Sooner or later in life, we all encounter junctures marked by loss, disappointment or mistakes. How we react to these events shapes the tenor of our days and who we ultimately become as people. It’s a lesson from which no one is excused, including dazzlingly gifted young athletes.
For leading Longwood basketball recruits Shaquille Johnson and Kanayo Obi-Rapu, much about their lives has been charmed. As teenagers they grew tall and took places of honor in their respective schools and communities by virtue of exceptional athletic ability. They’ve been courted by top universities and had opportunity laid at their feet. Yet neither has been immune to difficult experiences.
Like many young people entering Longwood this fall, Johnson and Obi-Rapu are seeking community and opportunity. Unlike most students, these two high-profile ball players will feel the spotlight. As Lancers they’ll be celebrated for their remarkable skills on the court, but at Longwood they’ll also be appreciated as individuals and provided with a nurturing environment where they can move forward on their journeys.
Both Obi-Rapu’s and Johnson’s stories involve loss: one the loss of a friend, the other the near loss of a dream.
Making a Friend’s Life Count
During Kayano Obi-Rapu’s junior year at New Garden Friends School in Greensboro, N.C., his best friend and teammate Josh Level collapsed on the court during a game. He died later that night. According to a medical examiner, the cause of death was myocarditis, a viral infection similar to the common cold that attacks the heart. Later, when an understandably concerned Obi-Rapu went to have his own heart checked, the doctor told him that if there had been an AED (automated external defibrillator) on site, Josh’s life might have been saved.
“He’d just shot three 3-pointers,” said Obi-Rapu, remembering the sad February day of 2013. “But something wasn’t right. Josh had been out for a few games with an injury and was tired. As he was leaving the game, he fell to the floor.”
To commemorate his best friend, who made him laugh and inspired him to play hard, Obi-Rapu organized the first annual Josh Level Classic, a game featuring some of North Carolina’s best basketball players. “It turned out really well,” said Obi-Rapu. “I’m still not sure how I did it.” Proceeds from the heavily attended event held in early May 2014 went to the Josh Level Foundation, whose mission includes raising awareness
Joseph Level, Josh’s father, remains impressed. “Though I never doubted that Kanayo would get it done, I really don’t know how he did it. It was a tremendous undertaking, and he got it done in just a couple of weeks. It involved raising money and organizing with North Carolina’s best players. He planned activities around the game with players visiting a local hospital. He made it a real event much like when players go to bowl games. It was incredible. My family and I were very touched.”
Video clips from local TV news spots leading up to the memorial event present Obi-Rapu as a poised but impassive student athlete. This persona belies a more emotionally available young man.
“When a friend dies unexpectedly, it’s really hard,” said Obi-Rapu. “It’s different from when someone is sick or very old. In those cases you know it’s coming, and you can hug them goodbye. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Josh. Since he died, I make sure to let those around me know how much I love them. People call me mushy, but I’m OK with that. I live for today because tomorrow isn’t promised. Josh used to say that.”
Obi-Rapu was born in Nigeria. His family moved to the U.S. when he was a year old. He’s lived in the Greensboro, N.C., area most of his life. “My mother stressed academics,” said the 6-foot 3-inch power guard who plans to major either in exercise science or business. “Basketball was something that could be taken away if my grades weren’t good. I loved basketball so much that encouraged me to work hard in class.”
A Dream Deferred
Coming out of Milton High School in Alpharetta, Ga., Shaquille Johnson was considered one of the nation’s top 25 players. He received a scholarship to Auburn University and already harbored professional ball ambitions, maybe playing for his favorite team, the Atlanta Hawks. But during the summer following his freshman year, Johnson’s dream hit a bump. He was dismissed from Auburn after charges were issued in
Alabama stemming from possession of marijuana.
Johnson responded with admirable survivor instincts. Within two weeks, he was enrolled at Northwest Florida State, a junior college, where he could regroup and stay in the game. It wasn’t a Division I school, but it kept Johnson’s trajectory alive.
Looking back at his brush with the law, Johnson said “that person wasn’t me. It was a mistake, and I’ve learned from it.” Many recruiters agreed. During his year at Northwest, Johnson received numerous offers to return to Division I, but this time Johnson used a different yardstick in making his decision.
