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The trials and travels of Mekeel's Gideon Agbo

The trials and travels of Mekeel's Gideon Agbo

Starting basketball center, 17, from Nigeria's strife-ridden Benue State
The trials and travels of Mekeel's Gideon Agbo
Gideon Agbo, back left, is shown with his host family.
Photographer: Photo provided

Gideon Agbo can’t pick just one.

So many things, he said, have changed in his life these last couple years.

But he’ll play along. Agbo, a 17-year-old who moved in 2016 from Nigeria to the Capital Region and started attending Mekeel Christian Academy, wants to please. So he’ll offer up some answers about what’s changed the most in his life.

It could be the weather.

If not, it’s the food.

Or, perhaps, it’s his new family . . . or new classmates . . . or new teammates.

“Everything,” Agbo said, “is so different.”

But Agbo, the starting center for his school’s boys’ basketball team, doesn’t bring up the obvious.

His new life has its challenges, yes, but it also doesn’t include the constant fear of violence he grew up with in Nigeria’s Benue State, an area in which Boko Haram is a threat, and deadly conflict between Muslim cattle herders and Christian farmers occurs on an agonizingly common basis. Just earlier this week, more than a couple dozen people were reportedly killed in a conflict between cattle herders and farmers.

Agbo has had friends die.

Seen dead bodies stacked in his village.

Had to hide, to seek shelter from danger.

That Agbo now focuses on what’s different in his life — such as his new favorite meal, spaghetti and meatballs, or how much he could do without snowy winters — and not the constant threat of violence makes sense to Darrin Jahnel, Agbo’s host father in the United States. Agbo, who plays Saturday afternoon with his basketball teammates in the Class B state quarterfinals at Hudson Valley Community College, became acclimated to the violence that marked his childhood.

“That’s probably the most eye-opening thing about him,” Darrin Jahnel said.

AGBO.jpg

Agbo lives with Darrin Jahnel and his wife Jenn, plus their three children — 13-year-old Christian, 11-year-old Caleb and 7-year-old Taia, the last of whom the couple formally adopted after first serving as her foster parents. Agbo connected with the Jahnels through a former Mekeel Christian Academy student, Oscar Iteji, who played basketball this winter at the Community College of Rhode Island and grew up not far from Agbo before heading to the United States.

“And it was always my dream to come to America,” said Agbo, who is in the United States on a student visa.

Agbo and the Jahnels only spoke a few times via Skype before both parties opted to give living together a shot. Before the Jahnels had connected with Agbo, they had already been considering adopting another child.  

“My wife and I have just always felt like that’s what we’re supposed to do. If a kid needs a home, we feel called to do that,” said Darrin Jahnel, CEO of the Jahnel Group software company, where his wife also works. “So when we heard Gideon’s story and how bad his situation was over there, that’s what we thought we should do. . . . Most people in our life thought we were absolutely crazy.”

Cue the pause to set up the punch line.

“Which,” Darrin Jahnel said, “is kind of true.”

Crazy or not, the Jahnels — plus Iteji — went to Albany International Airport in August 2016 to meet Agbo and bring him to their home. Agbo didn’t need long to unpack: He showed up with the clothes on his 6-foot-4 body, plus a drawstring bag holding a clean shirt and underwear.

“Those were all his possessions,” said Darrin Jahnel, whose family lived in Guilderland before moving in the past year to Schenectady.

Like the rest of the Jahnel’s children, Agbo was signed up to attend Mekeel Christian Academy. That first year was tough. He’d never been away from his parents and five siblings, who remain in Nigeria. He wasn’t used to changing classrooms to take different subjects. That September, too, he tore his left ACL.

Even before his injury, Agbo was ineligible to play basketball last season for Mekeel Christian Academy because of his status as an international transfer student. He stuck around the hoops team, anyway, working back from his injury while starting to learn the ins and outs of a game he hadn’t played much in an organized setting or indoors.  

