by Natalie Alms
Hakeem Olajuwon’s nickname is “the Dream.”
It’s fitting, both because of the rhyme and because his biography reads like a triumphant sports movie. It would start with his birth in Lagos, Nigeria in 1963 and then cut to him as the first pick in the 1984 NBA draft. He’s inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, right before the closing credits.
Around 2010, 15 years after Olajuwon’s back-to-back NBA Championship wins with the Houston Rockets, a tall Nigerian teen named Ikenna Smart was learning how to play basketball. His coach, a man named Mike, told him to watch Olajuwon’s old games.
“He was the role model for any African kid that was trying to play basketball at this time,” Smart said. “If Hakeem did it, you feel like you can do it.”
Basketball gave Smart a chance. He moved to the United States about a year after he learned to play and eventually played at the University of New York at Buffalo and Wake Forest University before injuries halted his athletic career at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Olajuwan and Smart have a lot in common. A mix of talent and dedication drove them through the sport.
But one thing sets the two players apart. Olajuwon continued playing professionally after college. Smart didn’t. It turns out that the Dream is the exception, not the rule.
Like Smart, most college basketball players don’t make it to the NBA. The questions stick: what does college basketball give them and what do they sacrifice in return? Is the payoff at the end worth it?
Smart himself noted that no matter what, everyone stops playing at some point.
“A lot of people don’t really know what they are up against until they graduate from college,” he said. “Then they didn’t make it to the NBA. Then they didn’t really learn anything in college because they’ve been focusing on basketball. It’s just a matter of time, how long they are going to be playing.”
Smart was 15 years old on the day he learned to play basketball.
He had just finished soccer practice in Umuahia, Nigeria, on familiar fields that butted up against the blocky white and yellow buildings that housed the courts in Umuahia Stadium. The shouts of the basketball players often drifted over the soccer fields without any particular consequence on the soccer players.
But on that day, the noise drew Smart in. He left his teammates, who continued kicking the ball around without him. Coach Mike, whose last name Smart doesn’t remember, saw Smart standing in the doorway. “What are you doing?” he asked Smart. “You shouldn’t be here.”
He asked Smart if he played basketball. Smart answered that he was a soccer player.
“Wrong sport, man,” Mike said. “This is the sport for you.”
He convinced Smart to grab a ball and asked him to go for a layup. But Smart went ahead and dunked it. He was athletic and tall; now, as a 24-year-old, he stands at 6-foot-10.
“Wow,” Mike said then. He didn’t have a lot of players who could do that. “You should definitely give it a try.”
Smart was tired from soccer practice, but he stayed to shoot more layups that afternoon anyway.
Bleachers bookended that gym at both ends. Walls punctuated by large open windows stretched up to meet the industrial metal roofing, which leaked water when it rained — players sometimes had to mop the puddles off the floor before they could practice. Gray paint would peel off and onto Smart’s back when he leaned against the walls.
The unforgiving floor governed the court, though.
It was dark and hard. It wore the texture off the basketballs that bounced on it, and could leave players bruised, scratched or sore the morning after practice.
That didn’t deter Smart, who spent the next couple of months learning the game. Each of his steps reverberated in his ankles and knees as his body absorbed the pressure.
Over time, he found that he could use the intricate footwork he learned on the soccer fields to his advantage on the court, too. But he liked that basketball involved less running. Even when he was only shooting a soccer ball into the net, he either had to run and get it from wherever it ended up or have a lineup of soccer balls ready at his disposal.
With basketball, Smart could work on his game, sometimes by himself. After he shot the ball, he didn’t have to run that far to get it back.
“I started to feel comfortable, like I belonged,” he said. “The game started to come naturally to me.”
For him, the game became a beloved sport to play, an opportunity to capitalize on and, at times, a challenge to overcome.
As it does for many elite college basketball players, the sport shaped his life in both personal and practical ways, by becoming a critical piece of his identity and the lived experiences of his day-to-day life.
Recently, it’s become something to move on from.
To understand Smart’s experience with basketball, one first has to understand the institution that governed his college career: the NCAA.
A line of tabs anchors the main page of the NCAA’s sprawling website. A tab labeled “About Us” chronicles the sports world from the NCAA’s point of view, starting with basic definitions like what it is and what it does.
“The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes,” states the site, with the “members” being the colleges and universities that are organized into different athletic conferences.
