyone, including basketballs for his teammates there.
IN THE CLASSROOM
Sean’s adjustment at school took more effort than settling into the Eggers’s home did. In Kaduna, his “elite” school was a bit different from Greens Farms Academy. “There’s no technology. There were over 100 kids per class—not per grade, per class,” explains Bobbi.
Sean continues, “Sometimes the teachers don’t know your name. There’s no communication between teacher and student. They write the lesson on a chalkboard and the children copy it down, then take a test.”
As Nigeria was a British colony, English is Sean’s native tongue, but English class at GFA was foreign to him. Virginia Balser, Sean’s sophomore English teacher, says, “It must have been incredibly difficult. He’d never been sitting around a table in class, expected to be alert and responsive and speaking up every day. He had never read a complete literary work in class. And our school is a laptop school. He didn’t even know how to type at the beginning of the year.”
To catch up with his classmates, Sean says, “I did a ridiculous amount of work. Sometimes I got two hours of sleep a night.” Bobbi confirms that Sean sleeps in tiny increments.
Virginia comments, “Sean was determined to make this work. Even though in the early days he was also dealing with missing his family and his home, he knew he had been given a pretty extraordinary
opportunity. He was going to make the best of it, even if it meant using free time to get extra help and staying up very late to study.”
First semester, Sean almost made the Dean’s List; second semester, he did. “By the end of the year, I could see very clearly his keen mind,” says Virginia. With one-on-one attention and only six people in some of his classes, Sean says, “Even though it was a big change, it was not hard.” Apparently a driven kid from Nigeria has a different definition of “hard” than the average American teen.
Differences are what initially worried Sean Obi’s father. “Sean’s brother and best friend had gone to school in Kiev and his friend was killed in a hate crime,” explains Bobbi. “Looking at the Greens Farms website, he got a little nervous.”
But Sean felt accepted immediately by his American peers and turned into a mascot of sorts. “Sean is beloved by the kids and faculty,” says Janet Hartwell, head of school. “He walks through the halls and you see middle–school kids literally hanging off of him.” Virginia adds, “He’s just one of the nicest teenagers. Everyone loves him.”
When rumors erupted of other schools stealing the basketball star away, a fourth-grade girl approached Sean and said with a scowl, “You’re leaving us?” Sean replied, “No, I’m not going anywhere.” The skeptical fan demanded, “Pinky swear!”
STAR OF THE COURT
Sean was well liked straight off the plane, but his popularity skyrocketed once he started scoring points—lots of them—on the court. Sean became a hero. “It was really fun reviving GFA’s basketball,” he says. “Everyone was excited.”
Coach Doug Scott arrived at Greens Farms last year also; a lofty ringer from Africa was a nice bonus. “Sean has been blessed with being six-foot-eight and 250 pounds of muscle as a sixteen-year-old. He’s kind of a man against boys right now,” says Scott, who has been coaching in the area for twenty-three years and has had foreign players before. “When someone is willing to go half way around the globe to pursue a dream, there’s a lot that comes with that in terms of focus and maturity.”
The team that had won a single game the year before Sean’s arrival finished 13 and 10 last season. Top Division 1 college coaches noticed GFA’s impressive center and have been calling Scott “on a daily basis,” he says. University of Virginia, Wake Forest, Stanford, Harvard, Tulane, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale are among the schools recruiting Sean. “A person like Sean who is an outstanding basketball player and an outstanding student is in high demand.”
Sean and six-foot-tall Hunter play on an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team also, so they are on the court eleven months a year, traveling to tournaments as far away as Orlando and Las Vegas. “Sean’s definitely a Division 1 college player,” says the AAU coach, Joe Gaetano. “He’s been a big asset to our team [which is ranked 12th in the country]. Is he NBA bound? It’s too soon to say.”
While Sean dominates on the GFA team, one of his AAU teammates is the top player in the country. Coach Scott comments, “Working under that shadow is great for Sean’s perspective. He’s gone through a 180-degree change in terms of exposure. That can mess with a teen’s head. It would be only human for him to lose some of the magic that is his now—the humility and work ethic.” By all accounts, he has not lost an iota of that magic thus far.
“The Eggers treat him like a son, not a celebrity,” says Scott. “You have to give Hunter credit too. A year ago he was the best sixteen-year-old player in his town, his school, his house—and basketball is his life. Out of left field comes Sean, and they are bonded as tightly as any two brothers could be. If Sean were to create a wish list for the perfect family to land in, I don’t think he could have done a better job.”
Steve Eggers also has been impressed with the boys’ compatibility on and off the court. “Considering the amount of time they spend together,” he says. “It’s amazing they haven’t tried to kill each other.” Hunter retorts, “We have.”
Eggers amends his statement: “It’s amazing they haven’t tried to kill each other more often!” He continues, “When they aren’t actually playing, they have a shooting coach and a skills coach, a weight-lifting coach. They book this stuff themselves, not the parents. That’s what it takes these days.”
Mary Ann chimes in: “I think since Sean has been here, he’s pushed Hunter on the court and academically.”
When asked what he’s learned from Sean, Hunter and his bro engage in a debate over who has taught whom the most about “how to get girls,” but Hunter settles on “how to play basketball with someone that tall. A year ago I would have run the other way if a six-eight kid was at the hoop. Now I’m used to it.”
Sean’s best moment on the court? He can’t pick one. “Playing with this boy here,” he says, as he throws an arm around Hunter, “and dunking—it’s fun.”
Sean went to prom with an “adorable girl,” according to Bobbi, but the teen—who looks like he’s well beyond prom age—only smiles when asked about having a girlfriend. Hunter mumbles, “Which one.” Sean, who admits girls flocked to the games even in Nigeria, replies in a mature, not cocky tone, “I’m not interested. I don’t have time for a girlfriend.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Although Sean knew of Harvard and the NBA long before landing in Fairfield County, he’s doesn’t seem obsessed with getting into either. “I’m mostly concerned with playing for GFA right now,” says Sean. “I’m not worrying about the future. It’s in God’s hands.” He has always played because he “loves it,” not for where the game may take him.
While Sean remains calmly in the moment, his mentors here can’t help but speculate and get a little excited about what the future may hold for him. Coach Scott comments, “His prospects as a basketball player are just so obvious. We like to think he’ll be president of Nigeria someday or the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. His potential is so much bigger than basketball.”
Janet Hartwell agrees. “Clearly he’s going to get recruited for basketball,” she says. “My hope is that he would return to Nigeria and do something extraordinary there.”
All of Sean’s siblings are either college graduates or in college, and he reiterates, “I want a good education.” That is why when Steve Eggers warned the Obis that Greens Farms Academy “is not a basketball factory but directly the opposite,” no one was turned off. Sean admits, “Of course any basketball player wants to go pro.” So there won’t be any complaints should Greens Farms turn out to be a conduit to the NBA.
Steve Eggers was just over in Nigeria and met Sean’s parents for the first time. He visited their basketball club, where the team welcomed him with a rap song they’d made up, “Welcome, Uncle Steve.” The players are dreaming of following in Sean’s footsteps, and Uncle Steve is game. “We’re hoping to arrange for the team to come over next summer and play in a few tournaments,” says Steve. He’ll be on the lookout for host families.
He’ll also be on the lookout for Hollywood directors, who may recognize what Virginia Balser calls “a wonderful story.” Steve jokes, “I’ve already talked to George Clooney about my part.”
Sean Obi doesn’t have time to think about that. Bobbi’s got dinner on the table, and there may be time to shoot some hoops with Hunter before sunset.