Having Agbo around was worth it right away for head coach Chad Bowman’s team.  

A grasp on basic basketball terminology eluded Agbo.

How to be a great teammate did not.

“He’s the kind of kid,” Bowman said, “that when you’re around him, he makes you feel better.”

“And he was there every day for us,” said Jordan Jackson, a senior who scored MVP honors last weekend from the Section II Class B boys’ basketball tournament.

And every day, Agbo got more used to his new surroundings. His lifelong goal had been to head to the United States to further his education, and his intelligence is evident.

“He’s able to pick things up pretty quickly,” said Bowman, who is also Mekeel Christian Academy’s headmaster. “His rate of improvement is quick.”

His social life boomed quick, too. Agbo’s face often wears a stern expression, but his grin appears easy and seems to stretch from one ear to the other. That smile has helped make him a favorite of 7-year-old Taia — “He protects her,” Darrin Jahnel said, “and she climbs him like a jungle gym” — and his peers.

“Someone’s always picking him up and bringing him somewhere,” Darrin Jahnel said. “The dude’s more popular than anyone I know.”

He’s developed into a solid basketball player, too. Agbo’s skills are raw, but he’s a ferocious rebounder and a solid defender for a team that already has enough scoring with seniors Jackson, Deonte Holder, and Carter Stewart.

“He’s a monster on the glass for us,” Jackson said of Agbo, who had 16 rebounds in last weekend’s area title game. “He gets better every single day.”

Even the one complaint Bowman has about Agbo’s on-court ability is an endearing one. Agbo is more comfortable setting picks and chasing rebounds than shooting . . . so he’s prone to forgetting that certain plays — “And it’s not like there are 12 of them,” Bowman said — are designed specifically for him to score.

“And,” Bowman said of Agbo’s reluctance to shoot, “that doesn’t seem to happen a whole lot in America very often.”

In general, this school year has been more comfortable for Agbo. He’s better in the classroom, where he’s worked his way into becoming an average student, and the everyday lessons he needed outside of it —  perhaps most important: “Don’t put metal in the microwave” — have mostly been learned. He’s able to communicate better, too. He spoke English when he arrived in the United States, but has grown more comfortable with the language’s nuances and terms. One of Agbo’s few remaining struggles is that Alexa — of the Jahnels’ Amazon Echo — rarely cooperates when his deep voice requests the country music songs for which he’s developed a liking.

“That has no chance,” Darrin Jahnel said.

Agbo’s life, though, remains so different from his teammates, peers and host family. When Agbo mopes around the house, his host parents wonder if he’s going through “classic teenager stuff” or if there’s something more at play.

Sometimes, though, they know something more is going on with Agbo. He speaks with his family in Nigeria several times each week, but earlier this winter had to go without hearing from them for a sustained period of time because they had taken shelter at a police station with danger looming. Twice as a boy, Agbo did the same with his family.

“His life experiences as a young boy and a young man are something we really can’t relate to,” Bowman said.

While Agbo is academically a junior at Mekeel Christian Academy, it’s likely he won’t be eligible to play for the Lions next season since he is viewed — at least, for now — to be a senior when it comes to athletics. If he’s not able to play high school basketball next season, Agbo said his plan is to remain at Mekeel Christian Academy before attending college in the United States to pursue a degree in international relations or political science.

“He wants to help his country when he’s older,” Darrin Jahnel said.

Right now, though, Agbo is enjoying the moment. He loves his school, his host family, his teammates.

His eyes water a bit when he’s asked what this school year has been like for him.

“I must say,” Agbo said, “it’s been awesome.”

Any certain thing stick out the most?

Not really.

Can’t pick just one.

“Everything about this year,” Agbo said, “has been awesome for me.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

— — —

Name: Gideon Agbo

Age: 17

Home country: Nigeria

Height: 6-foot-4

Favorite meal: Spaghetti and meatballs

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