If that is the central mission, then much of the website reads like a defense of all the ways the NCAA follows through.
The labyrinthine website also includes a page on scholarships, which often pay the tuition of athletes at Division I and II schools, the highest levels of college athletics.
“A college education is the most rewarding benefit of the student-athlete experience,” says the page.
The stance is an essential part of the NCAA’s posturing: Their narrative rests on the premise that college athletes are amateurs. That is, “student” comes first in the phrase “student-athlete.” These, they say, are college students who happen to play a sport. That sport isn’t a job.
Following that line of reasoning, a full scholarship to go to college and play a sport is more than fair. For some, college athletics represent a vehicle of upward mobility — a paid-for college education — that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. Smart falls into this category.
“If you go back 10 years ago, I was just a regular kid in Nigeria. Out of the blue, basketball found me,” he said. “And one thing that basketball has shown me is that it keeps presenting me with opportunities. And because of where I’m from and my background, I was able to value those opportunities and take advantage of them by the time I came to the end of the story.”
The story isn’t that neat to everyone, though. Many argue that student-athletes — specifically men’s basketball and football players — are workers who should be paid. These teams bring in massive amounts of money for their schools through the athletes’ physical labor as they practice and play.
Colleges earn revenue through broadcasting contracts at several levels: the university itself, their conference and the NCAA tournament. Home-game tickets, parking, concessions, alumni contributions and sponsorships also generate money. There are also athletic conferences, tournaments and sports camps.
College institutions with Title IV funding and intercollegiate athletics are required to submit data as part of the Equity in Athletics Act. That broad definition of “revenue” includes “any other revenues attributable to intercollegiate athletic activities.”
Although football is the largest revenue generator in Wake Forest athletics, the men’s basketball team produced $9.1 million in gross revenue during the 2018-19 school year and had about 8 million in expenses. To put that revenue in perspective, the total gross revenue for all sports other than football and men’s basketball combined was just $8.6 million.
Teams make money through the NCAA tournaments, depending on their conference. For Wake Forest, that’s the ACC. The intricate formula for how much money teams get from this distribution fund, known as the basketball fund, involves the number of tournaments over six seasons. The university’s athletic director, John Currie estimated in April that there would be an expected $2.3 million loss in NCAA tournament revenue for Wake Forest due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Again, the NCAA’s argument is that players aren’t included in this exchange of money because they are amateurs, students getting their education. The NCAA website often references its own studies showing that college athletes graduate at higher rates than traditional students.
However, the inequalities found in American society writ large are also baked into those graduation rates and the NCAA system.
Turn on any men’s college basketball game and you’ll notice that most of the players are black. The Power Five conferences are the most competitive out of Division I, composed of the ACC, Big Ten, Big Twelve, Pacific-12 and Southeastern Conferences. Black players make up 56 percent of those teams, according to a 2018 study by Shaun Harper at the University of Southern California.
In fact, on Power Five campuses, there are many more black basketball players than black male students who don’t play basketball. Black men make up only 2.4 percent of overall student populations in Power Five schools, but represent more than half of the basketball teams, Harper found.
Sports are often heralded as a chance to go to college and then perhaps the big leagues, which come with fame and money.
But first, players have to put in the work. It’s normal for Division I players to spend more than 25 hours a week on sports, but only eight on schoolwork outside of class, according to ongoing research by Jasmine Harris, an assistant professor of sociology at Ursinas College.
And not everyone makes it. Harper’s study found that only about half of black, male student-athletes in the Power Five graduated within six years, as opposed to a 76.3 percent graduation rate for all undergraduate students.
“There are adversities that will hit you in basketball,” Smart said. “And sometimes all these adversities are just a test that you have to pass.”
Smart noted that as a student athlete with an athletic scholarship, it was all paid for. He could have as many majors or classes as he wanted.
“But the thing is, that you have to make sure you have time for practice, and you have time to really participate,” he said.
In 2011, about a year after Smart discovered basketball, Coach Mike called to tell him about a scholarship to attend high school and play basketball in the United States. Smart was happy, scared and full of questions, since he couldn’t quite picture exactly how this would work.
“But I still wanted to talk about it. Just, man, America,” said Smart. “Every kid dreams of coming to America.”
