Frank Ben-Eze, meanwhile, needed a home. He’d been one of the lucky ones – because of Nigeria’s demanding process for attaining a visa, many of the country’s precocious basketball talents never in set foot on U.S. soil.
But here he’d landed, at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va. -- the same place where David Neal Jr. underwent his transformation from fundamentally sound high-school forward to Atlantic Coast Conference recruit -- and Ben-Eze’s new coach needed to find the 6-foot-10, 230-pound man-child a home.
Barely a month later, Ben-Eze is a fixture in the Neal household. Christian-minded like the Neals, he attends Church with them every week (“He can sing really well,” Cathy says), and watches sermons from Nigeria online. A few times a week, he folds himself into David Sr.’s Infiniti for driving lessons, and he hangs out with Dave whenever the latter makes the 40-minute drive home from College Park.
“The family room has cathedral ceilings,” Cathy Neal says, “so he fits in well there.”
The 17-year-old Ben-Eze, a junior from Benin City in the Nigerian State of Enugn, will join 7-foot center Zack Crimmins to give O’Connell an NBA-sized front line. Though he’s far from a polished product, having played the sports for only three years, and has never played in an American high school game, he’s already getting attention from big-time college coaches.
At times, Ben-Eze looks a bit lost in the game. But his physical gifts are the type of commodity that tempts most any college coach to invest a scholarship: He sprints up and down the court effortlessly and bounces high and quickly from the floor to grab rebounds and smack opponents’ shot attempts. Lean but muscular he’s a massive entity of shoulders and arms and power even when he’s sharing a court with some of the bigger high school players. And the ribbon on top: he has soft touch when shooting the ball.
“People are finding out about him,” O’Connell coach Joe Wootten says.
Georgetown, UConn and Florida are interested already, but Maryland is on him the hardest. The Terps coaching staff has verbally offered him a scholarship for the 2008-2009 season. Ben-Eze attended the Maryland Madness event earlier this month with the Neals and is getting a lot of attention from the staff.
“It’s a good basketball program and a good educational environment,” he says quietly.
Ben-Eze’s hushed speaking voice and Brittish accent make it difficult to understand him at times, though the Neals are becoming accustomed. They’re also enjoying watching him discover new things. He and Cathy spent more than two hours at the grocery store studying every aisle in the place, the result of his newfound taste in American foods and his need to put on 20 pounds.
Two of his best discoveries have been sweet potatoes and coffee cake (“We have to find this coffee cake,” he told Cathy). He eats steak almost every day and devours fried chicken, often washing it all down with cookies. But none of those are his favorite.
“The ribs,” he says through a big grin, with a pronunciation that sounds like ‘reebs.’ “I really like the reebs.”
But the biggest adjustment for Ben-Eze?
“The weather,” he says, with the expression of someone who’s seen a ghost.
There are many ways in which posh McLean, Va., is the farthest thing from Nigeria, but the frigid winter temperature has been the harshest. The Neals took him to a big-and-tall store last weekend and found him a homecoming suit and a stylish, silver Phat Pharm coat, which he proudly sported last weekend at an all-star event. Still, it’s been hard to find clothes that fit him.
They also gave him a bedroom with floorboard heating and its own thermostat.
“He turns that thing up to about a hundred degrees,” Cathy says.
Ben-Eze is taking advanced placement calculus, spends several hours a night on homework and is quite the helper around the house, Cathy says. David Neal Sr. is already envisioning Ben-Eze in a Maryland uniform, prompting his wife to remind him that Ben-Eze should make his own decision. It’s safe to say, though, the Terps are in very good position.
But the one thing that has been most remarkable, Cathy says, is how unfazed Ben-Eze seems to be. Most 17-year-olds would be overwhelmed by such a life-altering move.
“I have to give him a lot of credit. I don’t know if I could do what he’s doing,” she says. “But he says he’s chasing his dream.”