He was eager to be part of a supportive community and to play for a coach he could trust. He found both at Longwood.
“When Coach Gee came and talked to me, even though I’d never envisioned myself at a small school, I felt that Longwood was a university where I could move forward, do big things and really trust the coach to support me,” Johnson said of his meeting with men’s basketball Head Coach Jayson Gee.
“We all makes mistakes,” said Gee, “and I learned that, despite difficult circumstances, Shaquille had never been in trouble before. In fact, he was considered a leader in high school and never had any problems. On the other hand, we couldn’t downplay the gravity of what had happened, so I consulted with people here on campus, who agreed that Shaquille was ready to move on. He wanted to play basketball and get an education.”
This isn’t the first time Johnson has enjoyed a nurturing relationship with a coach. In a college paper Johnson wrote about management style, he describes how a former coach and his wife had become extended family—like surrogate grandparents. It’s a relationship that continues today. Johnson said he’s hoping to further develop his already close relationship with Coach Gee at Longwood.
The youngest of three children, Johnson grew up in Eastside, Ga. He was raised by a single mother and things were sometimes tough. Vesta Johnson worked two jobs to make sure her children had extras like sports.
“Shaquille was a happy kid,” said his mother. “He’s always had a big heart. I’d sometimes wonder where food had gone, and then I’d realize that he’d shared snacks with neighbors or friends.” A former high-school player and a big fan,
Johnson knows her son’s stats and makes it to most of his games. “I’m good for a seven-hour drive,” she said. When she named her son after Shaquille O’Neil, Johnson had no idea he might one day follow in the NBA legend’s size 22 footsteps. In fact, she didn’t know for some time.
Her son’s first sport was football; then he played in Little League. It wasn’t until the eighth grade that he first played organized basketball.
In the ninth grade, he surprised himself by teaching himself to dunk. “I was like whoa, what was that? Suddenly I was dunking.” In high school he emerged as a high-flying, physical guard who went to two Georgia state championships, winning in his senior year.
The Coaches’ Perspective
While Obi-Rapu and Johnson are talented in different ways, Gee insists that what’s unique about them is the same.
“Never in my 25 years as a basketball coach have I known a player to refuse an offer from a BCS-level school. Both of these guys did that, and it speaks tremendously of their character.”
“After verbally committing to Longwood, both players continued to receive offers from big schools like Tennessee, Cincinnati and Rutgers. They weren’t contractually committed but still stuck with us. To put it in perspective, it’s like willingly passing on a job at the New York Times to work at the Farmville Herald.”
Gee believes the recruits based their decisions on different factors. Obi-Rapu was attracted to Longwood’s landscaping, classic architecture and people while Johnson was primarily sold on the people. He’s right.
Obi-Rapu said, “It reminds me of a boarding school I attended for a year in Virginia. I like the small scale and the community feel. I’m a little bit nervous about leaving home again and the whole college basketball thing, but the coaches are making it better. I feel their love, and I trust them to guide me through this experience.”
And again Johnson is seeking a tight-knit community and a coach he can trust.
Longwood’s Assistant Coach Jake Luhn, who counts recruiting among his core responsibilities, said, “At the end of the day, we’re not just looking to sign players. We’re implementing a philosophy: Longwood offers an opportunity for a young man to be mentored and developed in all areas, not just basketball. It’s not for everyone. If they’re looking for a family community, we’re a home run for them. If they’re looking for the best ever facilities and glamour, we may not be the No. 1 choice.”
The Lancers’ goal is to win the Big South Conference, but whatever happens, said Luhn, Johnson and Obi-Rapu will impact the program on the court and in the Longwood community at large. “Shaq will bring excitement to the Midnight Madness Dunk Contest and energize our Lancer Lunatics. Kanayo has the potential to be a special leader on and off the court. Both guys have their unique strengths and talents.
We’re lucky to have them.”
It’s often said that, at Longwood, it’s hard for students to fall through the cracks. It’s the expectation of that promise in the person of Coach Gee and the entire Longwood community that has brought Johnson and Obi-Rapu to Farmville.
We welcome them.