GIDEON GEORGE HAD I was only in the United States for a few days when he discovered basketball shoes on the floor of a garbage can in a New Mexico Junior College dormitory.
It was 2018, and the young player had just flown from Nigeria to a country he only knew from the movies in hopes of building a career in a sport he was still learning. At home, that pair of shoes would have cost his parents a month’s salary, but here his teammate wore them a few times, didn’t like the fit, and tossed them in the trash.
George reached into the can and pulled out the shoes by the strings.
“Can I have this?” he asked.
In the weeks that followed, George went from locker to locker, making his space for spare shoes. He explained that the shoes he wore as a child were often torn, with holes in the soles, and he was one of the lucky ones. In Nigeria, the lack of adequate footwear is one of the leading causes of illness. Bacteria spread through open wounds on the feet. It wasn’t long before George had a stash ready to send home in the hopes that he could start someone else’s journey the way he had started it: with a free pair of sneakers.
The blue Nikes that first lured George onto the basketball court are long gone and forgotten on the sizzling concrete courts of Minna, Nigeria, but they have taken George far – more than 7,000 miles across an ocean, first to New Mexico Junior College and then to BYU, where he is now a beloved teammate with raw but fascinating skills. He has made it his business to give others the same opportunity.
“I’m grateful,” said George, “and I wanted to be able to touch the lives of people like me in Africa.”
GEORGE IS THAT Middle of five siblings. His father is a retired police officer. His mother works as a seamstress and makes uniforms for local school children. The family lives in a one bedroom apartment with outdoor bathrooms. In summer the room is so hot that the family often sleeps outside. Still, said George, it was a typical bourgeois existence in Minna.
“It was fun,” said George. “Nobody has ever complained. Quite the contrary, really. We appreciated what we had and we were really grateful.”
It was George’s older brother Samson, who is now a 22-year-old senior striker in Central Arkansas after being transferred from Pitt the basketball player. One afternoon when Gideon was 14, his mother sent him to get his brother out of the gym, and Samson’s trainer asked the younger boy to try basketball too.
George was tall and lanky – he would eventually grow to 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds – with long arms and broad shoulders, but he didn’t know first about the sport. He was interested in soccer and wasn’t particularly interested in learning basketball.
“I didn’t know what to do with the ball,” said Gideon George.
He showed up to a few more exercises but soon gave up. Then came the shoes.
They had traveled from the US through a charity called Timeout 4 Africa, a non-profit that supplies school supplies and sports equipment, and then found their way to a local trainer called Harry Ayere, who offered them to George for free. There was only one catch: he wanted George to play basketball.
In return for the shoes, Ayere had George written a letter promising to take up the sport, show up for training every morning before school, and stick to it through the early fights. After a few months in the gym, George began to see where basketball could take him.
George’s brother moved to the United States full-time in July 2014 to graduate from high school. It was a smooth process, said Samson George, as he had already been to the US a year earlier with a travel visa for a basketball tournament. Gideon’s trial was much more difficult.
On his first attempt in 2015, George took a 13 hour bus ride to Lagos, the country’s largest city. More than 200 people stood in the US embassy, hoping for a visa. Applicants pass paperwork over a bulletproof glass barrier and then answer a few brief questions. The officer will return either a white or a pink copy of the application. The white sheet represents a ticket to a new life. Pink means a long bus ride home.
George got the pink sheet.
There was no explanation for the rejection, said George. Some applicants pay a fee to intermediaries who promise easy approvals, but George had already raised money from nonprofit groups like Timeout 4 Africa to afford the application. So he left the embassy without a visa and found a nearby gym where he was participating in a pickup basketball game. He knew some of the players from camps he had attended, and one invited him to spend the night at his house before George got on another bus for the 13-hour trip back to Minna.
George returned to the embassy four more times over the next three years. Some nights he slept outside the gates to make sure his name was on the list of applicants at dawn. Each trip ended with another sheet of pink paper and no explanation for the decision.
IN MAY 2018, A message rang on Brandon Goble’s phone two days before he was due to leave for Africa. Samson George had seen an ad for one of Goble’s camps on Twitter and then found Goble’s number from a friend.
“My brother can play,” he wrote. “If you see him, you will like him.”
Goble is the director of JuCo Advocate, an organization that connects international basketball prospects with schools in the US, and he agreed to give Gideon George a look. Samson wrote his brother a message asking him to buy a bus ticket.
