Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah finds her voice
Opportunity equals growth, at least in Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah's book.
Whether it's by pursuing creative writing, poetry or athletics, the 6-foot-3 high school junior from Nigeria with "off-the-charts" potential on the basketball court knows she has plenty of paths that could help her forge a better life.
But the self-described "introvert" with a "malleable" personality didn't always see it that way.
Being shy and letting people walk all over you isn't really the best way to handle stuff.Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah
Since coming to the United States from Africa about a year and a half ago, Kunaiyi-Akpanah has discovered she is much more than the shy teenager who knew little about basketball and even less about herself. And the junior center at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun Gap, Ga., now understands that, with hard work, she has the power not only to alter the course of her own life, but also to set an example for other girls back home.
"I have had things handed to me to start off," Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. "Now I am handing stuff to myself and I am achieving things for [myself]."
Kunaiyi-Akpanah received a chance to come to the United States largely due to the efforts of Hope 4 Girls founder Mobolaji Akiode, a former standout women's basketball player at Fordham and a member of the Nigerian national teams that competed in the Olympics in 2000 and 2004. The camp teaches young women life skills, gives them a place to develop their basketball skills and, possibly, to earn an even bigger opportunity.
In only her second season at Rabun Gap, a college preparatory and boarding school two hours northwest of Atlanta, Kunaiyi-Akpanah is doing just that. Rabun Gap has a 20-4 record and plays in the Georgia semifinals on Thursday. Auburn, Georgia Tech, Northwestern, Ohio State, Oklahoma, South Florida, Southern Mississippi, Virginia Tech and Washington are just some of the schools that have shown an interest in Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Rabun Gap girls' basketball coach Dale Earnhardt said.
"I think she sees [basketball] as a means to an end to get a great education," Earnhardt said of Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who also plays volleyball at the school. "I think she enjoys [basketball]. I don't think she realizes how good she can be and she isn't thinking much after that. Her initial goal is 'What college am I going to go to?' She knows that is her ticket to get it paid for."
Kunaiyi-Akpanah arrived on campus in October 2012 after the students had been in school for more than a month. Earnhardt remembers the first workout with her and how "raw" she was as a basketball player. He said she averaged 6 to 8 points per game and 10 to 12 rebounds a game last season on a team that went 16-9.
This season, Earnhardt has seen Kunaiyi-Akpanah make significant strides. Not only is she averaging 10 points and 12 rebounds per game, but he also has seen her develop more confidence, which has helped her speak out and lose some of the shyness she had when she arrived.
"[Last year], she was very timid and you could see her clam up," Earnhardt said. "It is totally different this year watching her progress. She is an outgoing person among her teammates and at her school."
Earnhardt said Kunaiyi-Akpanah's growth has enabled him to discover just how competitive she is as a player. Even though he calls her a "nice kid," he said she doesn't mind playing hard and that he feels she will become even more competitive as she matures.
Kunaiyi-Akpanah admits her development is "a work in progress." She understands her good fortune in getting the chance to attend the Hope 4 Girls camp. She also appreciates everything Akiode has done for her in helping get her to the United States and finding her a place to play AAU basketball with Kenny Kallina on Team Florida Basketball.
Most important, Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who has a 3.9 GPA, no longer talks like the shy girl who first arrived in Georgia. In a conversation that lasted nearly an hour, she talked about reading books for pleasure while waiting for the varsity girls' basketball games to start, used words seldom heard from most teenagers, and spoke with ease about her journey from being bullied as a student in Nigeria to one who is discovering her voice and her strength on the court.
"When you're shy, you're not confident and looked at as somebody who is weak," Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. "If you act like you're afraid or intimidated, it seems like you're a weak person. I find myself still sometimes not speaking up for myself."
That was part of the reason Akiode wanted to get involved. When she first met Kunaiyi-Akpanah, she saw a "very, very smart" girl who lacked self-confidence. In talking with Kunaiyi-Akpanah's parents, Akiode learned they weren't sure how to break their daughter out of her shell. Akiode spent a summer with Kunaiyi-Akpanah and saw her unhappiness and her low self-worth as things that would hold her back, so she worked to find a place in America for her.
"She was potential that may never be realized if I didn't step in," Akiode said. "So I helped."
Now Kunaiyi-Akpanah is helping herself. She acknowledges she isn't the best basketball player at the school. When she started playing the sport in Nigeria, she said she didn't mind people calling her "raw," because she didn't know what she was doing. As a junior, she has a better sense of how she has been blessed with physical gifts and how much harder she has to work to enhance those skills.
"I didn't have to work so hard to get the scholarship opportunity to come to America," Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. "I had to tell myself that is not going to go on forever and that I have to contribute to my life. I had to tell myself about all of this stuff. I was still young and all of this and I can't do anything about it. Now I am molding my own future. Being shy and letting people walk all over you isn't really the best way to handle stuff. That is how I have been able to make the journey less rough."
Kunaiyi-Akpanah's ability to make that connection and to become a more active participant in her development has helped her attract interest from schools across the country. Dan Olson, who provides player rankings for espnW HoopGurlz, has Kunaiyi-Akpanah ranked No. 130 in the 2015 class.
"She has a pro body and can be a low-block insider because she has off-the-charts potential," said Olson, a former women's basketball coach and owner of Dan Olson Collegiate Girls Basketball Report, a national scouting service. "She is an explosive leaper on the glass who rebounds and outlets. She is superb in transition. She has a developing back-to-the basket game."
Despite an emerging game, Kunaiyi-Akpanah isn't going to get lost in basketball. She said she envisions pursuing a professional basketball career or using a degree in business or finance to get a job in the U.S. Either way, she believes her hard work down either path will show her two younger brothers and sister how hard they need to work to make something of themselves. As much as she wants to accomplish those things for herself, she wants to show her siblings and girls like her in Nigeria what they can do if they have hope in themselves and if they use their voices to make a name for themselves.
"I just feel the need to be able to handle myself and take this opportunity God has given me and make the most out of it," Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. "I will be proud of myself because I know I will have achieved it and nothing has been handed to me. I have achieved my own goals."
Adam Minichino is sports editor at The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Miss.