Behind the scenes with Sean Obi

By now you've probably become familiar with Duke's latest transfer, former Rice big man Sean Obi. But there's quite a bit more to the 6-foot-9, 265 pounder's story than a decision to make the switch to Durham. We sat down with his guardian to learn as much as we could about the player, but also to learn Obi's unique story.

First of all, thank you for making time to talk with us.

Bobbi Eggers, guardian of Sean Obi: I am happy to do this for Sean, and I am so happy for him. This is a risk, risk is maybe too big a word for this, but he knows this is a challenge and he's up for the challenge. 

What makes you characterize it as a "challenge" for Sean?

Well, he's going into this with McDonald's All Americans. Coach K can certainly pick the best of the best of the world, not just the United States. Sean doesn't have that background, but Sean has some very specific things that he is going to do for Coach K and for the team, they are very excited about it and it seems like, you can only imagine how many coaches I've talked to in the last month and a half or so, and the trend seems to be much more athletic and bigger and coaches want the bigger guys. It's not just fast anymore, they are trying to get bigger guys.

What did it mean to you guys to hear Coach K say that he wanted Sean to be a part of the Duke program?

Oh, it's incredible, exciting and it's a real blessing. I mean, Sean is a kid who left his family when he was 12 years old to go live and play with a coach and he went to a boarding school and he lived in a house away in another town. He came to them actually when he was 14, I'm sorry and he left his country with no money in his pocket, just a plane ticket and knowing he was going to be living with a family that he had never met and his family were very nervous because they went on the website of the school he was coming to here, and it's an all-white school, it's a very Connecticut school.

Not even a year before that, Sean's brother had gone to, it was the ex-Soviet Union, one of those countries and he went with his best friend to another situation where he was going to get an education and they were walking down the street and his best friend was killed in what was a racial, senseless killing. So Sean's Dad pulled his son back to them and then here you have Sean transferring to Westport, CT for school, so Sean came here with virtually no money and just hope.

He has excelled, he has always had a 3.5 GPA in every term of school, both in high school and at Rice. To give you an idea, in Africa, the school he was in, he was in a classroom with 100 kids in a class, not just 100 in the school itself, but 100 students in the classroom and they had no money at the school, no computers, old--school style chalkboards and the children would do the lesson on paper and there was never any communication with the teacher, they were not allowed to ask questions because of the sheer volume of kids in the classroom which is just so bizarre. Then he came here to Connecticut for high school and he was thrown into classrooms where he had ten or 11 kids around a table and that's it and he was forced to talk for the first time with his teachers and fellow students. He had to talk about how he felt for the first time in a classroom and he had no idea how to really express himself or even talk with his teacher because he never grew up doing that, it was just a mind-blowing experience for him but he adjusted incredibly well. His teachers, they were amazing with him, he wasn't spoiled at all and they could tell that he wanted to succeed and they wanted him to succeed, so they literally spent hours and hours with him after school all for free, just because this kid wanted to learn and he's adjusted, it's unbelievable.

So, when the Duke offer came along, some of our friends said that he should go to a school where he's gonna be a big fish in a small pond, it'll be better for him, and he'll get more playing time, more stats but he believes in himself and he's up for the challenge and he's succeeded in everything that he's done in life. His family home was burned down by radical Muslims, he's a Christian from a tribe in Nigeria, and as you know, that's a place that's where terrorism is very radical and there are still problems to this day. Just a few days ago, actually while we were at Duke, Sean came to us and said his dad had called and he was driving home from work, and he crossed over a bridge and just five minutes after that, the bridge blew up. The day-to-day fears his family has to live with, when he made the decision for Duke, I told him, just go with God, trust Him and put your heart and mind into it.

As a player, how did Duke discuss him fitting in?

We know that he's going to succeed and I also know that he's going to do what the coaches want him to do because the coaches described him as a throw-back type center, and even though Coach K said he doesn't like to label his players, he said that Sean is a real back to the basket, low post player and also what I have found out is that Sean loves being BIG. He takes great pride, my husband is the same way, he was a big man when he played basketball back in his prime, his game was centered around that style. They think that a lot of that came from being around my husband and the thing with Sean, he loves playing big, he loves taking charges, he loves being a big guy and he takes up a lot of room down low, he has a big presence and people love that about him. It's funny because he used to play with Andre Drummond who was thrilled to play with Sean because Sean could play the center role and Andre could play the power forward role. Sean was more than happy to get hit down low and Sean became Andre's body guard, it was great for him.

Hearing you describe Sean's journey to America, what do you think helped him adjust to the American way of life and playing basketball here?

Sean came into our family and I have a son his age. My son was the one who asked us to take Sean in. When we got the first call about Sean saying there was this really talented kid who deserves an opportunity to play in the United States, my son Hunter asked us if we could have the opportunity to come into our house. Sean came into the basketball team with my son and they absolutely love each other, they were actually at Rice together and they have never been apart for four years and they are still roommates and they adore each other. I told them that they have to see that movie Twins with Arnold Schwarzegger and Danny DeVito because they are similar, they are never separated and they never argue and it's amazing to me.