A couple months later, after a visa application and a goodbye to his crying mother, Smart was sitting on a plane with his knees jammed into the seat in front of him. He didn’t sleep at all during the seven-hour flight, and instead looked down at the expanse of the Atlantic in fear and awe and occasionally went to the bathroom to stretch his legs.
“It was a tough choice but a good decision,” he said. “I knew what I was leaving behind. I left my family behind. But I know that one day we will reunite again. I knew that I was going to make things better for myself and my family.”
In the first American gym Smart ever saw, he noticed how the standardized, new nets dripped off of the sturdy red rims backed by glass at either end of the court. He was used to a different kind of bendy rim in Nigeria.
He didn’t actually start practicing and playing until a few months later. The first high school he attended in Maryland, Progressive Christian Academy, didn’t have the opportunities he was looking for. He switched high schools his sophomore year to attend New Garden Friends School in Greensboro. At that point, he could start thinking about playing in the NCAA.
When he started playing again, it was the gloss of the wooden floor that commanded his attention. When he ran, that singular basketball noise, the squeak of sneakers on wood, harmonized with his movements.
If he fell, the slick floor kept him going, shooting him along like a kid sledding down a hill. In Umuahia Stadium, the momentum of a similar fall would have manifested after practice, in the form of bruises on sore limbs.
“It didn’t feel like I was stepping on something that was hard,” Smart said about the new floor.
He felt like he could jump higher. If he caught the rim, he could hold onto it and it wouldn’t bend. If he looked down, his own reflection and that of the ball looked back up at him. When he landed, he didn’t feel it quite as much in his knees as he did back in Nigeria.
Even the balls were different: they kept their texture longer. They didn’t bounce silently anymore, like they had back in Umuahia Stadium.
Smart’s story is uniquely his. But once he started looking at playing NCAA basketball, he had company.
Nationally, there were 551,373 boys’ high school basketball players in the 2016-17 school year, according to a 2019 NCAA study. Only a sliver of those would end up playing for anything better than a club or intramural team in college.
The 15th day of the June following a player’s sophomore year marks the official start date for most recruiting practices.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of times where that’s not fully followed,” said Tommy Eames, the basketball operations assistant for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Prior to working in the major league, he worked with the men’s basketball team at Wake Forest University, both during his undergrad and for a year after graduating.
“There’s a kind of pre-process for sure for guys,” he continued. “Whether you’re going to their games and talking to them after or whatever it might be.”
After that summer start date, coaches watch players’ games and attend tournaments. They send texts, emails and letters. They visit players and their families at their schools and homes.
Junior year, players can go on a certain number of official college visits, paid for by the colleges themselves. When he worked with recruiting at Wake Forest, Eames said they would especially emphasize academics to the players’ parents. “Specifically the moms.”
Out of the over half-million high school players in the 2016-17 school year, 18,816 boys continued to the NCAA. Only the best of the best — 1 percent of the original half a million — made it to Division I teams. When he was in high school, Smart was recruited to play for the University of Buffalo, which is in the Mid-American Conference. It’s a Division I school, but not a member of the Power Five conferences.
Only a fraction of the 1 percent on Division 1 teams made it to Power Five teams, the most competitive conferences in Division 1. Wake Forest, where Smart played his final year, is both a top academic school and a member of the Power Five.
Jasmine Harris isn’t a morning person, but when she must, she’ll get up early.
Before Harris went to teach at Ursinas College, she taught at Wake Forest in the 2013-14 academic year, right after she got her PhD. Halfway through that fall semester, she was in her office at 7:15 a.m. It was the only overlapping free time that she and one of her students could manage to find when they could meet.
He was a freshman, redshirt football player who had been struggling. His last paper had been less than satisfactory. They talked it over and she told him to go to the writing center in the library.
“I know that I need to be going to the writing center, Dr. Harris,” she remembers him saying. “But I just don’t know when I’m supposed to do all that stuff.”
Now, she looks back at her response — “What do you mean? What else is going on?” — as naïve.
Harris was teaching 100-level sociology courses in the mornings. Student-athletes from all sorts of sports took up a lot of the seats in the classroom. She didn’t know it at the time, but that was because the morning classes fit well into a student-athlete’s day.
The football player pulled out a gridded, gray-and-yellow paper — his schedule.
The gray blocks of time that overwhelmed the paper were football time: things like weightlifting, field sessions, practice and walkthroughs. They were off limits.
