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Minium: ODU Basketball Forward Kalu Ezikpe Has a Knack for Stroking Hook Shots or a Paint Brush

Rafael Suanes/GMU Athletics

By Harry Minium

NORFOLK, Va. – Kalu Ezikpe isn't Michael Jordan, but the 6-foot-8 Old Dominion basketball forward and His Airness have something in common.

They were both devastated when they were cut from basketball teams as teenagers, and both used the slight as incentive to prove their doubters wrong.

Jordan was famously let go from his Laney High team in Wilmington, North Carolina as a sophomore, and that lit a fire in him that he credits for him turning him into the greatest basketball player of all-time.

Ezikpe was cut from his eighth-grade middle school team and that helped spark a determined work ethic in the junior from suburban Atlanta that still burns today.

"I'll always remember the day I was cut," he said. "I cried so much that my dad teased me.  

"But it definitely inspired me. I asked my parents for a basketball a goal from Walmart. I got that for Christmas."

During the cold of winter, and through the heat of summer, Ezikpe was in his driveway every day, learning how to dribble, how to shoot and how to rebound. Kids from all over the neighborhood would come by his house to shoot hoops.

By the time he was a senior he was a much sought-after player, with scholarship offers from more than 20 schools, including VCU and half the programs in Conference USA.

Artwork on shoes by Kalu Ezikpe 

ODU was patient with Ezikpe, holding a scholarship until late in the recruiting process, and it turned out to be a shrewd move. Ezikpe also held out until the last minute, hoping for an offer from a Power 5 school, that never materialized.

Most schools were out of scholarships when Ezikpe was ready to sign, and he said ODU was clearly his best choice.

ODU got more than just a good basketball player. Ezikpe was an honor student at Discovery High who never missed a day of school in his four years in high school.

They also got a pretty good artist. Ezikpe began drawing in kindergarten and found that not only was he talented, that it's something he loved to do.

Although he's majoring in leadership at ODU, he's taken some art classes and has become so good that Monarch coach Jeff Jones took notice.

Jones asked Ezikpe to do some artwork on shoes he will wear Saturday night when ODU hosts Charlotte in the annual Coaches vs. Cancer game. A prostate cancer survivor, Jones is wearing the shoes to raise cancer awareness.

Cancer is second to heart disease in the number of Americans who died in 2021. More than 600,000 died from cancer, far more than died of COVID.

"I knew when we recruited him that he had some artistic ability," Jones said. "But it was probably last year that I saw a collection of some of the stuff he did.

"I was impressed and really encouraged him. It's one thing when someone has some interest in something like that, but he not only has the interest, he has the talent and a knack for it.

Drawing by Kalu Ezikpe 

"This is one way I thought for him to gain some notoriety for that."

Ezikpe was surprised and flattered when Jones asked him to design the shoes.

"I thought it was pretty cool," he said. "It gives me a chance to display some of my talent on a bigger stage.

"And I know how important this is to coach Jones."

Jones is on the Coaches vs. Cancer Council along with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and former North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

Ezikpe both draws and paints and his specialty is Japanese anime, which has its roots in an artistic movement that began in Japan in 1900.

Movie makers could not use Japanese natives to star in films about the Vikings or the American Civil War, so they decided to use animation instead.

Anime artists often use exaggerated facial features, and have a common, characteristic style. It began to become popular internationally in the 1980s through cartoons, books and movies.

"The characters are really cool," Ezikpe said.

"I do art because I love to do it. It's something I'm passionate about and something I enjoy.

"My life is basketball and art."

Although he hopes to continue a career in athletics when he graduates, he and his older brother, George, are working on an animated TV show set, of course, in the Atlanta suburbs, that they hope to one day sell to a network.

It would be a black comedy with the lead actor being a rapper whose kids have been given everything in life, but still get in trouble.

Jones is hoping that Ezikpe eventually will cut an NIL deal and begin selling his art online. Ezikpe said he hopes to do so, after basketball season, when he has more time.

Jones said that ODU will get Ezikpe all of the guidance the university can provide under NCAA rules to get him started.

"If you're as talented as Kalu, you should take advantage of it," Jones said.

Ezikpe and his family are an American success story. His parents, George and Maureen, immigrated to America from Nigeria. George is a special education teacher and Maureen is a nurse and they have three, successful children, including Kalu's younger sister, Mina.

Kalu recalls spending time with his father working with special education kids and says he admires both his parents for the work they do.

"They've worked so hard," he said.

Given his family's roots in Africa, soccer was Ezikpe's sport of choice early on. He tried out for the football team in middle school, but after one too many Oklahoma drill, he said it wasn't the sport for him.

At 240 pounds, he looks like a prototypical tight end, but Ezikpe said "I was a lot thinner, then. I was kind of skinny."

He began playing basketball in the summer prior to entering the eighth grade and then only on the playgrounds, so being cut should not have come as a big surprise. But once he was hooked, he was really hooked.

"I liked other sports, but I loved basketball," he said. 

Because he worked so hard in the offseason, he made the junior varsity team at Berkmar High in the ninth grade. He then moved to Discovery when it opened during his sophomore season.

That turned out to be a huge break for Ezikpe because he met basketball coach Cory Cason.

Cason saw that Ezikpe had immense potential. So, even though Ezikpe lived a short walk away from school, he would pick him up just before 6 a.m. most mornings and they would go into the gym and work out.

"He didn't play very much as a 10th grader," Cason said. "But then we spent the entire offseason training and working with him individually.

"He started as a junior and by the time he was a senior, he was an all-region and all-state player. He was a kid who certainly worked hard and developed a lot."

Cason said that while Ezikpe's parents appreciated the work Cason he did with Kalu, basketball was far from their top concern.

"They just wanted to make sure Kalu was doing well academically," he said.

Ezikpe has improved every season with the Monarchs – he averages 11.2 points and seven rebounds this season – and because of his late start playing basketball, Jones said he can make much more progress.

"He's taken another step forward, but there still more to come," Jones said. "I think he's still searching for more consistency."

Including in a leadership role. Cason calls Ezikpe one of the smartest and nicest players he's ever coached, and Jones said his teammates are naturally drawn to him. Jones named him a team captain prior to this season.

"I don't know that you would call him a natural leader," Jones said. "That's not his personality.

"But he's worked really hard to become a better leader of this basketball team. I think a guy like (point guard) Jaylin Hunter, that's just kind of who he is. He does a great job.

"Kalu is a little more thoughtful and a little more intentional in trying to be a good leader."

Cason said he wasn't surprised when he heard Ezikpe was designing Jones' shoes for Saturday's game, nor that he continues to improve at ODU.

"He would always paint shoes for the kids here," he said. "Kalu is very talented.

"He's one of the sharpest kids I've coached. He has a great personality and could always make our kids laugh. He's someone our guys gravitated to.

"Every year comes back and works out with us. He calls me as soon as he gets in town. He's a guy who's always given back."

Whether it's with an easel or a basketball.

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