1-on-1 with Michael Ojo: From humble beginning to a very bright future
Although he isn't the team's leading scorer or rebounder, Florida State center Michael Ojo has played a major role in the Seminoles' resurgence in the 2016-17 season. As a fifth-year senior, Ojo is not only a team leader but also one of the most improved players in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The 7-foot-1, 304-pounder has started 32 of 33 games this season, and he is averaging career highs in minutes (12.1), points (4.9) and rebounds (3.3). He also might be the Seminoles' most consistent free-throw shooter with an average hovering right around 80 percent.
This Thursday, Ojo and his teammates will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their careers. The Seminoles are 25-8 and the No. 3 seed in the West Regional.
With his college career coming to a close, Ojo recently sat down for a lengthy conversation with Warchant managing editor Ira Schoffel. In this interview, Ojo discusses his upbringing in Nigeria, how he was introduced to the sport of basketball, why he feels indebted to head coach Leonard Hamilton and the entire university and much more.
Here is a transcript of that conversation:
Q: We've covered you for five years now, but I'm not sure we've ever really gone into much detail about how you came to the United States from Nigeria, and how you ended up at a small prep school in Tennessee. Could you take us through that journey?
A: My journey is pretty funny. I was in Nigeria playing soccer and I met this man walking by when we were playing soccer when I was about 16 or 17 years old.
Q: How tall were you at this point?
A: I was about 6-5 maybe. Or 6-6? I was still growing at that age, so I met this man and he said, “What are you doing playing soccer? You should try to play basketball. I think you’d like it.” He said, “You don’t know what basketball can do for you and your family." So eventually, I went to the stadium and introduced myself to the coaches. And they said, "Who’s this tall kid and where’d he come from?" So, I started going to the stadium. We couldn’t play in the national stadium because that’s for the national team, but there’s this basketball court outside of the stadium with a messed-up rim and backboard. You weren’t allowed to dunk at all -- you had to just go up and lay it in because if you touch it, it’s gonna come down. And if it comes down, you had to fix it; we didn’t have the money to fix anything. So, I started going there, but I couldn’t do anything. I was basically just running up and down the court. They would say go here or go there, and I remember every shot that would go up, I would spike it away. And they would say, “Goaltending!" I was like, what am I supposed to do? I didn't understand. Then when they’d get me the ball, I would travel or throw it away.
Q: But did you like the sport right away?
A: No, not at all. I never liked it. I was very frustrated. I’d get angry, get mad. I was always on the losing side because I was a liability to my team because I was still learning. But those guys kept encouraging me. And there was a coach who kept encouraging me. He said, “Hey, it doesn’t happen in one day. It takes a process. You have to start somewhere, and this is the beginning.” He said, “These guys are laughing at you today, but they will be the same ones who will come back and laugh with you someday when you become somebody.” So, he kept encouraging me and taught me how to shoot free throws, the two steps for a layup, the basic things that you learn from the beginning.
But after about two weeks, I left. I was tired. I said this is a waste of time. So, the coach came to my house and said, “Hey, I haven’t seen you. What’s going on?” I told him I didn't like it. And he said, “I know you don’t like it. Just come back and hang out with me. You don’t have to play basketball. Just hang out with us.” So, I would go there, and there might be nine people there and now I’d have to play because they were short a man. He just did everything he could to encourage me. As much as I hated basketball, he kept encouraging me to keep playing. He said, “One day this could be a big thing for you." And then I just kept growing, you know. I was so blessed.
Q: So, once you decided to stick with it, how did you get noticed to come to America?
A: In 2010, there was a basketball camp in Lagos, a big-man camp. So, I went to that camp. And then they had that camp again in 2011, and I went again, and that’s when I met all these different coaches -- from South Africa, from America, from England. They came from all over looking for potential big men at the camp. The camp was owned by Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors. After that camp, I got an opportunity to go to Belgium with a team for a week. So I went there to get some exposure. That’s how I met (a high school coach from Tennessee Temple Academy), and he offered me a scholarship to play in America. Then I had to tell my mom that I got a scholarship to play in America.
Q: Was she excited?
A: No (laughing). She said, "You’re not going anywhere. You don’t know anybody there. That's a long way to go." I said, "Look mom, I’m young. This is a good opportunity for me." I don’t know about other places, but in Africa, every kid’s dream is to someday go to the U.S.A., because of the things we see on TV. You don’t see Tallahassee. You don’t see Frenchtown on TV. You see New York City, you see Chicago, you see L.A. That’s what you see -- that life. That’s what they show on TV. So you think all of the U.S. is like this. You don’t know that there’s a place called Mobile, Ala., or Okeechobee (Fla.). You think the U.S. is all New York. So I said, "Mom, this is a good opportunity for me."
