Washington State Cougars‘ 6-foot-11 center Rueben Chinyelu, who is chasing a Basketball Africa League title with Stade Malien, has big dreams — to complete a career double of reaching the NBA and becoming an MD.
On the court, Chinyelu dreams of being a basketball star, a mixture of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Hakeem Olajuwon, the two Nigerian players from whom he says he has drawn the most inspiration.
However, the Cougars commit is not your average 19-year-old with hoop dreams. Basketball is at the forefront of his mind today, but when he started playing in Lagos, it was merely a tool to help him achieve his dream of becoming a medical doctor.
Chinyelu, who will be playing for Malien at the BAL playoffs in Kigali, Rwanda, told ESPN: “It has always been my plan to be a medical doctor, and it’s my goal to try and help people as much as I can do and make the world a better place.”
Basketball was not on his agenda when he first started dreaming of being a doctor, but it was his first dream which inadvertently gave rise to his second. Five years ago, an elderly customer walked into his brother-in-law’s clothing materials store and asked an obvious question that changed his life forever.
Chinyelu said: “I discovered basketball in summertime 2018. I was in my brother-in-law’s store. I was working there during the summertime. An old lady came to buy material, and she was like: ‘You’re tall! Do you play basketball?'”
Initially, the teen shrugged the question off. He had heard it all too many times, but he was more interested in academics. This particular customer, however, found a way to tap into his deepest desire – to study.
He added: “When she said it, I just laughed and said, ‘no,’ because I’m hearing this every time. She was like: ‘I’m serious! Do you play basketball? If you play basketball, you can get an education from that,’ then she talked to my brother-in-law and he said he would put me into basketball.
“My brother-in-law took me to the National Stadium in Lagos, where I joined Raptors Basketball Academy in Lagos, owned by [NBA Africa scout] coach Charlie Ibeziakor.”
It did not take long for Chinyelu to make an impression there, Ibeziakor told ESPN: “I vividly remember everything about Rueben Chinyelu.
“As a basketball coach and also a scout for NBA Africa Academy, I can really know a kid that will make headway in this journey called basketball. He responded very well and started working hard to be the best.”
Excelling in his local academy was easy for Chinyelu, but convincing the NBA Academy that he was ready for the step up proved more challenging. His first tryout was unsuccessful, but he eventually convinced them he was worthy of an opportunity despite his unrefined technical skills at the time.
Roland Houston, the technical director at the NBA’s Africa Academy in Saly, Senegal, which has been home to Chinyelu for the last two and a half years, told ESPN: “He was much improved – still extremely raw – but he was much improved and he had a certain motor about him that was intriguing.”
Although he dabbled in table tennis and played informally as a goalkeeper in soccer-mad Nigeria before switching to hoops, Chinyelu was brought up to prioritise academics over sporting endeavours.
When he got into the NBA Academy, his physical condition may have taken on greater importance, but his academic tendencies did not change. Chinyelu approached the game of basketball like a student, seeking to learn from the greats past and present.
He took to the internet: “When I started playing basketball, I went to YouTube to get more information on how the game is being played. The first person I saw was Michael Jordan. When I looked at Michael Jordan, I kind of cast my eyes and attention on everything – the way that he plays defense. I wanted to play like that – being a good defender… I’m big on defense, defense before every other thing.
“Michael was the first player that I looked up to, then it was Kobe Bryant, who was really good, then it was LeBron James – the way he dunked the ball, it was really beautiful.
“The [Nigerian role model] I looked at was Hakeem Olajuwon [to improve offensively]. I also started going into Giannis, because I started to see that my game is [similar] to what he does and I wanted to be big on that and what he does.
“I think a mix of Hakeem Olajuwon and Giannis were kind of the two players that I watched after I started getting more knowledge about basketball.”
Houston commended Chinyelu’s studious approach and credited that for his success: “What we’re trying to do on the continent is take away the narrative of the African kid who is just big and raw. That always bothered me; a lot of the kids on the continent don’t get as much credit.
“They get stereotyped as just athletic or fast. They never get credit for being cerebral and Rueben is a highly intelligent player both on the court and off the court, as are many of the Africans, particularly [those] that come through our system. He’s more polished, he’s a student of the game, he understands basketball, [and] he knows how to play.”
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Chinyelu was one of the academy’s most heavily recruited players and had a difficult decision to make for his next step. Ultimately, the positive atmosphere at WSU won him over.
“I would say the diversity in Washington State kind of stood out for me, and I would say also, the way they coach over there – the way they have fun, the way they want to work with players to see their growth and everything,” Chinyelu said.
“I was fortunate enough to watch their practice session and also have a one-on-one practice session with the developmental coach there, so it was good for me and I felt like this is what I needed.
“All the schools that I went to visit were so amazing, so good. It was difficult, because they were good programs and nice cultures, but Washington State picked [at] my heart the most and I feel like it’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Chinyelu chose the Cougars despite also visiting Florida, Santa Clara, Tennessee and Rutgers. After he made his big decision, he turned his attention to the BAL, where he was picked by Stade Malien in the BAL Elevate draft, where the most promising academy players join BAL teams for the season.
Most observers expected the team from Bamako to be eliminated in the first round at the Sahara Conference in Dakar, but instead, they won the entire conference, with Chinyelu playing an important role, setting up a Kigali quarter-final with the Cape Town Tigers on May 20.
He averaged 5.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, but crucially, his best performance came when he was needed most – in Stade Malien’s final game of the conference, a 90-71 win over ABC Fighters which clinched their place in the playoffs in Kigali (May 20-27).
Chinyelu contributed eight points and a whopping 13 rebounds in 26 minutes. As a result, he has given himself a fighting chance of leaving Africa as a continental champion.
“It really means a lot to me, because being able to come out and represent not just your country, but being African and hopefully having the chance to be an African champion is really beautiful,” Chinyelu said.
“I think it’s something that keeps you going. I just keep drawing motivation from every aspect of my life; things happening around me, just drawing energy where I could get it. I look into the positive things that happen and I just take all the good things from there – drawing the energy that keeps me boosted, doing what I do and enjoying what I do.
“Doing that is a beautiful thing and a big thing for me and I’ve been looking to that since I started playing basketball – I’ve been looking to do something not only for my country, but for the continent, but also something globally – a step at a time, stacking those bricks.”
Although Chinyelu’s dreams on and off the court are more ambitious than most, the foundations have already been laid.
The BAL airs on ESPN’s channels in Africa. The playoffs and finals run from May 20 to 27 in Kigali, Rwanda.