Basketball Has Been The American Dream For Marcel Esonwune
Marcel Esonwune was walking on campus early in his freshman year at York College in New York City. Another student saw his 6-foot-6 frame and thought Esonwune would be a great candidate to play in the students vs. staff basketball game.
It was a natural assumption to think Esonwune was a basketball player, but he had barely even heard of the sport and never played it. He was a soccer player, having grown up in Lagos, Nigeria.
But being an adventurous soul, he gave hoops a try.
And it changed his life.
“One of the staff (players) was actually one of the assistant coaches on the men’s basketball team,” the 32-year-old Esonwune said of that day in 2007. “And he saw me get a rebound and went, ‘Who is this kid?’ He stopped the game and talked to me. ‘Who are you? Where are you from? Why don’t you try out for basketball?’”
After some convincing that the offer wasn’t a ruse, Esonwune joined the basketball team. His game steadily improved as he went through college and he has stuck with it since graduating. Now, he is one of the top 3x3 players in the world and plays for NY Harlem, one of the top 3x3 teams in the world.
This weekend, Esonwune will be in Atlanta for the Red Bull USA Basketball 3X South Regional. It is the third of four regionals being held this month, with 24 men’s and 24 women’s teams eventually earning invites to the 2020 Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Nationals next spring. Pending the U.S. men and women qualifying for the Olympic Games, four-person teams — not automatically the champions from Nationals — will be selected to represent America in Tokyo next summer.
While Esonwune, the 14th-ranked player in the world by FIBA, and Dominique Jones, the No. 8 player, did not take part in last weekend’s East Regional in New York, Harlem made it to the semifinals, where it lost to rival Princeton 22-18. Esonwune and Jones were in Mongolia, finishing third in the FIBA 3x3 World Tour Challenger event. Harlem is currently the fourth-ranked team in the world, with Princeton at No. 6.
Harlem and Princeton aren’t bitter rivals. Instead, they know they are leading the way for USA Basketball in this new discipline, which is making its Olympic debut next year. In fact, the two teams clashed in the World Tour Masters title game in Lausanne, Switzerland, with Harlem pulling out a 21-15 win.
“At the end of the day, you want to beat people, but we’re still from the same country,” Esonwune said of the competitiveness between the two U.S. teams. “At that moment, all I saw was Team Harlem and Team Princeton and, after the game, it was all love.”
Esonwune moved from Nigeria to New York when he was about 8 years old. He remained in the U.S. until it was time for high school, when he said his dad thought the education that he would receive in Nigeria would be better than the local schools. Esonwune would return to the States in the summer before heading back for school. Then came college and nearby York College, where he immediately had an impact on the basketball court. He went from averaging 10.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks as a freshman — again, with no prior basketball experience — to 20.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.4 blocks as a senior for the Division III Cardinals.
He now works as an accountant in New York and is thankful his company allows him the freedom to pursue his basketball passion, which takes him all around the world almost every weekend during the 3x3 World Tour season. All that traveling also lead to him becoming a naturalized citizen in 2013.
“When I got it, it was a great feeling,” Esonwune said. “Because, you know, people could say that, ‘Oh, it’s patriotic. I feel American.’ I did feel American when the judge was swearing us in. You feel that pride as an American. That blue passport is a passport to the world.”
And now, after finding his niche with the 3x3 game, he knows something much bigger could be coming: Possibly representing the U.S. in the Olympic Games.
“Wow, that would be like a bucket list. It would be amazing. Imagine me, a kid from Nigeria, becoming a naturalized citizen and now I’m representing the country playing basketball in the Olympics. ... That would be a dream come true.”