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From Lagos to the Super Pit: Maurice Aniefiok

From Lagos to the Super Pit: Maurice Aniefiok

From Lagos to the Super Pit: Maurice Aniefiok
January 14
12:48 2014

John Lugo / Sports Editor

On offense and defense,  Nigerian Mean Green basketball guard Maurice Aniefiok takes control of the game. He drives to the basket and scores from outside, all while providing a physical presence.

In his best game of the season, the 21-year-old sophomore scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while shooting 75 percent for the Mean Green against Nicholls State University on Nov. 14 in the Super Pit, leading the team to a 92-78 victory.

This year, he’s averaging 7.4 points per game while shooting 45.3 percent overall and 43.5 percent on three-point shots. Mean Green head coach Tony Benford said Maurice’s competitive instincts and versatility allow him to adapt to different situations on the court, which is a big reason why Benford wanted him at UNT.

Sophomore guard/forward Maurice Anieflok attempts a three-point shot against Tulane in the final minute of the game on Saturday. Photo by Edward Balusek / Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Maurice Aniefiok attempts a three-point shot against Tulane in the final minute of the game on Saturday. Photo by Edward Balusek / Staff Photographer

“Maurice is pretty competitive, he can play five different positions,” Benford said. “He’s got a chance to be a really good player for us. He’s going to help us as we move through the season.”

The game against Nicholls State marked the high point in Maurice’s devotion to the sport that has changed his life. Basketball gave him the chance to leave his home in Nigeria and settle in the United States.  It has provided him with a quality education, an adoptive American family and the opportunity to meet the woman he wants to marry.

“Basketball gave me a sense of purpose,” Maurice said. “It gave me this perception about life: everything in life is either you win or you lose.”

If not for basketball, Maurice would likely still be in Lagos, Nigeria, one of the fastest growing cities in Africa where he was born and raised. Maurice, the oldest of four children, came from a family that was not poor by Nigerian standards, but life was tough in a country where food is expensive and utilities are unreliable.

“I always tell people ‘if you can survive in Nigeria, you can survive anywhere,’” Maurice said. “If you’re broke here in America, at least you still have some food.”

Despite growing into an exceptional soccer player as a child, Maurice decided to play basketball when at age 14 he began growing at a rapid pace, eventually reaching his current height of 6 foot 5 inches .

Maurice found himself so drawn to the sport that he would stay up all night watching NBA games on TV and researching players. He was stunned by the athletic ability of Michael Jordan, whom he credits as being the reason he fell in love with the game.

“There was just certain things I saw about him that was just superhuman. I thought this guy wasn’t real,” Maurice said. “My friends would say ‘this guy is into some voodoo stuff.’”

The nearest basketball court was a mile and a half from his home and he would run there to practice before school and play there with friends after. He played barefoot on the rough concrete surface, often tripping and losing toenails, only to wrap them up and return the next day.

His dedication to the game would pay off: a year and a half later, he traveled 12 hours southeast to Bayelsa State for a tournament hosted by Ejike Ugboaja, who was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006, the first Nigerian selected in the NBA Draft.

Maurice most looked forward to hearing from a professional, but actually won the MVP award of the tournament and was selected to be part of a basketball camp in Augusta, Ga. in 2010.

Aniefiok traveled 5,645 miles from Lagos, Nigeria, to Huntington, W. Va. He went 798 miles to the University of Mississippi and 671 miles to reach Dallas. Graphic by Nicole Arnold / Visuals Editor

Aniefiok traveled 5,645 miles from Lagos, Nigeria, to Huntington, W. Va. He went 798 miles to the University of Mississippi and 671 miles to reach Dallas. Graphic by Nicole Arnold / Visuals Editor

During the camp he impressed Rob Fulford, the head basketball coach at Huntington Prep School in Huntington, W. Va., who offered Maurice a full scholarship to play for him. At 17, Maurice met the toughest decision in his life: whether or not to move more than 5,000 miles away from his home in pursuit of his dream to play basketball at the highest levels.

