Bola Olaniyan made his first-career start on Sunday at Missouri State.
Jan. 26, 2014
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Saluki redshirt freshman forward Bola Olaniyan has lived in the United States for less than four years, so every day he is learning something new -- whether it's on the court, in his classes, or just daily life.
Growing up in a rural area just outside of Lagos, Nigeria, Olaniyan lived an existence foreign to the average American. The youngest of five children, he helped his mother grow fruits and vegetables that his father would sell or trade at market.
The Olaniyan's modest family farm grew cassava, tomatoes, corn and yam. Cassava root is a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for more than half a billion people, and Nigeria is the world's largest producer. Bola and his two brothers and sisters helped with the basics of farming -- planting, weeding, watering and picking. It was hard work, and Olaniyan sometimes dreamed of a different life in a distant land.
"I liked America from the time I was little," he said. "America has better opportunities. I knew it would give me the opportunity to come to school and play basketball."
Olaniyan's favorite sport was soccer, but he grew to stand 6-foot-7, and with his muscular build, he was not the prototype soccer player. He was introduced to basketball in his sophomore year of high school and took to the game quickly.
With his parents' permission, he moved to the United States to play basketball for Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina during his junior year of high school. He remembers feeling lonely that first year in the U.S. as he tried to assimilate to his new surroundings.
"It's hard when you don't know anybody and people can't understand you or where you come from," he said. "I missed my family. I chose to do it, though."
The following year he lived with a host family in Indiana and blossomed into a Division I prospect at Richmond High School (Ind.). As a senior, he averaged 14.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game and scored a season-high 27 points in an overtime victory over Kokomo. He recorded 14 double-doubles and posted double figures in scoring in all but five games, leading Richmond to a 21-4 record and helping the school advance to the Class 4A sectional final.
He spent the 2012-13 season battling against Dantiel Daniels every day in practice and trying to learn the college game. He drew upon his soccer background to impress the coaching staff with his rebounding ability.
"Soccer helped me with my quickness, which I can use to get around people to get rebounds," he explained.
Olaniyan, who will turn 21 in April, has seen a dramatic jump in playing time in the past two weeks. He went from getting mostly single-digit minutes or not even playing at all to earning his first-career starting assignment last night at Missouri State, where he played 33 minutes. Rebounding has been his ticket to playing time so far, as he has grabbed 15 rebounds in the last two games, with 11 of those coming on the offensive end.
"I think I've improved my skill set," he said. "I'm a good rebounder. I have the confidence to play this game, but I still have to get better at every aspect. I want to become good because I love to play and it makes me happy."
Each day brings new experiences on and off the court. For instance, it never snows in Lagos, and the recent blizzard-like conditions in Illinois were an eye-opening experience for him. He's also become accustomed to the many luxuries of living in the U.S. that were not available to him at home. Few people in Lagos own cars or computers, he said. Most of the 17 million residents get to where they are going by walking, and computers are shared at public locations.
Olaniyan has not been home since arriving in the U.S. and still has plenty of time to decide whether he wants to live here permanently. He's studying to become a physical therapist, though his dream job would be to play basketball.
"I love to play basketball and want to play it for a long time," he said.