Dec. 4, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Saluki junior guard Mike Balogun has been fascinated with the game of basketball ever since he was a toddler growing up in Staten Island, N.Y. He had a Fisher-Price hoop in his room and idolized Michael Jordan.
"My mother said I couldn't take my eyes off the television when a basketball game was on," Balogun recalled. "I didn't watch cartoons, I watched basketball. It was second-nature to me."
No one had to push him to play the sport growing up, which is interesting, because he doesn't come from a sports family -- his dad is a computer engineer and his mother is a nurse -- and none of his three siblings took to the game the way he did.
If you love basketball, there are few better places to be than the New York City area. Balogun said there are frequent tournaments and open gyms in which some of the world's best players compete.
"I've matched up with Kyrie Irving (2012 NBA Rookie of the Year) and a bunch of guys who are on their way to the NBA," he said. Among his friends and gym mates were Ben Uzoh and Quincy Douby -- who both played in the league.
"You give yourself a measuring stick and you find out you're not where you think you are," Balogun said of his brushes with NBA-caliber players. "It's a humbling experience."
The 6-foot-2 Balogun specializes in shooting the basketball. If you watch him work out, you'll see shot after 3-point shot touch nothing but nylon. He has uncanny accuracy and deep range, as he displayed last Saturday with a 5-for-8 performance from outside the arc.
"I like to shoot the basketball," he said with a wide grin. "If I see one go in, just know there's a few more going in, too. All I need is one. Once I get hot, I can start rolling."
His track record as a shooter is impressive. At Curtis High School in Staten Island, he knocked down four 3-pointers and was named the MVP of the city championship game in 2011. After high school, he played two years at West Hills Community College (Calif.) in the San Joaquin Valley, where he was named All-Conference his sophomore year. His head coach, Mark Arce, was good friends with SIU's Barry Hinson, who was in need of a sharpshooter, sending him to Carbondale.
"Working out with guys who have played Division I college basketball or in the NBA, that gives me the confidence to know I can play at this level," he said.
If his dream of playing in the NBA doesn't work out, Balogun has a clear fall-back plan. The psychology major would like to be a high school guidance counselor and basketball coach. He said he was inspired by his own high school guidance counselor, Jeannine Sweeney, who was a respected mentor to students at Curtis High.
"She was a lady you could really go to whenever you needed to talk," he explained. "Basketball and grades, when you try to juggle the two, it can get tough, and she was there to let you know things would be ok."
Although Balogun grew up in a close-knit family -- he Facetimes with them almost every day and they watch his Saluki games on-line -- he said many of his friends weren't so fortunate.
"In my high school, a lot of kids didn't have much guidance at home," he said. "She'd see you in the hallway and ask you if you're ok. Her smile gave you a warming feeling. That's what I want to do -- make a high school program for kids so they have someone to talk to, something to do other than just go home, a program that will help kids have someone to talk to when they feel alone."