“And that’s when I realized I honestly didn’t get it,” Harris said. She was surprised that there were this many required activities for someone less than a benchwarmer, a redshirt player — a term that refers to a player taking a season off.
Harris wasn’t sure how to help that student, let alone the other football and basketball players in her class, many of whom seemed to be trying, but struggling.
“That was the first time I was confronted with the possibility that there simply are not enough hours in the day or the week for the sets of responsibilities we ask these students to adhere to,” she said.
The question stuck in her mind. Seven years have gone by, and her research has centered on the experiences of Division I athletes since then. She’s specifically interested in players in revenue-generating sports: men’s basketball and football. The teams that run a tight ship.
At Wake Forest, basketball players can expect practices, study coaching, tutoring, mandated speaker events, community service hours with the team, team-building activities, media training, interviews, travel for games and tournaments and the games themselves.
Harris and other critics of the system think that this is all wrong.
She doesn’t buy into the idea that student-athletes are equally student and athlete. For her, the biggest problem is time. She thinks that the business side of these revenue-generating sports has made the setup “fundamentally incompatible” with the academic side of college.
Because of that, the scholarship and education that basketball and football players receive isn’t compensation in any practical way.
“How well can the education be compensation if the labor is taking them away from the classroom regularly?” she asked. Beyond that, “what other business model can you think of where laborers are expected to engage in extensive physical labor and receive no compensation?”
When Smart registered for classes at Buffalo every semester, one block of time was invariably off limits before he picked any at all. His practice schedule was always programmed into the system ahead of time.
“Because that’s the reason why you really are there,” he said. “That’s what is paying for your school. You can take advantage of it, but you still got to pay the price.”
After redshirting his freshman year, Smart was part of an NCAA tournament team the next three years he at Buffalo.
“We were a good team,” he said.
Like many others, Smart thinks that college basketball is essentially a business at the elite levels. It’s in the best interests of the coaching and athletic staff for their players to be totally committed to the game.
Whether a player listens to them completely, and how he treats his schoolwork, is his own choice, he said.
“Some people are smart enough that they do take advantage of the opportunities,” Smart said. “Some people are listening to their coaches saying they’re going to make it to the NBA the next year or two or so.”
Smart went into school knowing he wanted to major in international trade and was supported in this by his coaches. His junior year, he declared a second major in geography after reassuring a skeptical employee at the registrar’s office that yes, he was sure that this was what he wanted to do.
Smart has a more nuanced view than those who argue that college basketball as a whole is unfair to the players.
“It depends on the school,” he said. “But I would say that some people do take advantage of the opportunities. Some people really leave it up to the coaches to decide on what they do.”
Having long practices could be annoying. It was also physically exhausting and painful at times, said Smart, although he buffered that by saying that it’s in human nature to complain.
When asked if the way he played basketball in exchange for an education felt wrong, though, Smart answered with an emphatic negative.
“No, no, no,” he said. “When you love sports, you love it with all your heart. It’s like asking all the third-grade girls that are playing volleyball right now why they play.”
Once college ends for a basketball player, the chances of continuing to play the sport he loves in the NBA are slim, even if he makes it to that point without any major injuries.
If he does want to go pro, there are a couple ways to do it. He can play as a drafted or undrafted player in the NBA, play on a team in NBA’s minor league — the G League — or play on an international team.
To enter the NBA draft, he must be at least 19 years old and be at least a year from high school graduation. If he’s in college and wants to be in the NBA, he puts his name in the draft and plans on not returning to school if he gets picked.
And he has to be good.
More than 1,200 Division I players were eligible for the 2018 draft, according to a 2019 NCAA study. About half of those made it to professional basketball in some form.
But there were only 60 NBA draft slots; 52 of these were given to NCAA players, all of whom were Division I. That is only 4.2 percent of the original, entire pool of those who were draft-eligible.
An elite few know that they’re good enough in high school, the Zion Williamsons of the world. Others spend what many would consider their athletic prime working on their game while also attending college.
Smart said the situation seemed black and white to him after he played in a few conferences his sophomore year. He wasn’t a Zion Williamson.
“I think if you were to ask most Power Five college basketball players if they would play in the NBA, I bet you almost every one of them would say yes,” said Eames, the operations assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies who used to work for the men’s basketball team at Wake. “But for some people that’s less realistic.”
