Nigerian ready to provide muscle for 'Noles

Published November 12, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Away from the basketball court, Florida State's Uche Echefu has the ever-present smile of a groom at his wedding reception.

"He's always laughing, always giggling and making jokes," senior forward Al Thornton said.

Away from the court, Echefu is polite, a "yes sir, no sir" kid who offers up the comfy chair to an elder or, even, a reporter in town for a preseason interview.

"He's respectful in every sense," coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He's a real gentleman off the court."

But don't be fooled. There is another side to his personality that comes out on the court.

There, he's more stone-faced and far less genteel. Good thing for the Seminoles, who open the season tonight against McNeese State. With Alexander Johnson's early exit to the NBA and the loss of 7-foot signee Jonathan Kreft to legal problems, the Seminoles are thin on big bodies. They need the 6-foot-9, 225-pound sophomore forward from Lagos, Nigeria, to provide some physical toughness.

"I don't feel any pressure," he said, shrugging. "I just think it's time for me to step out of my comfort zone and do what's going to help the team win."

Out of Africa

Like many in his country, Uche Echefu pronounced Ooh-chay Etch-a-foo grew up playing soccer. He didn't realize the joy of dribbling with his hands until he was 14.

"I got taller than my teammates and people kept telling me try out basketball. So I did," he said.

He was merely 6-5 at that age and his athletic ability and size translated well into a sport that is mushrooming in popularity in Nigeria. He soon aimed to follow the lead of a countryman who began his athletic career in soccer and moved to basketball in the United States, Hakeem Olajuwon.

Echefu, a devout Christian who's focused on his academics (it was a deal-breaker with his parents that he had to earn a college degree or they wouldn't allow him to leave), found his way to Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md., to play for renowned prep coach Stu Vetter.

Living with a family friend but away from his family and home wasn't easy. His parents, who own a restaurant, and a brother and three sisters are still there.

"The first couple of months, it was miserable for me. I wanted to go back, but I made up my mind to stay so I could get a quality education and use that in the future," he said.

He adjusted - although he occasionally pines for home cooking - rather nicely both off and on the court. He was graduated with a 3.4 GPA and, as a senior, he was named the Gatorade player of the year in Maryland and one of the nation's top prospects. He had offers from North Carolina, Kentucky and Maryland, but the familial bond he felt with the FSU coaches meant more than championship banners.

"That's a testimony to the type of person Uche is," Vetter said. "He's got a lot of depth to him."

A new hope

Despite his accolades, Echefu, 20, a business management major, played sparingly last season behind Johnson and senior Diego Romero. But few fans realized he played a good portion of the season with the pain of a slipped disc in his lower back. He had surgery in the summer and is pain-free.

"You can definitely tell he's feeling a lot better; he's more explosive," Thornton said. "The big thing from last year is he's just a lot more confident."

Hamilton isn't expecting Echefu to be his primary scorer; he has Thornton and guards Toney Douglas, now eligible after sitting out a year when he transferred from Auburn, and Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich for that. But Echefu has a soft shooting touch from 15 feet and can rebound, use his quickness to defend and pass the ball well.

"There's still things that he's learning about the game, but he's improving by leaps and bounds," Hamilton said. "He's hard working, he holds himself accountable for everything required of him and you're not going to find a better person who represents what (college) athletics should stand for than Uche."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or at (813) 226-3347.