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Illinois' Nnanna Egwu Blocks His Way Into School Record Books

By Justin Breen | March 11, 2015 5:44am | Updated on March 12, 2015 9:29am
 St. Ignatius product Nnanna Egwu didn't start playing basketball until eighth grade at Clarendon Park in Uptown. Egwu and Illinois hope to sneak into the NCAA tournament.
Nnanna Egwu
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CHICAGO — The greatest shot-blocker in University of Illinois basketball history, Nnanna Egwu, didn't start playing hoops until eighth grade.

That's when Egwu and his twin sister, Nnenna, walked from their Buena Park home to nearby Clarendon Park in Uptown.

"We couldn't play in grade school [at St. Mary of the Lake] because our school didn't have a team," Egwu said Tuesday. "My sister and I, we wanted to play."

The twins would both earn Danny Murphy Scholarships — partial academic awards given to Chicago students from disadvantaged families — to attend St. Ignatius College Prep, where Egwu arrived as a 6-foot-5 "kid with braces who was gangly and not skilled at all," according to boys basketball head coach Richard Kehoe.

"But he ran like a deer and he hustled forever, and he had contagious enthusiasm," said Egwu's AAU coach, Mike Mullins of the Illinois Wolves.

And over the past eight years, Egwu has grown to 6-foot-11. With the Illini, he has blocked a program-best 198 shots heading into Thursday's Big Ten tournament game against Michigan at United Center — considered a must-win for Illinois (19-12) if the team has a chance at a spot in the NCAA tournament field.

"He's going to have a chance to play professionally, and none of that was on the table when I met him at [6-foot-5] and he was all braces and ears," Mullins said of Egwu, who was named to the Big Ten's All-Defensive Team on Monday.

Said Egwu: "It's been a great journey, and I appreciate everyone who's been involved in helping open doors."

Working Hard, Always

Egwu is not the most skilled player offensively and averages only 6.5 points per game. But Illini fans consistently applaud his intensity on the court, which is reflected statistically in a team-high 56 blocks (45 more than any other Illini this year), Illinois-best 183 rebounds and 26 steals.

Egwu said his work ethic comes from his Nigerian immigrant parents — his father, Emmanuel, is a cab driver, and mother, Immaculata, a nurse.

"I know how hard they worked to try and support our family," said Egwu, who has three siblings, including his twin, who is two minutes older.

Nnanna Egwu (32) with his St. Ignatius teammates

Kehoe said he rarely saw Egwu's parents at high school games because they were always working. "It's unlike a lot of parents who come to all the games, and Nnanna was pretty much on his own, but his parents are terrific, and he comes from a very sound family," Kehoe said.

A pivotal point in Egwu's hoops career came after his sophomore prep season and heading into his second year with the AAU Wolves. Mullins said Egwu had been a part-time participant with the Wolves as a freshman, but Mullins saw potential and a future Division I career — but only if Egwu committed to the Wolves full-time. At the time, Egwu had been working odd jobs, including at a grocery store, instead of competing year-round for the Wolves.

"We needed him to be able to go away and to come to our weekend tournaments and all of our practices," Mullins said. "I told his parents, he might not be able to save a couple hundred thousand dollars with summer jobs that a college scholarship is worth. And they trusted us."

His first scholarship offer came later in his sophomore year from Oregon State, when Egwu "realized this is something I could do in college."

Kehoe estimates Egwu had well more than 300 career blocks at St. Ignatius, including 14 alone against Foreman High School during a game in his junior year. That dominance in the paint continued at Illinois, where Egwu was fourth in the Big Ten in blocks as a sophomore and was second as a junior. He didn't make the All-Defensive Team until this season's 56 blocks, third best in the conference.

Kehoe believes Egwu's passion for hoops will work in his favor at the professional level.

"I'm not a talent scout for the NBA, but I hope he gets drafted in the second round," Kehoe said. "I think anyone would see a lot of potential, a lot of upside there. There have been a lot of people involved with Nnanna, but the most important person is Nnanna himself."

Regardless of where Egwu performs as a pro, he said his fervor won't change.

"I'm just gonna work the same way since I started and let the outcome come out as it is," he said. "When you put so much work into something, you want to be successful."

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