Finding a Home

by Adam Doucette

When you’re 6’9” it’s not always easy to stay lowkey on a college campus. Whether you like it or not, people notice you.  

This is the case for Greg Eboigbodin, a third-year communications student at Northeastern University. His last name might not be the easiest to remember, but his height and infectious personality are difficult to forget. 

But if you just walk by him or see him in class or on the basketball court, you would never know who he really is or where he came from. Even on a college campus as diverse as Northeastern’s, it’s Greg’s story that makes him stand out.

A decade ago, Greg was a 10-year-old kid living in Benin City, Nigeria. He had lived there all his life in a big house with his parents and 12 siblings. 

“I would wake up and walk three to four miles to school,” he said. “When we were done with school at three or four o’clock, we’d walk back home and as soon as I got home, I would go to the field to play soccer until eight or nine.”

Like many kids growing up in Nigeria, that was his typical day. And like many, he spoke Pidgin English. It’s a language that mixes aspects of English with other languages, and is different from the English that is spoken in the United States. He also spoke Bini, also known as Edo, which is the local language of Benin City. 

“It was really fun – completely different from the American lifestyle,” Greg said of growing up there. “Here, your parents wake up, make you breakfast and lunch, give you a ride to school. All that stuff wasn’t there.”

Although he appreciated how and where he grew up, he knew that there may someday be opportunities that he couldn’t turn down. In 2013, that day arrived, and he had an opportunity to leave the place where he had lived his entire life. That summer, he left his family in Nigeria and traveled almost 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Detroit, Michigan.

Over the years, basketball has become a big part of Greg’s life, but it wasn’t the reason he decided to come to the United States. While growing up, his main sport was soccer, and that was it. 

“It wasn’t around me because I grew up in Benin,” said Greg about basketball. “Just using my hands to touch the ball was kind of weird because if you touch the ball in soccer it’s a foul. Doing a 360 switch to basketball was really hard; I didn’t really like it like that. But I ended up falling in love with it.”

As a 6’5” 14-year-old, the potential he had on the basketball court if he ever started playing was undeniable. One family based in Michigan who also had roots in Benin City saw that potential and gave him the opportunity to move in with them in Detroit.

It wasn’t easy for him to start a new life in a new country. The language was different. The food was different. He had new parents to rely on. And he was just about to start high school, which turned out to be one of the most difficult aspects to acclimate to. 

“It was terrible; I won’t lie,” he said. “I struggled my first two years actually. When I first came, my English was terrible. I didn’t really know what the hell was going on.” 

However, education was one of the most important reasons that he made the move to the States, so choosing the right school was a big decision. While still living in Nigeria, he began applying to schools in Detroit to see which ones would give him a chance. 

“At the end of the day, I’m in Nigeria,” he said of his thinking at the time. “So I just knew any one I applied for would definitely be better than my situation.” 

He ended up at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, where he wasn’t allowed to play sports his freshman year because of international student restrictions. He was allowed to practice though, and he played on a local AAU basketball team. 

After a year of having to sit out of real games for his high school team, his basketball career truly began. In his first year playing, the U-D Jesuit basketball team made it all the way to the state semifinals. That was also the year that he realized he needed to pick one sport to focus on, and decided to let soccer go.  

“If you look at America and basketball, there are so many opportunities for scholarships,” he said. “My coach had to tell me to pick one.” 

Although he decided to focus on basketball, he felt like his soccer background gave him an advantage, especially in the type of system that his high school and AAU coaches ran.

“I fit right into the way that my high school coach wanted to play,” Greg said. “He wanted us to play fast.”

The uptempo style and the opportunity to play every day helped Greg improve, but it was also the level of competition that forced him to raise his game. He played three years of high school basketball with current Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston, and AAU ball with Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges. 

“Playing with someone like Cassius just puts you in a better position to be successful.” Greg said. “And of course Miles Bridges too.”

In Greg’s junior year, the U-D Jesuit team went undefeated on the way to a state championship win. He also played in the EYBL, an elite youth basketball league run by Nike, during his sophomore and junior years. 

By this time, Greg was living with a new family. The fit wasn’t right with his first one, and the parents of one of his good friends from school offered to have him stay with them. He accepted, and they became his true family. He lived with them and their six kids, and a year after he moved in, his brother from back home in Benin City moved in as well.  

This was also the time when Greg began to get recruited to play college basketball, but what should have been an enjoyable experience was at times frustrating. There were many instances where he was given a deadline to visit a school and commit, but often felt they didn’t give him enough time to make a good decision.

“When people don’t give you time to choose what you want and see all your options, it’s kind of a bad situation,” he said.  

Regardless, he did get offers from big schools like Purdue and Illinois but decided on UIC Chicago. After taking an official visit during his junior year, he decided he liked the campus and wanted to play there. But after committing to that school, communication broke down.

“After I committed there, we lost touch,” he said. “The coach never visited me or watched me play in high school. He never did a home visit, no contact with my high school coach, no contact with parents.”

