MANILA, Philippines – Chibueze Ikeh marched towards the podium in the Church of Gesu during the Thanksgiving mass and began his speech with a simple statement: "Thank you for believing in me."
Those 6 words carried the feelings of the AB Interdisciplinary Studies supersenior who completed his 5 years in dramatic fashion.
Ikeh came to the Philippines in 2013 holding a promise from Ateneo that he would be able to play basketball in the most prestigious collegiate league of the country. However, he was unluckily affected by the UAAP's "Foreign residency" rule that required foreign athletes to sit out for two years.
"To me, nobody wants to waste [time] by sitting out. Everyone who wants to play should just go and play. Sitting out is discouraging when you know your plans and goals in life," said Ikeh to Rappler (then-GUIDON) in 2014.
The Nigerian center had no choice but to abide in the rules. To still continue playing basketball in the Philippines while preparing himself for his UAAP career, he was included in Ateneo's Team Glory Be basketball team where he helped them clinch the Fr. Martin Cup titles in both years.
Season 78 finally came and Ikeh was ecstatic to finally make his debut in the UAAP. Contrary to what he expected, he did not know that things would actually becomer harder for him – emotionally.
Ikeh started out his UAAP rookie season confident as he was seen making dunks even over their archrivals DLSU Green Archers.
But later into the season, the Nigerian center was arrested for violating the "Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004."
"I feel terrible [because I] am here without my family and just want to study here. I don't want to bring bad name to a school that gave me a chance to get education, but all this makes me feel I have failed them," said Ikeh during the time of custody. "I only know [I] am innocent."
The arrival of Coach Tab Baldwin to Ateneo in 2016 helped lead the Blue Eagles to an unexpected finals appearance. Baldwin and some breakout players like Isaac Go were heralded as the heroes of the Blue Eagles as their surprising performances won back the belief of the Ateneo community in the team.
But for Ikeh, his confidence had hit rock bottom during that time. He was desperately trying to fit into Baldiwn's disciplined system, and unknown to many was that his emotional stuggles also peaked.
Living far from home and never having the opportunity to return in his 4 years in the Philippines became an emotional turmoil for Ikeh.
"In the last few months, I was really having a hard time trusting people and communicating with people because I was all alone here without my family. It was kind of hard," recalled Ikeh.
One day after Season 79, the supersenior came to a decision: he was going to break the news to Baldwin that he would call it quits in basketball.
"I was gonna meet him to tell him that I don’t think that I’m going to play this year because I was having some issues and I was having a hard time and I was having a depressing moment."
Ikeh pondered on leaving Ateneo and going back to Nigeria for good. He emotions went even more on a tailspin when he found out that two of his family members had passed away.
"The only option that I was thinking that was left for me was to go home and because I lost a couple of my family members and I was just trying to find a way to keep myself going."
But Ikeh never knew that his meeting with Baldwin would actually turn his year 2017 around.
The two foreigners had a long talk. With his composed and serious stature on and off the court, Baldwin unexpectedly opened up to Ikeh and sympathized with him in having to travel far from his own country and having the struggles of trying to fit in here in the Philippines.
"This is a young man who left his continent, friends, family. He had to fit in without asking anybody to fit in with him," said Baldwin of Ikeh during Ateneo's Thanksgiving mass.
"We had a talk. We had a long talk. He promised me stuff so I decided to give it another shot, another chance. So I’m glad I did," said Ikeh.
Ikeh expressed his concern to Baldwin that he was experiencing a difficult time fitting into his system as well. The Nigerian center gave his thoughts on how his skills can contribute to the team, but Baldwin only told him to "work harder" and "trust."
One Big Word: 'Trust'
For many, the latter may seem like a big word, but that was what the Nigerian center did in his last year with the Blue Eagles.
Ikeh immediately stood out in Season 80 from the very first game, as he recorded a massive double-double of 18 points and 17 rebounds, becoming the second leading scorer to Thirdy Ravena.
Ikeh's progress did not stop there as he buried his first treys of the season, scoring 2/2 from the 3-point range in the game against the National University Bulldogs.
Chibueze Ikeh led Ateneo with 18 points and 11 rebounds and 2 blocks. He was also 2/2 from three-point range. #UAAPBasketball pic.twitter.com/DQwfIimLa3 — The GUIDON Sports (@TheGUIDONSports) September 30, 2017
But what etched in the memories of people was that one major throwdown on the rim over the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers in the first round. It took more than a season long to see Ikeh muster up the confidence to dunk it hard over his opponents again.
Ikeh did come out stronger this Season 80 as seen on paper, but more importantly, it was the stronger Ikeh on the inside that allowed him to stuff the stat sheet and play with more confidence.
Baldwin recalled in his speech the moments when Ikeh would return to the bench: “What would you want me to do next coach?" Ikeh would ask Baldwin.
That statement was validation Baldwin needed to be wholeheartedly proud of his starting center.
"That is the most valuable thing I heard. Thank you for trusting me, Ikeh," said Baldwin.
Ikeh also owed his renewed strength to his teammates, whom he considers as his brothers. The troubled Ateneo center had an emotional breakdown in July 2017 but the Blue Eagles were the ones who hoisted him back up to become the person he is today.
"Like I remember back in July, I had an emotional breakdown and I had no one to run to. And I don't know, out of nowhere, they showed me the way on how to stand my ground, on how to keep focus and try to put me in a situation to always know my goals and all that," said Ikeh about the Blue Eagles.
"And I'm sure that we’ll be brothers for life. Nothing’s gonna change that."
2017 was a roller-coaster ride for Ikeh, but it has by far been the sweetest for him as he ended his UAAP career with a championship, more opportunities that await him and maybe even a chance to finally reunite with his loved ones back in Nigeria.
"I’m working on that [going home] because my brother is getting married this holiday. So I’m trying to see if I can see him. If not, I hope that I’ll be seeing them soon," said Ikeh. – Rappler.com
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.