Q: Were you already thinking about playing college basketball and pro basketball at this point?
A: I had no clue. I didn’t even know the difference between a community college and a four-year college. I didn’t know the difference between the Ivy league and the ACC. I just knew I was going to America to play basketball. For who? I don’t know. When he said I could come to America to play basketball, I was out.
Q: So how did you convince your mom?
A: She didn’t want me to go because she didn’t want me to get distracted from school. She said, "I want you to finish your school." She thought I was going to play for a club team: "Once he starts making money, he’s not going to go to school anymore." So, I had to call some of my friends and ask them to help me convince my mom. I had to assure her that I would go to school and finish school. So that was how I was able to get my paperwork done and get my visa and come to America in January of 2012.
Q: So how much of a culture shock was it when you got here?
A: Oh, gosh. The average temperature in Nigeria is like 80 degrees all around the year. So coming to America, I was wearing this T-shirt. But in America, it was winter, Jan. 18th. We landed in Atlanta at the airport. I came out of the plane and it was freezing. I said, "What?!" It was freezing out there. I wanted to get back on the plane and land somewhere else. Where I come from, it never gets that cold. Thankfully, we were able to go into the airport where it was a little warmer. My prep school coach came to the airport to welcome us. From there, we would take a bus to Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was maybe a two-hour drive from the airport. That’s how I got to prep school.
I was over there at the prep school for about five or six months, and they told me if I wanted to go to college that year, I’d have to finish a full year of schoolwork in six months. They said if I could do that, I could go to college right away. If not, I would have to spend another year at prep school because I came in January. So I had to take some online classes with the regular classes. I had to stay up all night sometimes, trying to do my homework online, trying to finish within those sixth months so I could go to college. And it wasn’t like FSU, where we have everything for us. At prep school, we might have dinner there at 5:30, and by 7:30 I’m already hungry and I have no money. So what am I going to do? Those are the things that told me, "I have to get out of here. I have to finish in six months and graduate, so I can go."
Q: That must have been a huge challenge, settling into a new country, not knowing anyone and having so much work to do. Were the people there supportive?
A: Oh yes, definitely. That was the good thing about the prep school. I went to a Christian prep school (Tennessee Temple), so they welcomed everybody. There were people from all over the world. On my team, there was a guy from Lithuania, there was a guy from Poland, I was from Africa, there was a guy from Canada, there was a guy from France, and there were a few guys from America. I still talk to some of those guys. So it was a mix of guys from all over the world. They welcomed me very well. They did everything they could to help with the language barrier.
Q: So, when you got there, were you already the size you are now?
A: I was about 6-9 or 6-10 when I first came.
Q: Were big colleges already talking to you?
A: No, nobody knew who I was (laughing).
Q: I remember when you signed with FSU and we first heard your name. We tried to look you up, and there wasn’t much about you on the Internet.
A: No, there was nothing. Google, Wikipedia, nothing (laughing). You know those rankings they do for college basketball players? There was nothing about me. In Tennessee where I was, I was close to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the next school might be some junior colleges or small schools. But there was nothing about me online. Nobody knew who I was. Once we started playing some competitions, you started seeing some small schools coming in to watch us. And those coaches told their friends, "Hey, there’s this big African kid in Tennessee. You need to come check him out." Then there was this NACA (National Association of Christian Athletes) competition in Dayton, Tenn. That’s where some other coaches saw me, and that’s when FSU saw me too. That’s how the recruitment process started.
Q: That was only five years ago. Now, you've played at Duke and North Carolina and against all of these big programs on national television. Do you ever think back about how much you didn’t know back then?
A: I didn’t know anything. If you told me you were with FAMU or FSU, I wouldn’t have known the difference. It’s all the same. I didn’t know the difference between the two.
Q: So, did you come visit Florida State when they started recruiting you?
A: Yeah, I came on an official visit.
Q: What were your impressions? Was it impressive to you?
A: Yeah, it was. My school had about 450 or 500 students. It was in a small town in Chattanooga. I came to FSU, and there’s about 40,000 people walking around on campus. I was like, "What? Are you serious?" Then I saw all the tall buildings. Then I saw the gym. My gym in Tennessee was just two baskets and maybe four or five feet around it. The gym here was huge. So I was like, "Wow! Really?" It also was a little warmer in Tallahassee than when I was in Tennessee.
These were some of the little things that made me want to finish at prep school. First was to get out of that cold. Second was the food. I wanted to go somewhere where I could eat and have leftovers, because in two hours’ time, I’m going to be hungry again. The other thing was my accent was really thick because it was my first year in America. And I also wasn’t used to people talking so fast.
