Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike gets starstruck at Vivint Arena

The third-year center was hoping to see fellow Nigerian Kamaru Usman defend his belt in person Saturday in Salt Lake City, but he’ll be on his way to Egypt to teach hoops to children.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike — both native Nigerians — met to exchange jerseys after the UFC 278 news conference at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Aug. 18, 2022.

Even as a 6-foot-10, 265-pound NBA player, Udoka Azubuike was almost too starstruck for a moment to simply go right up to UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, despite their meeting being prearranged.

However, after being encouraged by a UFC security guard to go ahead and approach, the third-year center was soon happily chatting away with his fellow Nigerian, before the two professional athletes exchanged jerseys in a decidedly non-cynical photo op on Thursday evening.

As Azubuike stared incredulously at his gift, he lit up when the fighter asked if the Jazz jersey he’d just been given (not a 2022-23 version) was signed. Usman then asked the big man if he’d be attending the UFC 278 pay-per-view being held Saturday at Vivint Arena, where he’ll defend his belt against challenger Leon Edwards.

The man known to teammates and fans alike as “’Dok” explained that as much as he wanted to, he could not, though he has a good excuse for missing it — he’ll be on his way to Egypt to participate in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program.

“This is going to be my first time going to the camp, helping out,” Azubuike told The Salt Lake Tribune afterward. “I’m excited, I’m looking forward to it, looking forward to working with the kids. It’s going to be awesome.”

Basketball Without Borders is a “global basketball development and community outreach program” wherein players and coaches from the NBA, WNBA, FIBA and national federations hold four-day camps in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia-Pacific markets, teaching basketball and life skills to young players.

The camp that Azubuike is taking part in (he said his surgically-repaired ankle is fine, and he’s good to participate in the actual hoops) will begin next Friday, and he’ll head back to the United States on Aug. 31.

Still, he vowed to Usman that he’d find a way to watch his sixth title defense.

Azubuike said he got into mixed martial arts and the UFC during his collegiate days at Kansas University, because some of his friends were always watching the fights and invited him to join them.

Seeing some fellow Nigerians such as Usman and middleweight champion Israel Adesanya have such tremendous success only deepened his nascent passion for the sport.

“Just to see Usman here, fighting in Salt Lake City, it was exciting. [The Jazz] told me about it and I was so excited to meet up with him,” said Azubuike. “… It’s exciting for me to see people from my country doing great things in the world.”

As the two discussed their respective backgrounds, Usman looked at the media assembled around them and cracked to Azubuike, “Why are speaking English?” which prompted a laugh.

Later, when it was noted to Azubuike that fellow center and former teammate Rudy Gobert was also a UFC aficionado who has added boxing and MMA components to his workouts, he was asked if he was doing the same.

He said he’s not at the moment, but that he was considering it. He added that he and Gobert actually had conversations about it, with the Frenchman extolling the benefits it can have in terms of exercise and getting in shape — enough so that Azubuike is now looking into taking some MMA classes.

Still, for Thursday night, his focus was elsewhere. He was beaming about getting to meet Usman, a hero and countryman he’d only previously known from television.

It wasn’t lost on him that as he’s about to head overseas to try and make an impact on some young people’s lives, here he was, exchanging gifts (and phone numbers) and having a conversation with a man who’s had an impact on him.

“It means a lot. … It’s very hard to go from Nigeria and to come over here and succeed — it requires great effort and a great commitment,” Azubuike said. “It’s a testament of what he’s been able to do, and what he’s put in and all his hard work.

“… It’s exciting to see people making it — coming from Nigeria to the U.S. and making a name for himself in the UFC,” he added. “I think it’s great, I think it’s awesome. I’m excited for him, I’m excited for the fight.”