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Gordon Monson: Gideon George’s path from Nigeria to BYU crossed two continents, stepping through two worlds

The junior forward is an emerging talent for the Cougars and he loves BYU, but his real passion is collecting basketball shoes — to send back to his homeland

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young forward Gideon George (5) gets past Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Jalen Suggs (1) to score for the Cougars, in West Coast Conference Basketball action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Where the telling of BYU basketball player Gideon George’s story begins, all proper, sounds like Mars Blackmon narrating off a script from a 1980s Nike ad.

It’s the shoes. It’s gotta be the shoes.

That’s it, that’s the start. It might be the middle and the ending, too.

George collects those shoes for donation to children in his homeland of Nigeria, places where kids play on earthen and asphalt courts and often don’t have adequate footwear for living, let alone shoes conducive to creating shots, positioning for rebounds and pulling off cross-overs. Some of the kids tear away old pieces of rubber off discarded tires, sewing or gluing them to worn uppers, to walk to school, to hone their games.

Imagine their surprise when they receive a fresh — or semi-fresh — pair of Js from the materially more advantaged here in America.

George does exactly that. He imagines their happy expressions, located as he is now far, far away from home, 7,207 miles away to be precise, across two masses of land, multiple mountain ranges and one of the world’s largest oceans.

He imagines, still.

“It makes me feel good, seeing [in my mind] the smiles on the kids’ faces,” George says. “It’s a joy for me. …”

He thinks on it further.

“… I’m giving them hope to play basketball. It gives me hope. Down the road, if possible, I’d like to have every school kid in Nigeria have a pair of shoes. That’s the dream.”

Dreaming and donating

Alongside playing the forward position as a junior for BYU, that’s what George ruminates about. He dreams and he donates to the young people who play on the same ragged courts he played on not so long ago, growing up as he did in Minna, the capital city of the Niger State, a community that has been described by many — including George himself — as a “small village.” That small village has a listed population of over 300,000, but don’t let that ruin the imagery here.

“It’s like a town, but not like a town town,” is the way George describes it. There are some of the accoutrements of a more modern world there, just not as many as there would be in a town town. The average annual income in Minna is estimated in some reports to be about $500, or the cost of a couple sets of top-line basketball shoes in the United States.

George started gathering up high-tops and low-tops when he first came to America to play at New Mexico Junior College, after he saw a teammate throwing a pair of slightly-used-but-still-perfectly-good kicks into a garbage bin. He asked if he could have them to send off to a better end. They were far advanced from anything pieced together out of old canvas and tread-thin Goodyears.

Next thing, he was collecting hundreds of shoes — Nikes, Jordans, Adidas, Converse, New Balance, Buster Browns, Hush Puppies, anything, everything — as a part of an effort made by a group known as the Time Out 4 Africa Foundation to be distributed to those in need.

As mentioned, George knows all about need. He grew up surrounded by it. And the fight through it led first to the JC in New Mexico, where he played for two seasons, until last spring, before landing in Provo, the place he chose to further grow a game he started in on just six years ago. And here he is, playing Division I basketball, coming off the bench for the Cougars, averaging just more than 12 minutes per game.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Gideon George (5) goes to the hoop as Pacific Tigers guard Broc Finstuen (24) defends, in basketball action at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021.

Loving it at BYU

“I’m loving it here,” he says. “I’m not loving the cold. But I’m trying to get better every day. I’m working. I want to make my teammates better.”

Nearly every night after team practice, George heads over to a gym, where he continues refining a personal project that remains far from finished at present.

“I’ve been working on shooting more,” he says, acknowledging his length — he’s 6-foot-6 — and his athleticism, but needing better touch, especially from distance. “I’m working on my shots — 500 makes each day.”

Five-hundred?

“Yup.”

All told, George averages five points and 3.2 boards for BYU. But the coaches sense that there’s much more yet to be uncovered. Earlier this month, in a game against Portland, George scored 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting, hauled 13 rebounds, garnered three assists, two steals and zero turnovers in 21 minutes.

“We like what he’s capable of doing from a defensive and rebounding standpoint,” says Nick Robinson, the BYU assistant who most often works with George. “He continues to grow in our offense. He has skills in making plays for others. He can get into the paint and finish or find the open guy. He shot 36 percent from 3 in junior college. … We feel fortunate to be able to help him develop at this stage of his basketball journey.”

It’s a journey that was sparked back in Minna, where George, the middle child in a five-kid family, spent most of his time playing soccer on packed sand and dirt fields, trying to rocket shots past his older brother, Samson, who was a talented goalkeeper. But somewhere en route to climbing to new heights on the pitch, George got switched up, ricocheting off a post onto a path blazed by Samson, who discovered basketball shortly ahead of Gideon.

Years later, when Samson came to America, he ended up playing at Pitt and thereafter transferred to Central Arkansas. When a gangly-but-tall teenaged Gideon walked into one of his brother’s practices, the coach, a man named Nelly Ayeni, sized up the young brother and immediately told him to pick up a ball.