The journey from Minna to Owerri, where the camp would take place, is not easy. George said there were conditions to be concerned about, from dirt or shabby roads to armed bandits and kidnappers sometimes targeting buses. The 400-mile bus ride took over 16 hours.
“But he knew what he wanted,” said Samson George.
About 30 players showed up for the camp. The courts were mostly made of cracked concrete painted pink and blue and back panels that had to be readjusted with a pole every time a player touched the edge. However, it was clear from the start that Gideon George was the best player there.
He played with wild physicality and was extraordinary on the edge. He had an innate ability to play calmly in traffic and dictate the action without the ball in his hands. What impressed Goble the most was George’s shooting ability. Most children in Nigeria receive little technical training, Goble said, learning through videos of NBA players on their phones, but George seemed to have a naturally gentle touch.
“We could tell immediately that there was something else in him,” said Goble.
On the second day of the camp, George’s performance fell, as did that of other players. He was lazy. Many of the other players also sagged through training. Goble suspected it was the heat – temperatures climbed well over 100 degrees – but learned a day later that local sponsors had taken the money the players had brought for food and accommodation. The players had not eaten and slept against the concrete walls surrounding the courts at night and had been repeatedly chased away by local police.
Goble didn’t find out about the scam until an assistant coach discovered a flyer asking players to bring money that the camp didn’t need. The players never said a word.
However, Goble saw a promise. He sent a few videos of George playing at camp to a friend, Luke Adams, who was starting his first season as a coach at New Mexico Junior College. Adams told Goble that if George could get a visa he would have a place on the team.
George took a six-hour bus ride to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, for his sixth visa attempt. He’d now spent nearly $ 500 on travel and applications, money his parents had raised by selling the small piece of land they owned.
“Where are you going?” asked the man behind the bulletproof glass.
George only knew the name of his destination: Hobbs, New Mexico.
“What do you want?” asked the man.
“To get a good education,” answered George. “And to play basketball.”
The man looked at George. He stamped the paperwork, then tore off a sheet of paper and passed it over the divider.
It was white.
“My mother shed tears that day. My father was delighted,” said Gideon George. “You were so proud.”
TO REACH Adams, knowing his new recruit, would take George for long drives around the NMJC campus, asking him questions about his life in Nigeria. After a while, George would calm down and Adams would nudge him.
“What do you think of all of this?” he would ask.
George’s answer was always the same.
“Coach,” he would say, “that’s heaven.”
On the pitch, George’s perimeter play wasn’t performing as Adams had hoped, and his skills were raw, but he worked hard and learned quickly. Adams let four players miss a game against South Plains during George’s first season, forcing a late fixture update. George’s role changed the most, and the two stayed in Adams’ office well after midnight, watching movies and talking about technology. Before George left for the night, he turned to his trainer and grinned.
“Don’t worry, Coach,” he said. “We will win.”
George played 33 minutes in the game, scored 16 points and scored 13 rebounds. When he left the field with just over a minute of play and a lead of 12 points, he walked past Adams and smiled again. “See,” he said. “I told you.”
George was named a newcomer to the All Conference Team of the Western Junior College Athletic Conference and named Newcomer of the Year. As a sophomore, he was again all-conference.
Even so, George often thought of his family and others in Minna. He skipped meals so he could send home all of his weekly work grants – about $ 100 a week – but he longed to do more.
Then he found these shoes in a trash can in the dormitory.
George started collecting sneakers from teammates first, then asked a few friends on the women’s basketball team for extra shoes. As a result, George met soccer players and cross-country skiers who were all willing to donate. Eventually, news of George’s search got back to Adams, who presented the school’s sports director with a plan to offer free tickets to fans who had donated a pair of shoes. Dozens came to the game with sneakers in hand.
“I don’t know if there is a person on earth Gideon doesn’t like,” said Adams. “You can only see his heart.”
George called Jonathan Kolo, the CEO of Timeout 4 Africa, and said he had a pair of shoes to donate. Kolo, who lives in Washington, DC, wanted George to focus on school and basketball, but the boy insisted. Kolo relented and gave his company’s FedEx account number with instructions to send any shoes George collected directly to him. Kolo figured he’d get maybe a dozen pairs.
A few months later, a FedEx truck arrived at the Timeout 4 Africa office in Kolo DC and opened the door to where the driver had stacked box after box with more than 200 pairs of sneakers and slippers, hiking boots and dress shoes, all from a small one City in New Mexico.
