The World Traveler
Feb. 3, 2010
By Larry Watts
If Ifeoma Okonkwo were to make out a wish list for the new year, at the top of the it would probably be having another American on her Uniao Madeira women’s basketball team in Portugal.
“It’s been a little rough,’’ says the 2006 Northwestern graduate. “The other American was sent home before the end of the first round. I’ve had to take on more responsibility, and I have to do well in order for us to just stay in the game. As a result, we tend to run out of gas a little too easily.’’
No one can argue with the effort the 5-foot-10 forward is giving to her Portuguese team. Just before the holiday break, she lit up CAB Madeira for 36 points on 13-for-16 shooting and a 10-for-11 effort from the foul line. She also pulled down 18 rebounds, but Unaio was on the losing end of the 85-67 score.
“I’ve had a couple of ridiculous games like that, where I would get 22 points and 21 rebounds,’’ says Okonkwo, who is second in the league with a 19.9 scoring average. “At least I am playing more consistently now. There would be times when I would have a 20-point game and then come back with only five, then 37 and nine.
“This team I’m on now - we’re at the bottom and it’s always going to be a challenge for us, but I like the challenge. Most of the other teams have two Americans, so I need a little more help scoring. However, my coach was a point guard on the Portuguese National Team and she says she’s going to play during the second half of the season.’’
The four seasons Okonkwo spent in Evanston were some of the most trying times for Northwestern women’s basketball. The Wildcats went 27-87 as Okonkwo averaged a shade under 10 points per game for her career.
Also a standout in track and soccer at Klein Oak High School, the Spring, Texas, native decided on Northwestern after taking unofficial visits to Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern one summer.
“One of my AAU teammates was being recruited by (former Northwestern coach) June Olkowski and then they reached out to me,’’ says the daughter of Nigerian parents. “When I finally took my official visit, I really liked the school, the team and the city. I knew the school was known for its academics, but the weather in Chicago made me a little nervous. I never thought it could get that cold, but I learned really quickly after I came up here my freshman year without a winter coat.
“I could have gone to Baylor, where I would have been with my older sister, Adaeze. My twin brother, Ikenna, went to Texas Tech, but I wanted to expand my horizons and leave Texas.’’
One of the best things to happen to Okonkwo during her stay at Northwestern was her younger sister Nikki’s decision to come to Evanston two years later.
“It was a lot of fun having Nikki up here,’’ she says. “She wanted to get out of the state, and my parents pushed her to come to Northwestern so I would look after her. It was nice to always have someone from my family there to see me play.’’
Okonkwo broke into the starting lineup for 18 games as a freshman and averaged 4.3 points per game. She started 22 games and averaged 8.6 points the following year, which marked the end of Olkowski’s tenure.
When head coach Beth Combs took over the Wildcat program, Okonkwo was the team’s leading scorer (11.6 ppg) in 20 starts. But eight games into her senior season, the Northwestern captain found herself in a new role — coming off the bench.
“I liked coach Olkowski, but we did need to change some things,’’ she says. “It was tough on coach Combs, coming into a situation with players you didn’t recruit, but I was a little surprised to find myself on the bench in her second season.
“Of course I was angry. It was my senior year, and I expected to start every game. I don’t want to say she was trying to punish me or light a fire under me for having a bad game. It happened right before Christmas break and I thought when I came out with a good game I would be back in the starting lineup, but it didn’t happen. It was a very trying and frustrating season, but I tried not to let it get me down.’’
Despite Combs’ unusual strategy with her captain, Okonkwo still had her best season, leading the Wildcats in scoring (15.0), rebounds (7.2), steals (2.2) and minutes (28.2) while starting the fewest games (13) in her career.
“I tried to stay positive and not let my teammates see that it affected me, but they knew it was bothering me,’’ she says. “I wasn’t going to fight her (Combs) because I was still playing starter’s minutes. If it had come to a point where I wasn’t playing much, I might have really been concerned.’’
Okonkwo, who earned a degree in political science, first became interested in playing overseas while participating on the Big Ten Foreign Tour in 2005. She later contacted former Northwestern teammate Sarah Kwasinski, who was playing on a team in Luxemburg.
“Sarah told me how much she enjoyed the experience,’’ she says. “I also talked to some other players from the Big Ten. I wasn’t ready to stop playing and I wanted my career to end on a better note. So I thought I might try it for a year and I really enjoyed it.’’
Okonkwo is now in her fourth season playing overseas. She spent her first season paying in Iceland, the second in Latvia and the third in Slovakia.
“I was fortunate that my first three teams played in championships,’’ she says. “That doesn’t mean I’m not having a good time here (in Portugal). All of the players but one speak English, and I’m living on an island where the temperature is in the 70s during the winter. I might return to Portugal next year, but I do plan on doing this for another two years.’’
After returning the first two summers, Okonkwo spent her time working in Northwestern camps and now comes back to work in her parents’ health care business. She is thinking about entering the medical field on the business end or working in public health when she is finally done playing basketball.
“There was a time when I thought about coaching, but not now,’’ she says. “I wouldn’t mind working with kids to help them develop a healthier lifestyle.’’
Although she rode some rough waters during her playing time at Northwestern, Okonkwo, who scored 1,112 points in her career, says she has no regrets.
“I came through it as a stronger person,” she says. “I learned how to make things work in the toughest situations.
“To play at Northwestern now (under coach Joe McKeown) I think would be a lot of fun,’’ she says. “It would be so nice to have a 6-foot-5 person in the post like Amy Jaeschke and all those other tall girls. When I played post, I was really out of position.’’