TWIN FALLS – At 6-foot-10 and a chiseled 260-pounds, Nigeria-born Kennedy Esume gives one pause upon approach.
On paper, however, he’s far from intimidating. Averaging just 4.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a game, Esume isn’t atop the opponent’s scouting report.
But on the floor and off, it’s not the first impression with Esume that lasts. On his second CSI life, Esume lingers.
With a distinct British-sounding accent, the big man can dissolve the complexities of chemistry into simple solutions. On his way to becoming a chemical engineer, sometimes Esume the scientist can’t help himself around jocks and coaches.
“There was one time I was in car with coach (Jeremy) Cox and he said something about physics,” Esume said. “He was talking about defense, ‘What is in motion has a tendency to stay in motion.’ I was like, ‘Oh, Coach, actually that is the second law of motion,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, Kennedy.’ But it is true, you play defense and try to close out on a guy, the moment you rest your feet it’s very difficult to get them started again.”
Esume’s father is a businessman. His mother is a librarian. He plays in goggles and wears large-framed eye-glasses.
He’s not a beast; he’s Beast, the super-human science instructor in the X-men series.
He hangs out later than most teammates after games, playing one-on-one with tots.
A 4.0 student, he’s looked up to. He should be, coaches and teammates say.
“His approach and his attitude can be a model and an inspiration to our players and young kids,” Cox said. “He takes what is given to him, whether it is education or basketball, to be the best he can and better his situation. It’s nothing we have done. It is what he does and his approach.”
How did he wind up in Twin Falls?
Former head coach Steve Gosar had a Nigerian pipeline. One of Gosar’s international contacts found Esume at a camp. He was big, but not the biggest —in Nigeria, Esume said, he was often one of the smaller players on the floor. He was athletic, but not the most athletic.
He hadn’t played much basketball. Like in most of the world, soccer is the sport of West Africa.
In a country with a lot of raw prospects, Esume was one of the least experienced.
“I played 5-6 years of basketball, it was like freestyle pick-up games,” Esume said. “What I mainly did was play soccer, but then they told me I should be playing basketball.
“So I went to the court. They said ‘play post, go score,’ so I would turn around and score.”
Esume set his first real screen at the CSI gymnasium.
He’s developing his first real post moves.
But the rigors of assimilating into a conference which plays one the most physical brands of American basketball wasn’t what made last year so rough for Esume, who averaged 11.9 minutes per game for the Golden Eagles under Gosar.
“It was tough, it was different, there was a big gap even until now I struggle with,” Esume said. “For one, I don’t think there is much culture out here. Values and mores, and respect for elders, they are really lacking. Most times on the court, there are some things I want to say back to coach, but he knows best. Some of my teammates, they don’t even care, they talk back. Growing up, we were raised with the mentality that if someone talks back to an elder, we can get whipped.”
He respectfully requested out.
Esume told Gosar late in the season that he wanted to go back home.
“When I came here I had high hopes for the game, but when I saw every day where the road was leading, I was like, ahh, another day,” Esume said.
Esume got his wish granted. But after months around friends and family, his body atrophied, and he got an itch. The game called.
As serendipity would have it, he got a Facebook message from assistant coach Colby Blaine.
“He was like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to come back?”
He had already mulled it over.
“I had heard coach Gosar had retired,” Gosar said. “I was pretty sure I wanted to come back. (Blaine) told me about some of the things of last year. I had seen it all. I knew what I would face when I came back here.”
Esume called back.
Having missed out on their top big-man targets to fill out their recruiting class and with Dorian Cason and Charles Jackson out with injuries, Cox had just one big man on the roster.
He was all ears.
“I asked, ‘What is he, fellas?’” Cox said. “He is 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, and a 4.0 student. Why would we not want him? I called Steve, he said ‘no-brainer, great kid, asset to the program, asset to CSI and the community.’ We got him on a plane and got him here the next week.”
Esume has emerged as one of the Golden Eagles’ glue players.
“He’s not just a body,” Cox said. “He produces.”
Alongside long-armed Cullen Russo, Esume gives CSI the presence of a big-time college defense, according to Cox, who’s seen a few.
Esume, who hadn’t played for months prior to his return to CSI and battled injuries as a result of his poor conditioning, could be a guy the Golden Eagles go to in the post later in the year, Cox said.
But for leadership by example and science questions, Esume might be the team’s No. 1 option.
“I couldn’t imagine going to a foreign country, not knowing the culture, “Cox said. “He has overcome and he is appreciative of his opportunity and wants an education. Basketball is a vehicle to get him where he wants to go.”