As her clothes whirled around and around in the dryer nearby, Evelyn Akhator’s world turned upside down.
She had noticed the multiple missed calls from her family that day, but she decided not to call them back until she had finished her laundry.
When she saw that her brother was calling again, she answered.
“Mama just had an accident,” he told her.
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Akhator’s mind started to spin like the clothes in the dryer. There were scarce details available, so maybe it was all a misunderstanding, a mistake.
But within minutes, her world stopped altogether.
Her brother called again. She picked it up, already sensing the worst.
“She’s dead,” was all he could manage to say.
Akhator lost her best friend that day in January 2013, just a few weeks before she turned 18 years old. Her mother, Benedicta, was 52.
It was supposed to be a huge year for her. She had plans to move to the United States and follow her dream of playing basketball for a Division I school, which could help change not only her life but also those of her five siblings and parents.
The bright-eyed and even brighter-smiling teenager from Lagos, Nigeria, had been excited to embark on her new adventure.
But the bright light that was Evelyn Akhator seemed to die that day along with her mother.
“When she passed away, I almost quit everything,” Akhator said. “I almost quit basketball and school. She was my inspiration; she really inspired me. So when she passed away, I just thought everything has ended.”
Deadlines passed for exams that would have brought her to the United States to play basketball. She stopped caring, stopped practicing the game she had grown to love just a couple of years before.
When she passed away, I almost quit everything. I almost quit basketball and school. She was my inspiration; she really inspired me. So when she passed away, I just thought everything has ended.
Her high school coach and her pastor urged her to play again for her mom, who had encouraged her to play when others had discouraged it.
“They told me to never forget about who I was or who I am,” Akhator recalled of her coach and pastor. “That really brought me back. I just had to accept everything.”
A few months later, Akhator found a place on a junior-college team and boarded an airplane “nervous and shaky” for Florida, where she would become an integral part of Chipola Junior College’s national championship run a year later.
Akhator, a raw talent who had picked up basketball in a Nigerian camp for girls just a couple of years before that, was the most valuable player and was named the national junior college player of the year.
A Kentucky connection
She was far from everything she knew and loved, but the University of Kentucky somehow felt like home to Akhator, which is how she ended up becoming a starting forward for the Wildcats this season.
Colleges all over the country, including Texas, Tennessee and Florida State, were courting the 6-foot-3 forward with the jaw-dropping athleticism.
Even before she set foot on UK’s campus and met the players who would become her new sisters, Akhator knew she was going to play for Kentucky.
“The chemistry between Coach Mitchell and I was amazing,” she said in a recent interview.
Matthew Mitchell felt it, too.
“It’s crazy, a kid from Nigeria and a guy from Mississippi,” he said shaking his head with a smile. “It’s sort of amazing. We had a great connection. We both have a common faith that we share that brings us together. We can connect on a real deep level with each other on a number of things.”
There are still language barriers for Akhator, who speaks broken English and often talks so quickly that her coaches and teammates have to plead with her to slow down.
But she has become a beloved player in the Kentucky locker room.
Akhator frequently has her headphones on and listens to music, singing loudly, often without realizing that her teammates can hear her.
“She’s awesome; she’s like the sweetest person ever,” freshman guard Maci Morris said. “She’s always full of energy. I just love being around her.”
It’s crazy, a kid from Nigeria and a guy from Mississippi. It’s sort of amazing. We had a great connection. We both have a common faith that we share that brings us together. We can connect on a real deep level with each other on a number of things.
It’s tough for any of them to imagine an Evelyn Akhator who wasn’t always laughing and singing.
“That’s something she keeps way deep down,” roommate Janee Thompson said of Akhator losing her mother. “I can tell that it’s something that really affected her.”
It’s difficult to tell when Akhator is having a bad day, even.
“If she’s in pain or has something going on, you have to dig deep to find it,” UK assistant coach Adeniyi Amadou said of the forward, who is third on the team in scoring and is averaging 11.6 points and 9.4 rebounds a game. “You always have to dig deep and find out what’s going on.”
Amadou, her position coach, said the forward is just “unbelievably positive all of the time.