MARK POPE WASN’T I’m sure what to think of George when they first met. George was talented, but BYU’s head coach Pope knew the transition to big college basketball wasn’t going to be easy.
But Pope enjoyed hanging out with George, and after a few more visits, he realized that it didn’t matter if his game was ready for BYU. Pope saw the same qualities that led others to help with his shoe instinct.
“I only talk to him,” said Pope, “it comes to a point where you think, why don’t you want him in your program? Just to be around him.”
Pope offered a scholarship, and George came to BYU last summer. His first season mixed up a handful of impressive games – 13 points and 15 boards against St. John’s in December, another double-double against Portland in early February – but he’s still learning. Pope raves about George’s potential because he’s a late bloomer. The BYU coach said he had “a lot of catching up to do,” although it will be worth keeping an eye on him in March. BYU is number 7 in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology.
But as expected, Pope raves about the impact George has had on his off-field team.
George didn’t say much at first, but he laughed a lot. That was what excited Trevin Knell, who volunteered to be George’s roommate. George doesn’t laugh so much as he yells, an infectious howl that gets louder and louder. At night, George’s laughter sometimes wakes Knell up while his roommate catches up with the family at home – nightly phone calls required due to an eight hour time difference.
“No words,” said Knell, “only he laughs so loudly.”
George also knows how to be made to laugh by his teammates. The team was running through target practice one morning and Knell was freezing cold, firing one shot at a time. Suddenly, at the other end of the square, with a heavy Nigerian accent came the punch line: “Hey Trevin, are you going to take a shot today?”
“I almost fell over,” said Pope. “I hadn’t heard him say anything in days. And since then he’s been talking about rubbish all the time. But only with Trevin.”
There is one stretch the team does before training – legs spread wide, body slowly lowered to the floor – that George loves. The name makes him laugh. One day, just before the strength trainer gave the order, a voice called out, “Sumo squats!” and the whole gym burst out laughing. It’s tradition now.
“We’ve been training for a few hundred days now,” said Pope, “and not a day goes by without him chirping and putting a smile on everyone’s face.”
The moment when Pope fully understood the impact George could have on his team came last summer during a Zoom discussion on protests against social justice across the country. George hadn’t met most of his teammates and he was mostly silent about the calls, but in the midst of a particularly passionate debate between a handful of players, George suddenly spoke up.
“I just can’t believe people are allowed to protest here,” he said.
The call fell silent.
“It was just a show stop,” said Pope. “And he does that over and over again with his humility.”
Maybe George did a future in the NBA, said Pope. He’s a late bloomer, a 21-year-old junior who has only been playing high-level ball for three years, but the raw skills are there. He could certainly play overseas where he could make more money in a few seasons than his parents did in his life. George’s story invites speculation about the next step, but Goble prefers to ponder how far George has come.
There’s a video Goble got from Adams just weeks after George arrived in the US. Some NMJC players had gone to a nearby water park. The camera is attached to the spout at the end of a long yellow spiral. George bursts out and falls into a pond of clear blue water. He jumps up, wipes his face, and then cheers for one of those roaring laughs before rushing up the stairs three times for another ride.
“It’s the purest form of joy you’ve ever seen,” said Goble.
Seven years after luring Ayere George onto the basketball court with a pair of blue Nikes, Harry still hopes the sport will take his protégé far, but he’s not worried about what the future holds. He knows George will make a difference. George said once his college career is over he would like to start his own nonprofit, maybe something to help schools or hospitals in Nigeria.
“He wants to help,” said Ayere, who helped distribute the shoes. George continues to send back to Minna, about 350 in total so far. “Every time he wants to help.”
Ayere posts photos on social media after every pair of shoes finds a recipient in Minna, and George enjoys sitting at his locker at BYU, flipping through the pictures.
“I like to see the smiles on their faces,” said George. “That’s where I get my joy.”
One of two boys curiously inspects a bright orange pair of basketball sneakers.
There’s another one where a bunch of kids surrounds a dozen shoes, all of which are brightly colored and glow under the Nigerian sun like a buffet waiting to be taken apart.
Then there’s one in three boys the age George secured those blue Nikes. They all wear tank tops with “Timeout 4 Africa” on the chest. Each boy holds a new pair of sneakers.
They look at each other in amazement, and one has the same happy grin as the man who emerged from a waterslide in a place that could have been either New Mexico or heaven, to find a new life waiting for him.