Seeing friends who committed to other schools get attention from coaches left him wondering why his situation was different.

“You need that support,” said Greg. “I had a friend that committed to Marquette, and I know five or six times during the season a coach would come watch their game just for extra support. I never had that.”

The only person at UIC Chicago who communicated with Greg was one of their assistant coaches, but after he left the school to become a coach at Illinois, he knew something had to change. 

“Because of the old coach I committed to at UIC, I ended up committing to Illinois because he was there. I already knew him, I trusted him, so I just went there. 

Greg played one season at Illinois, where he played just under 11 minutes a game and averaged 2.2 points and 2.4 rebounds.  

“It was a good school, good basketball and everything but I wasn’t comfortable there,” he said. “I didn’t fit in and that’s the best way I can say it. I didn’t really like the environment; I wasn’t me there.” 

He made the decision to transfer after his freshman year and began looking for options. Although he considered schools in various parts of the country, one of the cities he always kept in mind was Boston. 

 “I just wanted to come to a place where I fit in right away, and I know a lot of people who live in Boston – a lot of Africans,” he explained. “From a cultural standpoint I thought Boston was a better situation.” 

In June 2018, he decided to fly into Logan Airport and visit UMass Amherst, a school that had shown interest in him. 

“I didn’t think it was far from the airport but as soon as I put it in Uber it was like a $600 Uber,” he said with a laugh.

He didn’t take the Uber. Instead, he took the opportunity to visit Northeastern University, a school that had come calling late in the process.  

After visiting Northeastern, a friend drove him out to UMass, but he already felt like he knew where he wanted to go. 

Fast forward to the fall of 2019, and Greg is ready to start playing again after sitting out yet another year due to transfer restrictions. Sitting out last season was no easier than sitting out his freshman year of high school. 

 “It was very difficult because there are a lot of games where I wished I could help. It was difficult but I’m really proud of those guys.”

 Bill Coen, head coach of the Northeastern men’s basketball team, sympathized with his player. 

“It’s a difficult year in terms of mental toughness, staying focused, improving almost on an individual agenda rather than a team agenda,” said Coen. “But at the end of the day it’s always been great for our guys that have gone through it because they’re further advanced academically [and] socially. They’re more comfortable, more confident, and ready to hit the ground running.”

 In terms of basketball, there is a lot to look forward to with the addition of Greg to the team. Coen describes him as a high-level athlete and a player with a high motor. 

 “He’s got an uncanny ability to maneuver around, and with his physicality and athleticism he’s able to be an elite rebounder,” Coen explained.

 Despite his raw athletic talent and hard work on the basketball court, Greg is much more than a basketball player. He’s someone who has a diverse background, is always positive, always friendly, and is able to connect with people in a way that many cannot.

 He also has interests outside of basketball. He loves cooking African food and maintains his love for soccer.

 “I think after his experience at Illinois he was looking for something different, and I think what really interested him about Northeastern is the culture and the city of Boston,” said Coen. “The diversity and the breadth of the experience that he would receive here was a really big determining factor in his decision, and I think that speaks to how he enjoys life.”

 Zach Solow, one of the stars of the Northeastern men’s hockey team, was Greg’s roommate last year and got an up-close look at what he was like on a day to day basis. Although it’s uncommon for players from different sports to live together, one of Solow’s roommates decided to transfer from Northeastern at the same time Greg was arriving, and he took the open spot.

 Hockey and basketball are two very different sports, and Greg grew up very differently than the rest of his roommates. While they idolized NHL stars playing in the US and Canada, Greg dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. 

 At one point, Teemu Selanne, whose son Eetu was another one of Greg’s roommates, showed up at the apartment. While most of them were ecstatic to meet one of the NHL’s great players, Greg was oblivious.

 “Greg had no idea that hockey hall of famer, Teemu Selanne, was in our living room,” said Solow, smiling.

 Despite their differences in background, Greg fit right in with the rest of them. 

 “He was really fun to live with,” said Solow about Greg. “He’s very outgoing and super fun. Whenever I see him around campus he’s always in a good mood.”

 Greg will be a welcome addition to the Northeastern basketball team this year, especially after they graduated two big men in Anthony Green and Jeremy Miller. But the on-court aspect isn’t the only thing that is exciting. His ability to bring people together and make them laugh is one of his brightest characteristics.

 “You feel like you’ve known him for ten years the first time you meet him,” said Solow.

Over the long course of his coaching career, Coen has had the opportunity to get to know countless players. He knows that regardless of whether his players go on to play professionally or not, they are here at Northeastern in large part to their exceptional abilities on the basketball court, but basketball does not define them. 

“You look at him as a total human being, as a student with a life away from basketball and you hear about his life journey, and how much he’s had to overcome to even get to this point,” Coen said. “If you can fast forward and have a little bit of imagination and understand that he’s going to graduate with a Northeastern degree, hopefully lead us to many successful seasons, and have great individual success at the same time, when you look at that story from beginning to end, you can get very excited about the prospects.”

photo by Christian Gomez