All of the statistics mean that most college players will have to do something other than basketball sooner rather than later. Brooke Thomas is the assistant director of student-athlete development at Wake Forest. She hopes that men’s basketball and football players have what she calls an “a-ha moment” at some point before they graduate. She wants them to realize that Wake Forest can be about more than just their sport. That they are capable of more than just their sport.
This is how she pitches it to them.
“Go play for however long you want to,” she tells them, “but in your thirties, you’re probably going to retire. What are you going to do after that?”
Thomas works with the other assistant athletic director of student-athlete development, Ashley Wechter, to help all of Wake’s student-athletes with their personal development.
For the men’s basketball team, a big part of that is convincing them to pursue what the duo calls a “parallel path.”
“As much time and effort as you’re putting towards basketball, we want to equally prepare you another way as well,” Wechter said. To her, it isn’t an either/or situation. It’s about preparing for whenever players inevitably stop playing the game.
Thomas and Wechter said most players on the men’s basketball team at Wake could at least play overseas if they make it out of college without career-ending injuries. After all, they’ve already beat the odds by making it onto a Power Five team.
But the etiquette dinners, industry events, resume workshops, career nights and strengths assessments hosted by her department are all geared toward that parallel path.
Thomas has found that a lot of players end up staying in the sports world in some capacity after they’re finished playing. She played on Wake Forest’s women’s basketball team and that’s what she did herself.
When she asks players and alumni what they want, though, working in athletics usually isn’t it, she said. Thomas has had her own doubts, too. The lifestyle is rigorous and not confined to a 9-to-5 timetable. Many alumni want to be able to pick up their kids from school, but end up staying in athletics because it’s what they know.
“They just feel stuck there,” she said.
Thomas and Wechter try to bring in alumni to talk to the players. People that can “speak their language.” Smart said he would tell current players “ to take their education seriously and not cruise through it.”
“When the ball stops bouncing, you are still going to come back to do something else,” he continued. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Smart and his teammates used to complain about the soreness and pain in their bodies from the constant physical use. “The pounding of it,” as he said.
His first injury was in 10th grade.
He had surgery for it in 11th grade.
But his bulging disk and accompanying leg pain became chronic over time. When he ran, jumped and landed, some disks in his spine took on more pressure than others.
Around his sophomore year of college, Smart started doubting.
His junior year at Buffalo, he started thinking of his future in terms of a “backup plan,” a life outside of basketball, one that would depend on him taking advantage of school.
His senior year, he had another surgery for his back injury.
Even so, Smart made it to Wake Forest for a final year of basketball during the 2018-19 school year, since he had one year of eligibility left. He got his master’s degree in liberal studies. But by the end of the season, his back couldn’t take it anymore.
Smart’s basketball ambition started with some inspiration from “the Dream” himself. Countless, tireless runs up and down courts nourished it, and eventually ended it, too. Now, Smart isn’t in the NBA. He’s working at Team Connection, an athletic apparel company in High Point. He’s a sales representative, handling all the basketball teams on their roster.
In his other time, he’s been working on his nonprofit, Shieldathletes. He takes college basketball players’ extra shoes (they get lots and lots of them) and sends them to Africa, where proper basketball shoes are scarce. He’s been working with people at Wake Forest’s law school to get it set up and, as of late 2019, had already collected 150 to 200 pairs of shoes.
This fall, he’s moving to Alabama for a graduate assistantship with the Alabama men’s basketball team. He’s going to get a masters in sports administration while he’s there.
Smart said sometimes players are “devastated” when they don’t make it to the NBA, after all the years of work and sacrifice.
Whether they make it past college basketball or not, though, all players inevitably have to stop playing at some point.
“That’s the final story right there,” he said.
Ikenna Smart is at that point. When he was 15, basketball “found” him and now, it’s left, at least the actual playing of it. To an outsider’s eye, it may seem like he worked in a system that takes more than it gives. But his optimism is an unwavering light against a pessimistic view of Division I NCAA basketball. “What you don’t understand is, the blessing from basketball isn’t the NBA,” he said. It’s the friendships, the relationships, the brotherhood, the connections. The inherent value in teamwork. The love of the game. The platform. The bachelor’s degrees and the master’s, too, all “without paying a dime.”
“And all around, it really gives you an opportunity that will basically help you in the future, when it’s not there. When basketball is gone. Basketball gives you those opportunities that you can continue your life on when basketball stops. And I think that’s what’s good about the game.”