Commentary

Akunne: 'Her spirit is still with me'

Michigan basketball walk-on carries on after mom dies of cancer at age 48

Updated: May 12, 2012, 2:51 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Eso Akunne drove across Ann Arbor weeks after his sophomore season had ended, he thought of the possibilities. He had received a text message from his father, Hyacinth, while he was in a study hall.

"Come home. We need to talk about mom."

So he left. The drive wasn't long, but it gave him time to contemplate what his dad wanted to discuss.

Eso Akunne, Josephine Akunne
Courtesy of Akunne FamilyJosephine Akunne wasn't thrilled about her son Eso's athletic endeavors, but she told him if he was going to play, play with 'a will of fire.'
Maybe, he figured, his mother, Josephine, extended her stay in Nigeria. Or they were going to try another treatment in her native country. Mother and son hadn't spoken for about three weeks, but considering she was traveling on the other side of the world, this wasn't abnormal.

Eso arrived home. Hyacinth sat him down and told Eso the news he had never wanted to deliver, had never expected to share on March 30, 2011, or any day thereafter.

Hyacinth still doesn't know what he said, how he sat each of his sons down and explained to them what had happened. He had found out hours earlier himself, and after he tried to process it, he couldn't hold it in anymore. He couldn't hide it.

"It is news you never really ... you don't know how to approach it," Hyacinth said. "It was very, very, extremely difficult.

"But I had to do it."

The ovarian cancer Josephine had been fighting for the last year with the same passion and force with which she had built her business was too strong. Josephine had died in Nigeria. She was 48.

"It's like I didn't believe it," Eso said. "I hadn't seen her in a while, so my mind, it was like she still wasn't actually gone. When we got to the funeral, that's when it all really just sunk in that she is."

That moment would take almost two months. The response Eso saw shocked him and taught him things about his mother he never knew.


Eso's parents both left Nigeria early in life and lived in the United States for decades, both receiving doctoral degrees. Hyacinth became the first person to receive a Ph.D. from Florida A&M University, and Josephine had a doctorate in pharmacy.

After living the Washington, D.C., area when Hyacinth was working for the National Institute of Health and Josephine was the director of pharmacy at Prince George's Hospital in Maryland when Eso was born, they moved to Ann Arbor. Once there, Josephine started her business, Joak American Homes, working with the elderly and adults who need care to provide them with nurses and, at times, assisted living.

When Eso was growing up in Ann Arbor, Josephine forbade him from playing football. She didn't like contact sports. The Akunnes were a soccer family anyway, as Eso's grandfather, Andrew, played the sport professionally in Nigeria and Hyacinth was brought up on the game.

Eso, though, fell for another sport just as much, one Josephine eventually steered him toward because she felt there was less contact than soccer: basketball.

He switched sports, but the contact never stopped.

"Much to her dismay," Hyacinth said. "Because she saw the boy come home with bloody noses almost every other day."

Josephine traveled on road trips, but rarely watched her son play, either at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor or later at Michigan, where he accepted a preferred walk-on spot before the 2009-10 season.

Going to Michigan instead of other schools offering scholarships was partially due to family. If he stayed close, he could see his parents more often and a family that stressed academics above all else saw the education at Michigan.

He was staying home.

Eso estimated his mother saw him play in a college game once, against Utah his sophomore year. Usually, she received reports from her husband or her younger son, Chukwuka, after every game.

But the message she gave him on how to play -- how to live -- stuck.

"She said I want you to play with a will of fire," Eso said. "To have that fire inside of you."

It is how she lived.


The strongest woman Eso had ever known found out after his freshman season at Michigan something was wrong.

Cancer. And it was aggressive.

Despite the illness, she continued to work at Joak American Homes. Meanwhile, she and her husband started traveling around the United States and Europe to both ease her pain and search for other treatments.

Being home was difficult. Friends and family kept coming by, and while Josephine appreciated the support, the constant flow of well-wishers and visitors left her tired. Hyacinth would occasionally put her in a local hotel so she could rest.

Eventually, Josephine made a decision. She needed to return to Nigeria.

In January, 2011, as Eso was in the middle of his sophomore season at Michigan, a little over a month after she saw him play against Utah, she went to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, boarded a plane and left. She hoped to be able to rest.