This will be the first time, and I just felt like it was time for them to find their own journeys now. I remember one time a policeman stopped them when Hunter first got his drivers license because in Connecticut, the first year you drive, you can only drive with family or siblings, and the cop said you aren't ready to drive with anybody when he looked at his license other than your family member, Hunter told the officer, "well, this is my brother and I love him." So the cop asked if he called his parents, would they back that up and he said oh yeah, call them right now. But that's what did it, I will give 100% of the credit to Hunter, he helped Sean get adjusted right from the start. 

Did Sean have a language barrier coming into the United States?

No, they are aware of American culture and vernacular over there, but English is their primary language. I will tell you they have an interesting accent…did you ever read the books True Detective? The accept described is a little similar. 

Was Sean always very motivated academically?

Yes, the first book he read in the US was a book written by a Nigerian author and then one of the next books he read was Shakespeare. It's continued from there. 

When you guys made the decision that Sean was going to transfer from Rice, what were you focusing on as you decided on visiting schools or not visiting schools?

I will tell you that schools started peeling away right away because we wanted academics, that was at the top of the priority level because for a Nigerian kid, we just wanted him to have a great degree. So for us, even in a worst-case scenario, he'll still have a Duke degree.

Second, we wanted guards that knew how to pass to Sean, we didn't want a guards game, a Princeton style game. Sean would love to go to the NBA but the only way he gets there is if his teammates know how to play with bigs. It's surprising how quickly those things narrowed down, like we knew some schools would be a mistake for Sean to go to.

How and when did Duke get involved in Sean's process once he decided on transferring?

Their High School basketball coach loves Sean, and he's the one who championed us taking Sean in. He was the one who made the first call to Duke and said you need to take a look at Sean, he's a great kid, he's smart, he's coachable, and they responded to him first. Then, once Sean got his permission to contact from Rice, we had to send that to the schools that Sean was interested in and Duke was high on that priority list.

I'll tell you, Jon Scheyer is absolutely incredible, he's an amazing recruiter and he said that we were his first recruit that he started with, because he just got the promotion while we were there. It was a very exciting time, and we raised a toast to him as it was his first night as a coach. He was just incredibly energetic, very enthusiastic, he was such a positive person. He really reached out to us in not an annoying or pushy way, it was great.

What made Duke be so high on his list before he had any contact with them?

Well he loves the way they play for Coach K, he's iconic, arguably the best coach in the world, and I don't think there's a kid in America who doesn't at least aspire to Duke, but there's only so many who can't go there because they don't have the academics for it and he's always been enamored with them. Duke always appealed to him, they are the best of the best.

What kind of questions did you go into the Duke visit with hoping to get answered?

You know, we wanted to know what the day-to-day life was like there and who he would be in and amongst, first of all, it's a lot of new recruits there, they lost a lot of guys these past few years, so there's a lot of new people and Coach K he said the game is changing so quickly, especially with transfers being so integral in getting new players and it changes so quickly now for a lot of reasons. The important thing was that we needed to learn how Coach K felt Sean fit into the Duke program.

How did Coach K present his vision?

Well, redshirting is a great opportunity for Sean to change his body and get into prime shape and there's no other facility that compares to Duke, the technology and the staff that surround the kids, it's unparalleled. He'll be able to spend time on his nutrition and building up his body and he's going to be able to go up against Jahlil Okafor which is a win/win for both of them and it's clear that Jahlil will make Sean better and Sean will make him better as well. 

What's Sean's physical measurables right now?

Well I, Sean says he's been 6-foot-9 for awhile, and I believe his wingspan is around seven feet, but I'm not 100% for sure on that. 

Once you got to Duke's campus, what were the interactions like with the staff?

They were absolutely incredible, just amazing. They were waiting for us, we had breakfast, lunch and dinner with the staff and Coach K, he really made us feel like nobody was more important for him to be around than us and Sean. He was a gentleman, he was compassionate and very proud of his life, his players, his facility, he personally showed us around and we also got to meet with the academic advisor who was just fantastic because he's very enthusiastic about the players and he's somebody who truly loves what he does even though he left the financial world to be here with Coach K and to help Coach K's players. He was really very smart and very engaging, very personable and it was just such a pleasure to be with him because he made it that way. 

What kind of things stood out to you guys about the academic setup at Duke as you saw it during the visit?

Well, first of all, right there in the team facility, the basketball wing, whatever they call it, it's just upstairs from the practice court. I think that's important the players have that access and they have private tutoring room and they have a bigger room that acts as a study hall and they aren't far away from the work they do as athletes. It's a comfortable setting for the athletes to do their academic work and now that the NCAA is allowing the athletes to REALLY be fed at all hours, they can be fed there while doing that work. We got a very nice tour of the campus during the day where accepted kids come to Duke to figure out if they are going to come or not come. There were a bunch of people around Sean, the people who knew who we were, it was amazing the passion people have for basketball, they wanted to say hello and shake Sean's hand, it was wonderful.

