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Minium: Imo Essien Has Stepped Up as Spokesman for ODU Basketball During A Difficult Season

Keith Lucas/Sideline Media Productions

As the academic advisor for the Old Dominion men's basketball team, Amy Lynch has had a ringside seat as the team went through the machinations of a nightmarish season.
In December, head coach Jeff Jones had a heart attack and would not return to the ODU bench. Two players were later dismissed from the team. And the Monarchs won just seven of 31 games, often losing in the final minutes of heartbreakingly close games.
Each time a player was called upon to address the next crisis, it would almost always be Imo Essien, a 5-foot-11 guard who would always step forward to the microphones and speak effectively and positively about the most difficult situations.
 Lynch was not surprised that Essien stood strong in his appointed role as a spokesman for the team, a role he often shared with teammate Jason Wade.
 "Imo is an old soul," she said. "He has maturity beyond his years. He's a wise young man."
Essien and the Monarchs hope to end this season on a positive note as they take on Texas State at 8:30 tonight (ESPN+, Priority Sports Radio 94.1) in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Pensacola, Florida.
"It's a new season," Essien said. "We really want to win this first game, and then see how far we can go from there."

Just one victory would be an upset for the Monarchs who are seeded 14th in the 14-team tournament. But the Monarchs seemed determined to beat the odds and advance to the second round.
"This team has played under tremendous adversity," said Kieran Donohue, ODU's interim head coach. "And they've never quit. They've always come back and played hard."
He credits Essien for much of that resiliency, a trait which comes from his parents and the path they chose for him as a young man.
Essien grew up in the Dallas suburb of Wylie, Texas, a city with less than 80,000 people that is diverse and largely middle class. He was doing well in school and in athletics but wasn't necessarily headed in the path his parents wanted him to follow.
"Being such a small town, there wasn't that much to do," he said. "A lot of people got into trouble. My mother, she wanted something different for me. She wanted me to expand myself and be around something different."
So, LaTres Essien, who is a third-grade school teacher, enrolled him in Bishop Lynch High School, a college preparatory Catholic school in Dallas where tuition is now more than $20,000 per year.

 Imo Essien with his family at Bishop Lynch High School

Essien felt lost at the school. The academics were more difficult than he expected, as was getting accustomed to the private school's culture. He is African American and the student body was virtually all white and most students were from affluent backgrounds,

"At first I didn't like it," he said.

"There weren't too many people with my skin color and that was very different for me. It was a huge change. In the public school I attended, if you didn't finish your schoolwork during the day, it became homework. That's the only time you got homework.

"At Bishop Lynch, you got homework every day. You got homework on the weekends.

"School had always been easy for me. I had all A grades until I got to high school and I had my first B my freshman year. That was kind of a shock.

"It was different. I had to really focus. I had to learn how to study and how to take notes.

"I remember telling my Mom, 'I want to go back, to where my friends are, to where I'm comfortable.'

"But she said no. Just keep your head down and really give it a chance."

Essien kept his head down and eventually thrived at Bishop Lynch, where he was an honor student and a two-time all-state choice who scored more than 1,000 points.

And at the end of his career there, he says he was far more mature, and ready for life, than he otherwise would have been.

"My mother, she's always thinking ahead about our future as a family," he said. "She knew this was a good opportunity for me. And ultimately, staying there was one of the best decisions I ever made.

"I feel like I can channel myself in different environments, with people of any background. A lot of the people I grew up with, they couldn't be put in different environments and succeed.

"And now I love that school. Everything about it. I have a good connection with everyone there."

When he was a senior, he decided it was time to leave home. And by that, he meant the state of Texas,

"Texas is kind of like a huge bubble," he said. "Everywhere you go, they will let you know you're in Texas. I believe it really should be its own country.

"I wanted to experience something different."

He had offers from North Texas, Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word. But then came a phone call from ODU, nearly 1,400 miles to the east. He was particularly taken with Jeff Jones, with whom he developed a close relationship.

"I'll never forget that first phone call from coach Jones," he said. "I felt so comfortable with him."

So, he signed with ODU, a decision that meant some long commutes to games for his parents, including his father, Ben, who nonetheless are often seen at Chartway Arena.

"I never would have left Texas if I hadn't had that experience in high school," Essien said. "That gave me the confidence to adapt. That experience has stayed with me."

At ODU, he's experienced some exhilarating victories, and this season, especially, some difficult defeats.

ODU met Texas State twice last season. The Monarchs won during the regular season in San Marcos, 70-68, when Essien took an inbounds pass with 4.8 seconds left, dribbled nearly the length of the court and made a running jump shot as the buzzer sounded.

ODU ended the regular season last year winning eight of its last 10 games, including home victories in the last two games against Southern Miss and Marshall, the league's top two teams.

But in the first round of the conference tournament, Texas State blew past the Monarchs, 65-36, in ODU's worst postseason defeat ever. 

ODU and Texas State have not met this season.

A victory tonight would do much to salve what has been a painful season, and Essien said the Monarchs are focused and ready to play.

"It's been and up and down season," he said. "There have been tough moments.

"But through all of that, I'm still here doing what I love to do at a place that I do love.

Imo Essien speaks at an ODU Black History Month event in 2023 with ODU Deputy AD and COO Bruce Stewart.

"This time will pass. I've been telling these guys that we can make a lot of noise in the conference tournament, and if we do, no one will remember what happened before that."

Essien is especially close to his mother, to whom he talks to by phone every day, in part because she loved her son so much that she pushed him into difficult situations.

"She's my favorite person in the world," he said. "She's incredible. From the beginning, when I was a kid, the wisdom that she installed in me and my siblings is something that molded me.

"And the love that she shares. Her smile lights up a room. She's the definition of good character. She's going to do right no matter who's watching or who isn't.

"I admire the person she is. I admire the mother she is. I admire the wife she has been to my father. They've been such a great team.

"She comes to a lot of games and I don't take that for granted, seeing her face at games. She's my best friend, honestly.

"I love the way my parents raised me. They allowed me to make mistakes. They didn't push me into sports. They saw I was good at basketball but never pushed it on me. They provided me the resources to get to the next level, but it was school, making good grades, and being a good person, that was always most important."

Donohue said Essien is a direct reflection of his parents.

"He's a tremendous young man who I know will be a tremendous adult, a tremendous husband and father," Donohue said.

"He comes from an outstanding family, and he has a great sense of humor and a great sense of character. He has high morals and values and is very motivated by the team's success more so than his personal success.

"We've been so fortunate to have him in our program. He's someone I hope to remain in touch with the rest of my life and any way I can support him or help him, I will.

"He's been a joy to coach and a joy to be around."

Minium is ODU's Senior Executive Writer for Athletics. Contact him at or follow him  on TwitterFacebook or Instagram