Q: But you did speak English back home.
A: Yes, we did. English is our official language back home, and we also have our dialect.
Q: So the school work wasn’t too much different than what you were doing back in Nigeria?
A: No, it wasn’t that different, I just had to do a lot in a very short period of time. And even though I understand English, the spellings and the pronunciations were different. We speak British English, because we were colonized by the British. Some of the spellings are different. And that’s the good thing about FSU -- when I got here in July of 2012, my professors did a very good job of helping me and understanding that I had to get used to writing my papers in American English. Eventually, I got used to it, but it took me a little while. One thing I had trouble with was understanding them when they talked so fast. But whenever I asked, they would take their time and go over it with me.
Q: Obviously you are a very bright guy. What would you have done in school if it wasn’t for basketball?
A: Back home, if basketball never happened, I wanted to go to school to be a computer scientist and do something like information technology or something with computers, because I find them so fascinating. So I wanted to work in computers -- not necessarily computer engineering, but something like information systems or GIS (geographic information systems), the people that follow the maps and stuff like that. But when I got to FSU, I realized, "Hey, buddy. Basketball is paying for your school, and basketball is going to require a lot of your time. And those computer classes are going to require most of your time if you really want to do well." So, I had to let go of computer science and move on to something else. So that’s why I ended up doing international affairs. Don’t get me wrong! International affairs is not easy. Not even close (laughing). I might as well be in computer science. International affairs is a very complicated major. You have to write a lot of papers. It deals with politics, history, the history of politics, and international relations.
Q: I could see you doing well in that field, because you seem very good with people and you understand different cultures. Did you always have those people skills? Or did you have to learn them in school?
A: A little bit of both. Naturally, I always try to be good with people because you don’t know whose path you're going to come across in the future. And I try so hard not to be mean to people. So part of it is, I am good with people. But part of it is what I’ve learned in college and in international affairs. I’ve taken sociology, I’ve taken public relations ... classes like that have helped me out with things like, how do you interact with the media? How do you interact with alumni and coaches? Stuff like that. Just becoming a better person in society. I’m getting my master's in international affairs, too.
Q: So given your studies, are you fascinated by world affairs and what’s going on right now? Or do you not have time to worry about that because you’re so busy with school and basketball?
A: I pay attention because I have classes, and I pay attention because I am a human being. And I pay attention because of some of the experiences I happened to have had in Africa. I don’t pay that much attention to the policies, but I pay attention to what's happening out there because when I grew up in Nigeria, it was a very, very, very rough situation. There is the Boko Haram, the terrorist group, and they were killing people and all of those things. You’d see it on the news every day. Nothing ever happened to my family directly, but I put myself in those shoes, those innocent families. They’re defenseless, helpless, getting shot. There were bombs going off all over the place. And as a human being, I think the governments are not doing enough to help these people.
In my classes, my professors want to know what we think about these policies, so I have to read the news for my research papers. This semester, I have to do a big research paper on why the governments let these things happen. And I care because you shouldn’t be superior to anybody else. Why should I save one of these two people? Why can’t I save both of them? Why should I choose who is more important than the other? Why does the world or the United Nations save Jordan or Israel but leave Aleppo to die or perish? And I’m not talking about politics. I hate politics. I mean, just as a human being. I’m talking about innocent people. I understand if you’re fighting these people or they're killing others. But I'm talking about innocent people. I just try to put myself in their shoes. I can’t imagine if terrorist groups were to do something to my family -- kick them out of their house or bomb their house or something like that.
Q: I know you're busy with graduate school and basketball, and there's also a pretty big time difference. Are you able to talk with your family often?
A: Gosh, all the time. Every day or every two days, I have to call my mom and my sister. One, because I miss them. And two, because my mom would freak out: “Is he OK?!” I just turned 24, but our mom still thinks I’m 17 or 18. If I don’t call for two or three days, she’ll call my sister 10 or 15 times asking, "Did he message you on Facebook?! Did he call you?!" And my sister will get mad because our mom is bothering her, so she’ll be mad at me too. I'm always the bad guy (laughing). So I stay in touch with them because it’s just us. It’s been us since day one. My dad passed when I was really young, so it’s just been us and my mom ... and family friends trying to help us out.
Q: What does your mom do for a living?
A: She was a high school teacher, and then she became a counselor. She’s retired now. But it has been just us since day one. My two sisters, my mom and myself.
Q: So she was a single mother. Do teachers get paid enough to get by in Nigeria?