His parents never supported his decision to play basketball, which wasn’t popular in Nigeria, but wanted him to receive a better education. He boarded his flight four years ago, eager to see what America had in store for him. He hasn’t seen his family since.“I was mostly consumed with the excitement that I was going to the U.S. and chasing my dreams,” Maurice said. “I never really knew what I was up against.”

The Sowards, a West Virginian family with three sons of their own, agreed to host Maurice during his time at Huntington Prep. Maurice not only had to adjust to a new family, but to the American lifestyle.

He faced difficulties balancing the workload that came with being a student-athlete, busy from morning to night with basketball, school and catching up on homework. After a few months, the reality of not being able to see his own family set in and he grew depressed.

“It was really tough for me,” Maurice said. “But I thought, ‘as long as I’m here, it’s nothing I think I can’t do.’”

His host mother, Trena Soward, did her best to help. She said she raised him like her own child and grew to love him as one.

“I assured him that I loved him, and we were here for him,” Trena said. “I truly believe that God has a plan for him and it’s something big.”

The year spent at Huntington Prep helped him greatly with the transition to college – preparation he may have never received in Nigeria, where he sometimes sat on the floors of classrooms that had no air conditioning or windows.

“There, the professors actually want you to fail,” he said. “It makes me appreciate everything I have, now that I’ve seen what it means not to have. Now that I have a little bit, I’m just grateful that I at least have something.”

He graduated from Huntington Prep in 2011 and committed to play basketball at the University of Mississippi on a scholarship. The year he spent there didn’t turn out as he had hoped. He sustained several injuries and was unhappy with his role on the team.

“It’s nothing against the coaches or the players I was playing with, but I wanted to be in a place I was needed, not that I was wanted,” Maurice said.

In the summer of 2012, Maurice transferred to Collin College in Plano. During the move he continued to rehab and recover from lingering injuries.

Maurice had numerous reasons for deciding on Collin College, one being that he had developed an online relationship with a woman named Pooja Patel, a student who attended school there, weeks after moving to the States. In July of 2012 they finally met in person and have been together since.

“It was just a weight off my shoulders and everything came together,” Patel said. “We had become such good friends over that period of time that when we finally met, it was kind of like that last puzzle piece was put into place.”

Although Maurice sat out during his year at Collin College, he was heavily recruited by UNT coaches and decided to join the Mean Green this season. He and Patel moved to Denton and got an apartment.

“I think, overall, being with her and staying with her is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Maurice said. “She’s the reason why I want to raise a family here in America.”

On the court, Maurice is fun to play with, but teammate Chris Jones also claims he’s one of the calmest and funniest guys on the team.

“He’s always cracking jokes and making us laugh. His accent makes us laugh,” Jones said. “He doesn’t take offense to it. He knows it’s his accent and so he keeps doing it. He’s a really cool guy.”

As an applied arts and sciences major Maurice is preparing for a life after basketball, but hopes to play professionally overseas. His parents allowed him to pursue basketball in the United States with the expectation that he receive a college education.

“The reason why I want to get a degree is to make my father proud,” Maurice said. “If there’s anything in life he’s been really committed to, it’s to make sure I get a degree, to make sure we all go to school, to make sure we all have something we can hold on to.”

Maurice talks to his parents once or twice a week, keeping them updated on his life and sometimes not even mentioning basketball. Maurice will reunite with his family next summer, when he and Pooja visit Nigeria.

“You never really know the worth of family until you move away from them,” Maurice said. “Using the words ‘missing them’ is an understatement.”

Aniefiok and his host family, (left to right) host mother, Trena Soward, host father, Gary Soward and host brothers Rielly, Kyle and Tanner Soward. Photo courtesy of Trena Soward

Aniefiok and his host family, (left to right) host mother, Trena Soward, host father, Gary Soward and host brothers Rielly, Kyle and Tanner Soward. Photo courtesy of Trena Soward

Feature photo: Sophomore guard Maurice Aniefiok stands proud on the court at the Super Pit. Aniefiok hometown is Lagos, Nigeria, Africa. Photo by Edward Balusek / Staff Photographer 

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