Akeem's Dream: Nigeria native becomes basketball standout at Catholic

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Division I schools have already taken notice: Akeem Odusipe is the next big thing to come out of Knoxville.

It's hard to miss Akeem (whose last name is pronounced oh-DOO-shi-PAY in his native Yoruba), who stands at six-foot-nine and weighs 200 pounds. He's also fleet of foot; a former soccer player, he's reportedly ran a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash.

But what sets Akeem apart from the rest of his peers at Knoxville Catholic is how he got there. He's originally from Nigeria, and has only been on Rocky Top for four years.

"Basketball was the thing I wanted to do and also go to school," Akeem says. "It's going to work out here for me more than it would over there."

When he was younger, he would travel each weekend from his hometown to the capital of Lagos - comparatively, he said, the distance from Knoxville to Chattanooga - just to practice at the National Stadium.

Shortly before his eighth grade year, Akeem's parents agreed to send him to the United States to pursue his dream of playing basketball. They also wanted him to get away from the threat of gang violence and organized crime, which is still a common problem in parts of Nigeria.

Akeem said he's seen firsthand that kind of chaos on the streets.

"I've seen gang people trying to...they saw someone who did something bad to them, and try to get them back," he said. "Just chasing them through the streets, hurting them, also fights, school fights and the lot."

When he needed a place to stay, a former Tennessee basketball player opened his home to him.

Enter Bobby Maze.

Yes, that Bobby Maze.

The 32-year-old Vol For Life is back in Knoxville. Maze, who played for Bruce Pearl's Vols from 2008 to 2010, is finishing his communications degree at UT.

And he just so happens to run a successful AAU program, B Maze Elite.

"He's taught me a lot, basketball, helped me out," Akeem said of Maze. "Without him, I wouldn't be here, also wouldn't be in this school. He's done a lot for me basketball-wise."

Maze said a friend showed him a video of Akeem playing hoops in the hot summer sun in Nigeria, and knew at that instant he would be a special player.

"That's tough, for a kid to leave a country and coming to a whole other environment and learning a whole other language," Maze said. "It makes me feel good to see the strides he's making and doing as well as he's doing."

Maze isn't just a coach for Akeem - he's his legal guardian.

Maze likens himself more to a big brother than a father figure. He said it was a process before Akeem got adjusted to academics and the day-in-day-out grind of basketball in Knoxville.

"He taught me how to have patience," Maze said. "Sometimes, it's hard to understand what it's like to be in another person's shoes. That's why it's not good to judge a book by its cover."

He's already teaching Akeem how to drive a car.

"We're family," Maze said. "I'll always be there for him. One of my proudest moments is going to be watching him sign and go to a school or walk across the stage or going to the prom. Things that I've done in my life, I see him well exceeding.

"That's where the joy comes from, just knowing it's like having a son and you seeing them do better than you could. That's what I always aim for him to be."

And on the court - the sky's the limit for the junior forward.

"He can go as far as he wants to go," Maze said. "It's just all about how much time that he's put in to the game."

Akeem has already been offered scholarships by some big-time Division I schools - including Auburn and Kansas State. Tennessee reportedly has interest.

"He has a high motor, very athletic," Maze said. "Can really run the floor. He's improving his shot, his free throws - that's one of the things we're working on and improving."

Akeem says this is the best semester for him so far academically. He wants to be an engineer; he's still getting the hang of Algebra, a new concept for him he didn't learn overseas.

"It would mean so much to his mother, to his brothers, to his sisters, for him to have an opportunity to take care of himself," Maze said. "But then, hopefully, if he can make it after that, he can bring a lot of his brothers and sisters and family over to America for a better life.

"At the end of the day, that's what it's about."

Maybe, one day, he will be reunited with his family.

"I play to make it, to be able to take care of my family," Akeem said. "My parents, my mom and dad, brother, they've done a lot just for me to get here...Basketball is a way – if I can make it – I want to pay them back and just for them to enjoy life."