Answered prayers: For Onuaku, 5th and final season with SU turning out to be his best

first_img Published on March 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm Facebook Twitter Google+ Commentscenter_img By the grace of God, Anastasia Onuaku’s son will play basketball for a living. This is what she prays for every day.The skeptics will say she’s wrong. Multiple surgeries to Arinze Onuaku’s battered knees suggest he might not be limber enough anymore. His vacant glare on the court leads some to believe that there’s no intensity left inside that prevailing frame.But Anastasia’s faith is not one to be ignored. When she speaks, she dictates her beliefs with a certain poignancy that could only come from someone who’s had her prayers answered before.In short, there’s little she has asked God for that hasn’t come true when it comes to her son.‘I guide him with prayers everywhere he goes,’ she said. ‘It’s not an ‘I think,’ it’s an ‘I know’ — prayer works.’AdvertisementThis is placeholder textThis season is just another example. In his fifth and final year at Syracuse, Arinze has battled back to become an indispensable component to one of the program’s best runs in recent memory. On the floor, he pilots one of the most revered frontcourts in the Big East. Off it, he serves as the battle-tested warhorse, a point of reference for a roster loaded with young potential.And though it took the better part of a decade, through struggle and affliction, things are working out too perfectly to be coincidence.It’s a sign to Arinze and his family that everything is going according to plan.‘I know he can make it by the grace of God,’ Anastasia said. ‘Because God is there for him every step of the way. God is the only one that makes the will where there is no way.’ Early signsAnastasia and her husband Christopher said they never prayed for a basketball player. Their wishes, back then, were much simpler.‘We just wanted a healthy baby,’ Christopher said. ‘That’s all we were praying for was a healthy baby and a baby that would listen to his parents. And then after that, God Almighty was the next person we handed him off to.’But over time, inside the Onuaku apartment in Hyattsville, Md., it became increasingly clear that the signs they were receiving indicated something much more than what they asked for.  When Arinze was just learning to stand, Christopher remembers him hovering over a giant bowl on the kitchen floor. In a swift movement, he reached down, grasped it and picked it up with one hand.‘And I said, ‘Oh my God. Who is this?” Christopher said. ‘I couldn’t even lift the bowl myself. It was difficult, it was hard. It was very heavy.’When he learned to walk at 10 months, he again flaunted his unconventional skills — this time by lifting a full gallon of milk. Weighing in at almost 9 pounds, the jug was roughly half his body weight.  ‘So from there on,’ Christopher said, ‘I knew he was going to be a very strong guy.’ Of course, Arinze’s lineage suggested he could be a dominant athlete. Back in their native Nigeria, Christopher and Anastasia were star runners. Anastasia was also a standout handball player. It was a sport that reminded her of basketball and a reason she introduced her son to the game.All of the men in Arinze’s life are tall. His great-grandfather, he was told, was who his mammoth figure came from.Still, growing up, the quiet Arinze thought of becoming a doctor. Anastasia remembers these goals. It was his disciplined Christian background that taught him that his responsibility was to the church and to others.Things changed, though, when Arinze got his first taste of basketball. ‘I started playing organized in the fifth grade,’ Arinze said. ‘I was in Catholic school there, and they finally got a basketball team. Since then, I was just hooked.’  Learning the hard way Patience, Arinze was taught, is a virtue.In the Bible, Thessalonians advises its followers to ‘be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil.’But on the basketball court, this was an acquired trait — prayer alone could not teach him to put up with this.Those who know Arinze are well aware that his Achilles’ heel lies at the free-throw line. Even today, the 6-foot-9, 261-pound center spends the remainder of most practices eyeing down the 15 feet between the stripe and the basket that determines whether he has a good game or a bad one. This year, Onuaku is shooting a lowly 43 percent at the line. At Episcopal (Va.) High School, his coach, Tim Jaeger, saw this exploited. He watched Arinze shoot free throw after free throw. One would go in, and …‘The next one hits the shot clock,’ Jaeger said. ‘You just don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to recognize that nobody wants the shot to go in more than him. So it’s not for a lack of concentration or trying. And if you’re frustrated as a coach, as a teammate, as a fan, just imagine how frustrated he must be.’Opposing teams knew this, and with each and every game they forced him to the line. Defenders weren’t even coy about their intentions. It was clear the ‘hack-a-uaku’ game plan was on.But Arinze never lashed out. At first it was frustrating, but eventually, he accepted the inevitable. Jaeger remembers talking with his center about how to deal with these situations. Referees weren’t always going to be on his side. Sometimes, he’d have to just suck it up, take a deep breath and keep shooting.Besides, on paper it was a proven fact, and Arinze knew it: If a team were playing Episcopal, it was the only way to contain him. Jaeger remembers the double teams, the triple teams and the sagging zones. Each left his center tired, beaten down, worn-out. It eventually made him a better player overall.And when the other team didn’t hack him, didn’t cloud him with defenders, that was evident, too.‘There was a game in which a team in our league decided just to play straight man defense,’ Jaeger remembers. ‘They would not change that strategy. And he had 38 points and 21 rebounds. I think that was the only time a team tried to do that, because they could see what Arinze could do.’Battling back One of the things Anastasia and Arinze pray for is strength. Without fail, she’ll call him before every game and together they’ll ask God to keep Arinze sturdy.‘It just gives you faith,’ Arinze said. ‘You’re just confident in everything that you do, you don’t doubt yourself, you know God is with you at all times.’Over time, the prayers became increasingly necessary. Tendonitis had always ripped through his knees, delivering a constant blast of pain every time he jumped up for a rebound or hit the floor for a loose ball. But eventually, the aching and soreness reached a boiling point.He took a redshirt year in 2006 to sort out the problem, but it wouldn’t go away. Following Syracuse’s Sweet 16 run in 2009 — the year Arinze led the Big East in field-goal percentage — he went under the knife to take care of the injuries once and for all. Both knees had to be revamped. If he would ever play pain-free again, this was the only way.‘Terrible process,’ Arinze said. ‘It’s something I would never, ever want to see someone go through.’Arinze woke up after the surgery and all the strength in his legs had disappeared.Twenty-plus years of work had vanished as he learned how to be a Division I center all over again. Rehabilitation, weight training, practice. All through excruciating pain. He arrived at media day in November looking like half the player he was the year before. His weight was down, his brawny shoulders had contracted and a once gargantuan presence receded.Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim cautioned reporters back then that it may be a little while before everyone saw the old Arinze.‘I mean, thank God I’m back playing again,’ Arinze said.***This was it.It was senior night on March 2, and the crowd at the Carrier Dome detonated into a full-blown frenzy. Arinze’s mother was at the Dome for the first time, where she watched her son act as the catalyst in an 85-66 senior night-thumping of St. John’s.He only scored five points in the first half. But in the second, everything changed. He was one step quicker, he led on fast breaks and finished nearly every possession in a five-minute stretch. Arinze would finish with a team-high 21 points.On one play, he capped a drive with a powerful two-handed jam and pointed to Anastasia in the crowd.‘To have her there on senior night was a very special moment for me,’ Arinze said.The win gave the Orange just its second outright Big East title in program history. And as the team filtered away from the wood-based trophy, Arinze stepped back — cradling the hardware in his right arm.He looked up toward the Dome ceiling, crossed himself and held a finger in the air as if to tell his mom that her prayers had been answered.And as she waited for him outside the Orange locker room, her eyes filled with tears. Somehow, she already knew.‘Wonderful,’ Anastasia said. ‘Wonderful. I just give God the glory. I can’t ask for anything better.’[email protected] last_img

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