Published March 20, 2015
UB freshman forward Ikenna Smart was born in Nigeria, didn’t touch a basketball until he was 15, and moved to the U.S. with nothing but a suitcase when he was 16.
“I would say basketball is the reason I am here at Buffalo,” says Smart, who is redshirting this season. “I always thought of coming here to get an education, maybe do some program after college. But I didn’t know I would actually come here and play basketball.”
Although Smart cannot play in games because he is a redshirt, he has been instrumental in helping the Bulls prepare for their tournament matchup against West Virginia, says assistant coach Levi Watkins.
“I was in the ACC for 12 years — I’ve played and then coached there, and Ikenna has the size (he’s 6’10”, 225 pounds) and athleticism of the high-major bigs,” Watkins says. “West Virginia has about four or five of him. At this level in the MAC, there are not a lot of guys who have his size, so we are fortunate that we have him to put our guys against” during practices.
Junior guard Jarryn Skeete says he has collided with Smart on a number of occasions during practice this season, and each time Skeete is the one who ended up on the ground.
Skeete says he noticed the athleticism and length of the West Virginia players while watching film of the team.
“There were tons of similarities between their bigs and Ikenna, so for a game like this, having him has been a huge help — really all year — preparing us to face a team like this,” Skeete says. “Most of the guys we are going to face are as strong as Ikenna, if not stronger, so it’s a huge help.”
Smart’s first passion, like most in Nigeria, was soccer. He says he was always the tallest one on the field. But he would wander over to the gym where basketball players practiced in Nigeria and wondered if he, too, could play.
One day, a local coach approached him, asked if he ever played basketball and told Smart to grab the ball.
“He told me to put it in the hoop and I guess I dunked it,” Smart says. “So my first shot ever was a dunk and I didn’t even know what a dunk was.”
Smart trained with the coach for a year, but never played in an organized game. He came to the U.S. when he was 16, leaving his family behind. He stayed with a host family in North Carolina and enrolled in New Garden Friends School in Greensboro.
His brother, who is now 17, lives with the same host family and plays basketball for the same high school.
Smart is one of 25 Nigerian students enrolled in UB, which ranks 17th in the nation among institutions enrolling the largest number of international students.
He has not been back to Nigeria since coming to the States, but plans to visit next summer. He calls his parents two or three times a week and says while they will not be able to watch the game on Friday, they will be following the outcome.
Smart says he’ll remain on campus this summer working on his game and will be ready to play next season.
But for now, he’s focused on helping the Bulls get past West Virginia.