“You spend enough time around her and she teaches you a lot because she’s lost her mother — the closest person in her life — and just makes a choice every day to just be positive.”
Coming from outdoor, concrete basketball courts in Nigeria and donated shoes at the camp for girls, Akhator is “humble and grateful for every little thing,” Thompson said.
It’s eye-opening for many of her teammates. When things get difficult, “she will tell them, ‘Listen, we don’t have anything to complain about right now,’” Mitchell said.
The head coach can’t help but soften as he talks about Akhator, who has 12 double-doubles this season, including four in the Cats’ past five games.
“She’s such a kid full of gratitude, and so we have to make sure as coaches that we don’t take her for granted,” he said. “I don’t know where we’d be without her.”
Akhator takes coaching well and has a constant desire to get better. There is no eye-rolling, no pouting when things are going poorly.
When teammates and coaches yell at her — which they sometimes do in the heat of the game — Akhator listens intently and does her best to follow their instruction.
“It’s really hard to get on her because she’s apologizing as you’re yelling at her,” Amadou said, noting that she frequently puts her hands in a prayer pose, emphasizing that she’s sorry for the mistake.
Thompson often takes Akhator aside during stops in game action to explain things.
“She’s a raw talent and there’s some things I feel like I can help her get better at,” the team’s lone senior said. “She has a language barrier and it takes her a second. Sometimes we have to break stuff down so she truly understands it.
“But she never talks back, she never questions you and she’s always open to learn. That’s why she’s continuing to get better.”
‘Giving up isn’t my thing’
One of the true indicators of Akhator’s selflessness and willingness to put team first is in her ability to take charges. The junior has drawn 34 charges this season, 15 more than her teammates combined.
“Evelyn just hunts the charges and sacrifices her body,” Amadou said. “It’s the kind of person she is.”
She sacrifices for her other family, too, the one in Nigeria that she hasn’t seen since August.
Akhator, now 21, sends home her cost-of-attendance checks that are given to athletes to cover incidentals. The few thousand dollars help her father, who like many in Nigeria is unemployed. It helps Akhator’s sister continue her education, too.
“It helps my whole family,” she said of the extra money. “That’s one thing my mom would want. My elder sister is a mother, so I try to be the breadwinner. I know it’s really hard back home.
“I’m not really worried about myself. I know I’m going to make it. I just worry about my family. Whatever I have, I make sure I send it home.”
It may be months before she sees her family again. She plans to stay in Kentucky this summer to work on her game and continue her studies.
When she’s done playing basketball in a few years, Akhator plans to become a nurse. She spent the days between the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments shadowing nurses at UK Hospital, first in pediatrics and then in emergency medicine.
One of the requirements for nursing school eventually will be a lot of chemistry classes, so she took one last semester against the advice of some of her academic counselors, who worried that it was too much for her during the season.
“People will tell her, ‘This class might be a little too hard; let’s try to figure out other options,’” Amadou said.
She pledged to finish the class and ended last semester with a 3.5 grade-point average.
“I don’t just want to give up,” Akhator said of staying in the chemistry class. “Giving up isn’t my thing. I try to fight through it.
“Even with nursing, people will tell me I shouldn’t do that, it’s going to be too hard. But, eh. I don’t go by what people say, I go by what I feel.”
The ability to fight through life’s hardships is a trait Akhator thinks she got from Benedicta.
“I learned a lot from her, like never to give up,” Akhator said. “She was so hard-working and did not give up, even when things aren’t going right. I learned that from her.”
Kentucky’s players continue to learn much from Akhator.
Her coaches as well.
“She wins you over with her attitude, and then her work ethic is very impressive,” Amadou said. “Then you begin to understand her circumstances and her background and where she comes from, then it really humbles you. There’s just not a lot of kids like her.”
NCAA Tournament in Lexington
What: Two first-round Lexington Regional games
Where: Memorial Coliseum
1:30 p.m.: No. 6 seed Oklahoma (21-10) vs. No. 11 seed Purdue (20-11)
4 p.m.: No. 3 seed Kentucky (23-7) vs. No. 14 seed UNC-Asheville (26-6)