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June 22, 2012Before officially beginning his college basketball career at Penn State this weekend, Akosa Maduegbunam (pronounced Mah-doo-way-boo-num) hoped to get a few things off his chest to his mother, Gina.
The woman who'd raised him, his younger brother, Duby, and his older sister, Judy, by herself since the sudden passing of their father, Ofili, in 2002, needed to know exactly how he felt about her.
She needed to read his own words, hand-written on paper, to understand his appreciation for her tireless work, even when she's been strict. And she needed to know, 10 years later, his point of view about the tragedy that rocked their worlds, and her influence in helping them all overcome it.
"I'm just blown back by how much my mom does for me. We don't have much, but she finds ways to make it happen," he said while writing to her the kitchen table at his family's house in Boston. "I just wanted to tell her about my point of view and what happened when my father passed. I'm telling her how everything happened through my eyes."
The first son of Nigerian parents, Akosa's story of loss is told through the unsuspecting eyes of a 9-year old.
One day, his father went to the doctor for a checkup. The checkup had a follow-up, and by the weekend, Ofili was in the hospital, telling his son it would be, 'OK,' and, 'Don't cry.'
"No kid wants to have their parent in the hospital, so it was just like, 'Man, what happened to the checkup?'" he asked. "It was confusing to me."
Shortly thereafter, Ofili went into cardiac arrest and died.
"Afterwards, I just didn't know how to feel about it. No one ever really heard me speak up," he said, recalling losing his faith in God and not understanding the permanence of what had happened to his father. "They say God doesn't give you anything you can't handle, but for me, at that age, it was a very long process.
"After finding out that he passed, my emotions were just in shock. It didn't really affect me. It didn't really hit me. It's just so random, like, how could this happen?"
Gina, a young mother in a state of shock herself, recognized her son's confusion.
Her healthy, hardworking husband had passed without warning, leaving her to keep together the already close-knit family.
"(Ofili) wasn't really sick. He just physically dropped dead on us. He was sick today and then the next day he was physically dead," she said. "That changed everything, for me, for the kids. You know?
"But, we are a very close family."
As a unit, they forged ahead.
With Gina working in public transportation to put the kids through private schools, Akosa latched on to the game of basketball as a fifth grader at his tiny, all-boys middle school, Nativity Prep, for middle and low-income families. Even without much money, he'd found an outlet for his athletic gifts, handed down from a father who had once qualified for the Olympics as a runner.
Akosa loved the game, finding immediate success and, coming out of middle school, believed he was headed straight for the NBA. Stiff competition pinched Akosa back to reality, but as he progressed into high school, he said he started to see basketball as an opportunity not only for himself, but as an avenue to help his mother financially while earning the education she prized so much.
"It's all about the education," he said. "That's what my mom harped on, and I just put two and two together, using my God-given talent as a vehicle to where I'm trying to go.
"I used all the motivation in terms of my father passing, me getting into some trouble at a young age, seeing my mom struggle. I told my mom that I don't want her to pay for college and I was going to try to get a scholarship."
Courted by head coach Patrick Chambers while he was still at Boston University, Akosa grew into a talented 6-foot-3, 185 pound three-guard, first at Charlestown High School and last year, at Winchendon School, a college-prep boarding school in a highly-competitive league where he averaged 18 points, six rebounds and four assists per game. By that point, Chambers had moved on to Penn State and wanted Akosa to be his very first verbal commitment, only three weeks after taking the job.
Akosa obliged, picking Chambers and the Nittany Lions over offers from Temple, Drexel, and a few other mid-major schools.
Said Akosa, "Why Penn State...? You know Coach Chambers, right...? That's all that needs to be said."
Saying he feels lucky to be coached by Chambers, Akosa's admiration and respect for the man runs deeper than most.
"He reminds me of a loving parent," Akosa said. "He loves hard and everything he does is with passion. Everything he does, as he likes to say, is with attitude. Coach Chambers loves my work ethic, and he can only make me better. He will look after me long after I'm gone from Penn State and that's what I love about him. Coach Chambers is a real person. He's a real guy."
Gina shared completely in her son's enthusiasm.
Calling Chambers a, 'family man' who understands and furthers the values she has tried to instill in her son, Gina says she's very much looking forward to the work that Akosa will do with him.
That work is exactly what Akosa says he's most looking forward to. Keying in on Chambers' mantra of becoming a five-tool player, he says he knows exactly what he's in for as his Penn State career gets under way.
"There's a lot of people that will sell you dreams. Coach Chambers doesn't sell me anything. He tells me that if I want something, I have to work for it. And, he tells me if I'm working, how hard am I going to work for it," he said. "As a person, that's who I fell in love with, no matter what he does.
"I think Coach Chambers could sell water to a well."
With Akosa, that's not going to be necessary.
Touching back on the impact of his father's death, Akosa says he has long thought about the ways his life might be different now. And, though he had never spoken to his mother about it in detail, he'd hoped his letter would be able to say the things he never could.
"I'll be honest, a lot of the situations and steps that I've taken after my dad died would have never happened if he never died," he said. "I personally believe that literally everything happens for a reason and I'm in the situation that I'm in because of what happened in my past and how my life panned out.
"Basically, I feel like my life is a movie. They say that, 'Everything happens for a reason,' is a cliche, but I feel like my family is a living proof of that. I just feel like it's tragedy to triumph.
"I've faced a lot of adversity in my life as young as I am, but somehow God has played a significant role in helping my family see a brighter day."
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