That much George could do, although it was awkward, considering he’d rather kick it. The problem came when he attempted to bounce the durn thing.

“Dribbling was hard,” he says. “I thought, ‘Basketball isn’t for me.’”

He was wrong.

“The coach was all about me working hard,” he says. “He wanted me to be committed.”

There was nothing for the obedient 14-year-old Gideon to do but comply and commit.

Rusted rims and wooden backboards

Before school each day, George walked a half-hour each way, sometimes longer, to an outdoor asphalt-like court with rusted rims and wooden backboards where he worked on his handles and his shooting form. After school, he again walked to the court — past houses and churches and assorted structures and agricultural fields, all the hubbub of a town preoccupied with other concerns, such as raising and trading cattle, mining gold, growing cotton, doing business — dodging cars and motorized bikes and loose animals along the way, for another three-hour session.

Bounce the ball, pass the ball, catch the ball, shoot the ball, rinse, repeat. It really was that rudimentary — at first. Bit by bit, bounce by bounce, he began to get the footwork down, the moves, the finer points. What he called “the difficult game” started to get less and less burdensome.

“I didn’t know all the rules,” he says. “I traveled a lot. But my coach helped me.”

And a most unexpected thing happened, he says: “I got better at basketball than I was at soccer.”

And somewhere, from the great basketball beyond, James Naismith hammered another peach basket and grinned widely.

George played for his school, he played in tournaments all around Nigeria, he played whenever, wherever he could.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Gideon George (5) shoots over Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2), in West Coast Conference Basketball action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Coming to America

In time, the raw-but-promising prospect took a bus across his home country to attend a camp where college recruiters were in attendance, and he received interest and later an offer from New Mexico Junior College. George didn’t know New Mexico from New Guinea, much less anything about a small college in Hobbs, another town that wasn’t a town town. But learn about them he would, first-hand.

In the run-up to that education, it took him six attempts to get a visa from Nigeria to the United States. “They kept denying me,” he says. “I never got any reasons.”

When the last try succeeded, George arrived at his new home, and found that he couldn’t sleep, mostly because of the time difference, now on the flip side of the world, but also because of other stresses. And he couldn’t eat. He missed Nigerian food, badly, especially his favorite soup, chock full of beef and chicken and vegetables and suddenly faraway delectable spices. Fast-food burgers and fries didn’t quite sate his cravings. But he adjusted because he was willing, because he had waited so long for the chance to get on an American court, and because he had little choice.

A dream, he figured, had its hurdles. And the mix of sacrifices and adaptations necessary on that road created in George a large measure of appreciation for what was in front of him, adjustments be damned. The basketball advantages were unlike anything he had ever experienced bac in Minna.

Every coach who ever worked with George, including Mark Pope now at BYU, says similar things about him: He has high character, he works conscientiously, he’s grateful for his opportunity, he cares about his teammates. Stuff coaches love.

At NMJC, the kid listened and learned, culminating in a sophomore season in 2019-20 during which he averaged 14.5 points, shooting better than 50 percent, and eight rebounds. He led his team to a record of 21-10. The neophyte was transforming himself into a nuanced college player.

That progress was noticed and tracked by BYU assistant Chris Burgess, who grew intrigued, wanting to see what George would morph into with the Cougars.

The morph-er educated himself about the morph-ees, deciding that Provo was the place for him. He discovered that Pope and his crew liked their players to work their tails off, something that appealed to the recruit, and that they allowed their players to maneuver for shots and let them fly, something that appealed even more.

When George took his recruiting visit, he happened to be in the Marriott Center the night last season when BYU beat Gonzaga, on a night when the building was full and electrified. But he took note of something more important to him.

“I saw the relationship between the coaches and the players,” he says. “I was like, ‘Yup, I want to come here.’ BYU is the perfect fit for me.”

A beautiful human being

Describing George recently on his coach’s show, Pope said: “He’s just a beautiful human being.”

His teammates alternately characterized him as “an infectious personality” and “energetic” and “super loud” and “excited about life” and “happy to be alive” and “freak athlete” and “he has Kawhi [Leonard] hands and long arms” and “he gives back to where he comes from” and “he does things that are bigger than basketball.”

That about covers it.

Says Robinson: “Gideon’s got a great heart. He’s grateful. He gets along with everyone. If he continues to grow, he has an opportunity to be a great player here at BYU. He’ll have an opportunity to play professionally.”

That’s the plan, George confirms with an appreciative chuckle.

“I just want to get better every day,” he says.

And he wants to go on collecting shoes for the youngsters on those rough roads and rough courts back in Minna.

It’s the shoes. It’s gotta be the shoes.

And it’s the kids.

“I love them,” George says. “I love that they are working hard. It’s difficult back there, but I want them to be hopeful. I am hopeful. I want them to know that there’s life at the end of the tunnel.”

Life. Light. It’s all the same when there are sweet shoes to wear on the path to both.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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