After spending a couple of years in Durham and establishing herself as a Blue Devil, it’s time to take a dive into Onome Akinbode-James’ life.
Akinbode-James is a senior and has been making an impact on the basketball court since her freshman campaign in Durham. She looked to be on pace for a career-best season last year until the team decided to cancel the remainder of the season over COVID-19 concerns. Now, almost one calendar year after that day, Akinbode-James is ready for her fourth year as a Blue Devil. But before the first game, let's rewind to see how Akinbode-James ended up in a Duke jersey.
Akinbode-James hails from Nigeria, where soccer is given way more attention than basketball, so how did she end up playing basketball at Duke?
“I started playing basketball mostly because I was taller than most of everyone of my age,” Akinbode-James said. “So, I grew up pretty tall. And then everyone was like, you should do something with your height. I picked it up, turned out I really enjoyed it."
Picking up a basketball
Basketball may be considered inferior to soccer in her home country, and sports as a whole were deemed far lower priority than academics. In fact, the majority of schools in Nigeria have their students focus on academics rather than athletics.
“Sports was actually never an option,” Akinbode-James said. “People really try to derive their success from academics because you can always kind of, guarantee that it’s going to get you success."
However, she decided to take this supposed risk of picking up basketball. And the decision paid off for her. Akinbode-James believes that playing sports has presented numerous opportunities for her, whether it is getting to travel to new places, or just being fortunate to attend a school like Duke.
Before attending Duke, Akinbode-James went to Blair Academy in New Jersey. However, this was not her starting point. She came through the ranks at Hope 4 Girls Africa. Hope 4 Girls Africa, as described by Akinbode-James, “is an academy that teaches basketball players not just how to play basketball, but also life skills beyond the basketball court.” This academy was run by Mobolaji Akiode, a former Nigerian-American basketball player and a Fordham basketball hall of fame inductee. Akiode is responsible for the selection of the players from the academy to high schools in the United States where they could keep pursuing basketball.
“At the end of the camp, [Akiode] tries to talk to boarding schools out here, see if they will take on a player and I happen to be one of the, I guess, a couple in my year that got out here with that opportunity,” Akinbode-James said. “And the other people just continue to play basketball in Nigeria.”
At the end of her time at the academy, Akinbode-James was selected by Blair Academy.
Moving to the United States and attending Blair Academy was a big transition for Akinbode-James.
“There were a lot of cultural reference issues,” she said.
Off the court, she was valiant to address some of these cultural issues during a TEDx talk she delivered in May 2018. This talk encourages individuals to be cautious of being in a haste to make generalizations about a certain place or people based on a movie or story they may have been told.
“Although the majority of our learning tools like the school system and the media tend to pick out and emphasize our differences rather than similarities, it really is up to us as individuals to educate ourselves on unfamiliar territories,” Akinbode-James said during the TED Talk. “Especially since we live in a world where information is so easily accessible.”
Even on the court, she noticed the difference in the game tempo, much higher than that in Nigeria. Always persistent, Akinbode-James eventually got the hang of the change in pace and hit the ground running thereafter. As a high school senior, she averaged 13.0 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a game. She was also the recipient of multiple awards: Akinbode-James was a two-time All-MAPL First Team selection, NJSIAA First Team All-State as a junior and honorable mention as a senior and MAPL All-Academic Team.
Akinbode-James also considers herself a role model, as her courage to pursue her passion, despite the hurdles she foresaw, enabled her to get to where she is today. Her stellar performances on and off the court also helped channel the path for other upcoming Hope 4 Girls alumnae to Blair Academy, such as Tabitha Amanze, a four-star class of 2022 prospect who is currently being heavily recruited by Duke and other top programs in the country and played for the same high school and AAU team as Akinbode-James after coming to the United States from Nigeria.
Akinbode-James is a person to look up to for someone who wants to go down that same road, looking at her story as an inspiration. She also hopes everyone else will be able to follow their dreams as well.
She is currently living in the moment and has not really given much thought to whether to make use of her extra year of eligibility. However, the veteran Blue Devil is just looking for ways to support her team and wishes for overall consistency this year given the ups and downs of the previous pandemic-raged season.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's women's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
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