Did you guys have any meaningful conversations in that vein that stood out?

Well Sean certainly did, he went to a party with Jabari Parker, that was one of the things that sealed the deal it seemed. Basketball is very socially important at Duke which was nice because at Rice, there's not as much fan interest in basketball as there is at Duke, so it's quite a change. Sean's very excited about being on campus at Duke.

Anything else with the interactions with Coach K that caught your attention?

The first thing, he won't ever recruit a kid that he hasn't met and he puts a lot on Sean's character and his history and what he's been through and he sees that Sean is a very committed person because of that background and he really respects that.

Coach K said on the last night that Sean will be a tremendous asset to the team in more ways than just basketball, but also because of his character. I really appreciate that wholeheartedly that Sean is appreciated there for his whole person.

The role you referenced before from Coach K is challenging for Sean--what do yo think makes it challenging?

That's probably better answered by Sean to be honest. 

When did the switch flip so to speak for you guys with Duke to take them from a school you are considering to Duke is where Sean wants to go?

The morning before we left. We got to get together in a very intimate group, it was Coach K with his three assistants and now we've been together for a day and a half and this is where in the recruiting process the coaches really talk turkey and it's an intimate setting where he said here's what we are offering you, here's what we think about you and here's what we like about you, how do you feel about us?

It's getting to the chase because in the transfer process, it's a very different process…I call it speed dating, you don't have the luxury of starting as a junior and getting to know the coaches over the year, you really have maybe a month at best to talk to anyone that you can consider and then peel away and narrow it down quickly and the coaches want to know right away because scholarships peel away quickly and if you aren't going to go, they have to move onto the next player, so it's a lot of pressure. I really had to go into that process with my sleeves rolled up and I had to ask  a lot of questions. You have to ask the questions, so the last morning they showed us a film of what the games are like and the fans, and that's extremely intoxicating because of how passionate the fans are.

Then they showed us a video of the oldest Plumlee boy, Miles, and the video of him that they give to the kid when he graduates. He's the type of player that's probably closest to where Sean is coming in timeframe and development wise at this stage of his career like Miles was, so they showed us who he was when he first came to Duke and how he grew and who he was when he left Duke, and that was very touching and moving for Sean to see. I had goosebumps watching it, very moving to see. It was a lovely morning and they touched Sean in all the right ways.

We came into the situation telling them that we weren't going to be able to offer a commitment on the spot because there were some other schools involved, and with all respect to everyone we needed time but then things changed on the visit and we came to a decision sooner. We kinda knew on Easter but with all the hub-hub of Easter we wanted to give it a little time, but then we gave them an answer not too far after that. We pretty much knew right away but Sean also wanted to tell the other coaches no before he told Coach K yes because he knew if he told Coach K first, then it would get over Twitter quickly and he didn't want the rejected coaches to find out on Twitter, which is why he wanted to do the gentlemanly thing and tell the other coaches first and then tell Coach K after. I just thought that was a very nice thing for him to do and Coach K told him the same thing. He really liked the way Sean handled the process. Duke appreciated him and they were very honest with him about the level of work he will have to do to himself, he was very straightforward and uncomplicated and Coach K was very forthcoming with Sean in an honest way.

Also, this is a dream for Sean, he's got a once in a lifetime offer, he just knew he had to take up this challenge and he just knew that he had it in himself to do this. It was really the honesty and the virtue of Coach K that sealed it that morning, he has a calm demeanor and he's very honest and that resonated with Sean. It's a big opportunity, he could have gone to another school and been a star, but Sean doesn't need to be the start, he does the dirty work, he's a rebounder, he's gonna give screens, he's got a job to do.

So how did the commitment conversation go once you guys were back on the phone with Coach K?

Oh, it was very exciting and it was very, very nice. Coach K picked up the phone right away when Sean called and he was very excited to receive the commitment from Sean and matter of fact, he called me right after he talked with Sean and he thanked me profusely and he said that Sean would be a great asset both to the team and to the school. I really think that the person that Sean was coming to be when he was coming to meet Coach K, i think Coach K was pleasantly surprised.  I think he really did not understand what this kid has gone through until they really had a chance to talk and share his story. Sean became very attached to us because he was so young, he calls me Mom, he's very attached to us, it's not just a regular host family, we love him like he's our son. 

Now that Sean's process is over and you know he's going to be a Duke Blue Devil, how are you feeling?

It's exciting, I mean, I'm really so excited for him. There are times I want to burst into tears, what an incredible opportunity, I'm so proud of him, words can't express how excited I am for him, so very thankful for him.

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