A: I don’t know if they do in America, but teachers don’t get paid very well back home. And I’ve always had this crazy idea that teachers should be paid more than any other profession -- other than maybe doctors, because they help save lives. But without these teachers, there won’t be any doctors or lawyers. The teachers pass the knowledge down to the future doctors, the future lawyers, the future presidents. So from my own point of view, I don’t think teachers get paid enough. But my mom tried as hard as she could. She got everything together so we could be successful -- my sisters and myself.
Q: Going back to basketball, what were the first practices like when you got to FSU? That was your first time going up against ACC-caliber players? Did you question whether you belonged here?
A: Initially, I had to go through physicals. I had to go through tests to make sure I’m fit to play basketball.
Q: Have you not always been in this type of shape?
A: No. I was strong, but I wasn’t in this kind of condition. The stamina wasn’t there. My cardio was awful because I never had to do that much. Previously, when I got to prep school, I was bigger than everybody. So I was able to bully guys. I didn’t have to move that much. So after going through the physicals, I was cleared to play. But the first practice … it was tough. Most of the drills I was doing, I never had to do those before. Yeah, I knew the basic ones -- do layups, the [George] Mikan Drill. Shoot free throws. I did those before. But power dribble, face the basket, jab step … I never had to do those things. In prep school, I was able to take one step or one dribble and go to the rim. So I was tired. I was winded. It was rough. But as time went on, you kind of get used to it.
Q: What were your first college games like as a freshman?
A: First game, bright lights, people everywhere. In my prep school, there were about 500 people. You play a basketball game, and some students might have class or people in the office might be busy doing their job. You’d barely see people at your games. But my first game at FSU, I remember we played South Alabama my freshman year, and they put me in. I was nervous. "You want to play in college? OK, you’re in college now." I was so nervous. I never had to play in front of a crowd. It was a little rough. It took me a little while to get used to playing at this level. Then you get to the ACC games, and that’s a whole different level from the non-conference games. So those are the learning experiences that you have to go through. And I would say this is the best year I’ve ever been in as a player. I’ve been here five years now. There’s still room for improvement, but just getting things down better than I was.
Q: Talking with the coaches, they say you have come so far, especially on defense. They say you know exactly where to be in every situation. How different is it now compared to back then?
A: Back then, I was just lost. Sometimes, I would just look at the ball wherever it was on the court and say, "OK, I have to stop that!" Sometimes I would lose my man, and by the time I’d turn around, he’s making a wide-open layup. And I would get so mad at myself.
Q: That’s where you were probably at a big disadvantage because other guys were learning some of those things when they were 12 or 13 ...
A: And I didn’t get a chance to do that. But at some point, I tried to stop using that as an excuse. "OK, if I need to be good at this, maybe I need to put in extra time working out, running, maybe watching more film." Which I did all that last season with my (knee) injury. Being out, I became a better student of the game. I learned more about the game. I was able to work a more on my conditioning, being able to go a little longer than I was before. And I’ve been in the system for five years, so I have a pretty good idea of where you need to be on offense, on defense. I still make mistakes. I’m not perfect. But I know -- even when I make that mistake, I know how to correct myself immediately.
Q: Was it maybe a blessing that you got hurt last year? You have been a very important piece of this team's success. If you hadn't gotten hurt, you would have graduated a year ago.
A: That’s what I always said. Last year, unfortunately the fortunate thing happened ... if you understand what I mean by that. Unfortunately, I had an injury. But for me, that injury actually helped me out. I was able to stay another year. One, I was able to work on my master’s. I’ll actually have my master’s degree because I was able to finish my bacherlor’s early. And two, coming back with this team, I thought we’d be able to put things together as a team with the new guys we have and the few veterans that we have. And I’m proud of our guys for what we’ve accomplished this season. But like I say to them: "It’s not over yet. Let’s see how far we can go with this thing."
Q: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was a comment you made when we were talking early this season. You made a point to say how grateful you are to Coach Hamilton and FSU for the opportunities you’ve had here. Do you and he ever talk about that?
A: Yes, we do. I always tell him from the bottom of my heart, “Thank you for this." Just the privilege to be on this team. Even when I wasn’t good enough to do anything -- when I was missing all my layups and stuff -- just believing that this kid might just become something in life. Become a good citizen. A good friend. Good husband. Good father. That’s one thing about Coach Hamilton. He’s looking down the road after basketball. Yeah, he wants to win now. But he’s more concerned more about your life as an individual after basketball. Fifteen, 20 years down the road.
He always says his greatest joy is seeing his players being successful 15 or 20 years down the road. Either you’re playing basketball or you have your own business or you have a job. You're a good husband and a good father. He said that’s what makes him happiest. That’s the joy of being a coach to him. I’m sure someday in the future I’ll be able to come back and thank him and thank FSU for the opportunity. I can’t be more thankful.