Senior forward Jesse Chuku rides his bike to basketball practice. The Lehigh men's basketball team will play its first game of the season against Syracuse University on Nov. 13 at Syracuse, New York. (Dallas Basha/B&W Photo)

Jesse Chuku: From paperboy to basketball player

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At 5:50 a.m., Jesse Chuku’s alarm begins to ring. He shuts it off and peers out the window onto the London street below his flat. It’s a frigid morning, but he’s got to get going. He has three paper routes to finish before making it to school on time.

Every day for two years — seven days a week, 365 days a year — Chuku rode his bike through northwest London, a suburban area called Camden, delivering newspapers and magazines for his neighborhood corner store. It was hard work for a 14-year-old, triple that of any other paperboy, but the boss told Chuku the kid before him had been slacking. And Chuku wasn’t any other paperboy. He was tall and had an athletic advantage. He could do it faster. Plus, he was making good money for his age. So he said OK.

The paper route, Chuku said, developed discipline and determination — characteristics that carried him from messing around with a basketball on the playground to becoming a Division I athlete at Lehigh, 3,500 miles from home.

When Chuku was a kid, basketball in the United Kingdom hadn’t garnered the same cachet that captivated the nation the way soccer had. Few people understood the rules of basketball, and games certainly weren’t broadcast on primetime television.

Chuku recalls being 12 years old, racing back to his flat after school to hurry through his homework so that he could nap until about 3 a.m., when the sports channels would show American basketball games. To Chuku, they were a welcome deviation from the usual soccer, rugby or cricket programming. He revered these superstars of a different world, dazzled by their remarkable skills in renowned arenas among the likes of Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“I always thought, ‘Man — America,’” Chuku said, his English accent animated with passion. “That’s where the basketball players are. I really wanted to go to America to play.”

Ten years later, Chuku, now 22 years old, has realized his childhood dream of playing basketball in America — playing as a senior forward for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.

Towering at 6 feet 9 inches, he is neither an everyday starter nor a deep bench player. As a junior during the 2014-15 season, Chuku played in all 30 games, starting seven of them. He finished fifth on the Mountain Hawks in scoring, averaging 5.6 points per game.

Lehigh men’s basketball coach Brett Reed said he is impressed by Chuku’s multitude of impacts on gameplay, emphasizing his versatility in both blocking and disrupting plays as well as strong perimeter shooting.

“He’s one of the players on our team who will spend the most time on his own working on his skills, trying to enhance his game,” Reed said. “He’s the guy that’s going to work hard and set an example through his work ethic.”

Before basketball had been prominently established in the United Kingdom, Chuku would watch Internet videos of a streetball stunt competition called AND1 Mixtape, resolved to learn any way he could. He would practice what he’d seen, imitating the swift ball handling and acrobatic slam dunks with his friends at school.

“I just bought a ball, and I was playing with it everyday,” Chuku said. “They had one hoop on the playground, and I was pretty much the only kid that was playing out there. I’d be doing all the moves against them, and they wouldn’t want to play against me again.”

Determined to further grasp the fundamentals of basketball, Chuku decided to attend St. Aloysius, a secondary school he says he chose not for its educational value but because it was one of only a handful with a basketball team.

It was there Chuku met Mr. Couzic, a physical education teacher who helped him formally train for the first time. He encouraged Chuku to try out for a spot on the English national team. Chuku made the cut, earning the coveted opportunity to compete in the European championships.

But Chuku never lost sight of his dream to play basketball in America. As he prepared to graduate secondary school, he gathered a list of American college prep schools, writing letters and mailing out his game tapes to coaches across the U.S.

Finally in the fall of 2010, Chuku, 17 at the time, embarked on the journey he’d worked toward his whole life. Chuku had been recruited for a post-graduate year playing basketball at Kimball Union Academy, a small boarding school in New Hampshire.

From the onset at Kimball, Chuku was a highly touted recruitment prospect, capturing college basketball coaches’ attention nationwide.

But just before the season started, Chuku found himself in the health center, and then the hospital. He had come down with a severe and potentially life-threatening illness similar to pneumonia called Lemierre’s syndrome.

Chuku spent a month in the hospital recovering. His weight withered from 215 pounds to just 185. He remembers the first time he was able to stand again — he tottered over to the mirror but couldn’t recognize himself.

“The doctors said that they’re not sure if I was even going to be able to play again,” Chuku said. “But I didn’t really listen to that.”

The illness set him back a year at Kimball, and the NCAA restricted him from playing basketball during his first year of college. As a result, fewer recruitment coaches called.

But Reed says Lehigh never lost interest.

“It was a complicated recruiting profile that a lot of coaches didn’t necessarily take the time to understand or fully embrace,” Reed said. “I thought it would be worth our program’s time and energy to fully tease apart his profile.”

The coaches continued to connect with Chuku on a personal level — what Chuku says is the primary reason he decided Lehigh was ultimately the best choice. Looking back, Reed says Chuku’s presence at Lehigh has been a positive influence on the dynamics of the team, especially as he’s seen him step into a position of leadership.

Kayla Burton, a senior on Lehigh’s women’s basketball team, notices the same radiant positivity from Chuku.

“You don’t see kids like (Chuku) around that often,” Burton said. “He’s so uplifting, and he’s really positive, and I know the whole team — you can just see it — they feed off of it.”

When Burton sees him riding his bike around campus, she can’t help but smile. To her, it’s a subtle reminder of his humility.

“We work out hard,” Burton said. “My legs are dying sometimes. And we’re just exhausted. And this guy is driving over the mountain — on a bike? He really is humble. There’s something about him. Never complaining.”

What’s next for Chuku? After Lehigh, he hopes to play in the Olympics for England’s senior national team. But who knows, a corner store somewhere may be waiting for a speedy new paperboy.

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