"We just stood there, me and my dad, Eso, my uncles and cousins, we just stood there and said, 'Bye, love you,' " Chukwuka said. "Some of us were crying, but I thought maybe they could do something.

"But ..."

They didn't know it would be the last time they would see her.


The mother Eso and his brothers knew frequently spoke her mind.

They knew her friends called her "Hollywood" because of her fashion sense and ability to capture the presence of a room by merely walking in -- but to them, Josephine was their straight-talking, no-nonsense, loving mother.

Odinaka John Akunne, Eso Akunne, Josephine Akunne
Courtesy of Akunne FamilyJosephine Akunne's friends in Ann Arbor called her 'Hollywood' for her attention-grabbing fashion.
She was the one who if Chukwuka left a dish on the table after dinner made him clean it. As he was cleaning, she instructed him how to wash the dish to her satisfaction and then stood over him as he did it.

She was the one who once told Eso after a bad game, "If you weren't moping all the time you'd just play better."

Her children always knew where they stood, a trait her sons carried with them, and they loved her for it.

"She was always in control of any situation she was in," Chukwuka said. "She taught us to never be afraid of what other people might say and just to live our life with no regrets, you know.

"You can't be down on yourself on any particular thing, grades, your social life, anything like that."

It wasn't until after Josephine's death the sons learned even more about their mom.

Josephine and Hyacinth kept family and professional lives apart to an extent. She wanted her children to focus on their studies, their sports and their lives. They knew what she did for a living, but the true scope of her presence was not often discussed.

At her United States funeral at St. Francis Assisi in Ann Arbor, Eso and Chukwuka looked around. There were almost 500 people in the church to say goodbye to their mother -- many whom they'd never met.

The shock continued at a reception in Dearborn, Mich., and then in Nimo, Nigeria, when Eso and Hyacinth said television stations and newspapers showed up to cover Josephine's funeral on June 3, 2011.

Messages of her death traveled across message boards for those with Nigerian lineage nationwide in the United States.

In her native country, Hyacinth said she started to formulate plans to build an orphanage in Lagos and worked to help with other social programs. Much like she had done in the United States, she worked to help those less fortunate.

She was a role model not only to her sons but to people the family had never met.

"I started to realize how important she was," Eso said. "Sadly, I wish I understood while she was alive.

"But I understand now."

To the world, Josephine was a helper. To Eso and his family, she was mom.


Before every practice, home game or shooting session last season, Eso looked in his locker.

There, in front of him, was a picture of mom.

Not a day passes where he doesn't think of her. He'll see a mother talking to her child, and the thought of Josephine randomly pops into his head. He closes his eyes and sees her big, bright smile, hears her laugh or her straight-forward manner in which she dealt with everything in her life.

Basketball has helped heal and brought the rest of the family together. Hyacinth doesn't miss a game, and until Eso was injured midway through last season, he traveled to every game.

"It gives me a sense of gratitude, really, to see him there on the court when he can be," Hyacinth said. "It's a welcome relief, really, that he's moving on, doing what he enjoys doing and more importantly, doing his academics.

"When I see him on the court, it makes me very happy seeing him doing this with the team and the boys."

Eso now checks in on his dad daily, either to have random conversations or to talk about life. About what has changed and what hasn't.

He'll go home more often, too, because even though Josephine might be gone physically, she remains with her husband and her sons every day.

"This was as big of a test you could ever have, and he's extremely strong," Eso said. "I look up to him in a way he would never know how much I look up to him, how strong he is for our family.

"The way he acted for us all and watched over us all and stayed strong for us is something few people could do. Very few."

Hyacinth has worked on focusing on what Josephine brought to the world instead of her untimely passing. In that, her lessons and influence remains.

In Nigeria, Hyacinth and others said they have started the Dr. Josephine Akunne Widow's Foundation, to help husbands and wives who have lost their significant others around the holidays because it was a group of people she was starting to work with at the time of her death.

In the United States, her legacy lives on through her sons, who try to take what she taught them -- and what they then learned about her -- and keep going.

Life continues. But they are still connected to mom.

"Even though she is not here with me physically, she is still with me and in my heart," Eso said. "I kind of still feel like, I don't know how to explain it, she's gone, but she's really not. If you ask my brother or dad, it's the same thing.

"She's gone, but her spirit is still with me. I still feel like she helps me, she guides me. When I pray, I pray to her, ask her to watch over me. She's still a main fixture in my life."

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter