Basketball Beyond Borders: Jesse Chuku


To Lehigh men’s basketball senior Jesse Chuku, basketball is more than a game.

It’s more than putting on a brown and white uniform and leaving your blood, sweat and tears on the court for four quarters. It’s more than playing in front a sellout record-breaking crowd at Stabler Arena for a championship title.

“Basketball is like the best professor you can have,” Chuku said. “You learn a lot of life lessons in basketball. I’ve learned to be persistent, cooperative, patient, and implemented these characteristics in every aspect of my life. When I’m preparing for an exam, I carry the same mindset as If I was preparing for an important game.”

Chuku is on track to graduate this May after a four-year career with the Mountain Hawks. The 6-foot-9 forward started 32 games this season while averaging a career-high 9.6 points per game to help Lehigh to a second-place finish in the Patriot League.

Growing in up London, England, basketball wasn’t an initial interest of Chuku’s. In a country where soccer is followed religiously, Chuku envisioned himself as the next David Beckham. That dream quickly dispersed as Chuku found himself towering over his peers at the age of 8. It was then that Chuku picked up a basketball for the first time.

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Chuku’s passion for the game grew despite it disagreeing with the general interests of his peers. Chuku recalled a time where his physical education teacher gave the students the choice of selecting if the class was going to play basketball or soccer. Chuku found himself alone one side of the gym while his classmates were all on the opposite side vying to play soccer. Basketball eventually became a part of Chuku’s identity as the community started to regard him as “the kid who’s always playing basketball.”

“I remember picking up a basketball and putting it through my legs and thought ‘oh this fun’,” Chuku said. “I really just started to put all my time in it and took it from there.”

Chuku, whose parents were born in Nigeria, says the common perception or stereotype of Nigerian parents is that they’ll never let hobbies precede education. They want their children to be focused on their studies alone and anything else is deemed a distraction. That wasn’t the case with Chuku’s parents.

“My parents really supported and told me to do what I love,” Chuku said. “They understood that I was able to use basketball to further my education.”

Lehigh senior Jesse Chuku dunks on Lafayette in their game on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, at Stabler Arena. Chuku finished the game with 10 points and 8 rebounds to defeat the Leopards 73-61.(Gracie Chavers/BW staff)

Lehigh senior Jesse Chuku dunks on Lafayette College in a game on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, at Stabler Arena. Chuku finished the game with 10 points and 8 rebounds to help defeat the Leopards 73-61.(Gracie Chavers/B&W Staff)

Chuku also received support and protection from his community. His peers made sure to leave Chuku out of any activities or situations that would put his basketball career in jeopardy. At the time, basketball wasn’t popular in England, so everyone who played basketball seriously was familiar with each other. It was a basketball brotherhood. Chuku became close with other Division 1 prospects like Rider University’s Teddy Okereafor and North Carolina State University’s Malik Abu. The bond grew stronger as Chuku and the rest were eventually selected to represent England’s U18 (under 18 years old) national team.

“Playing for the national team is great honor and responsibility,” Chuku said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to represent the country in the Olympics.”

Things were going well for Chuku. Following his stint playing internationally, Chuku sent  his highlight tape to several coaches in the U.S. and eventually left London for New Hampshire to continue playing basketball at Kimball Union Academy, a private school located in Meriden. Chuku came to states in the best shape of his life and impressed coaches during preseason workouts and practices.

As he was on the brink of playing his first season on American soil, Chuku became ill. The doctors diagnosed him with lemierre’s syndrome and told Chuku that he may never play basketball competitively ever again. Lemierre’s syndrome is a potentially lethal form of sore throat caused by the bacterium Fusobacterium necrophorum, a common inhabitant of the mouth. The London native had to spend a couple weeks in the hospital to recover. In a matter of seconds, his lifelong dream became irrealizable but Chuku’s mindset wasn’t deterred.

Senior Jesse Chuku hugs Coach Brett Reed during Lehigh men's basketball senior day on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. The Mountain Hawks defeated Lafayette in their last home game of league play at Stabler Arena. (Gracie Chavers/BW staff)

Senior Jesse Chuku hugs Lehigh coach Brett Reed during Lehigh men’s basketball Senior Day on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. The Mountain Hawks defeated Lafayette College in their last home game of league play at Stabler Arena. (Gracie Chavers/B&W Staff)

“As soon I left (the hospital), I was eager to step on the court,” Chuku said. “It was tough because my body wasn’t there, I had lost over 20 pounds of weight so I didn’t even look like the same guy. I didn’t believe that I wasn’t going to play so I took it one day at a time and eventually I was able to return and play another year at Kimball Union.”

Not only did Chuku return his previous state but he was able to expand and improve his ability to catch the attention of the coaching staff at Lehigh University which led to his commitment and signing to the school.

Of course for Chuku, transitioning to the college life in the U.S. was going to be a bit of task, but he credits his fellow classmates and teammates Justin Goldsborough and Devon Carter for helping him adjust to the American life.

“I helped Jesse just by being myself and letting him slowly learn from,” Carter said. “I didn’t realize how much of an impact I had on him until senior year when I saw a lot of myself in Jesse.”

Chuku roomed with Goldsborough and Carter for all of his four years at Lehigh. He learned the little things from his teammates like American idioms and words that may differentiate from how he communicated in London. But what Chuku didn’t realize is that he’s taught them many things on and off the basketball court.Chuku stats

“Basketball-wise, Jesse is just an overall great player, so just being able to play against him everyday has allowed me to elevate my game and
work ethic,” Goldsborough said. “He’s also a really caring dude. if I need something he always comes through and the same applies the other way around.” 

Through the game of basketball, Chuku is on the verge of acquiring a degree from one of the most prestigious institutions in America. He recently signed with an agent to pursue his dream of playing professionally and do his best to spread the passion of basketball across his homeland.

“Playing professionally is something I’ve always dreamed about so I’m looking forward to do that,” Chuku said. “After playing basketball as long as possible, I see myself going to England and giving back. As I kid, I wanted to be able to have facilities for lifting weights and have an indoor gym to play so I’d love to give back in that way.”

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