Ngozi Anosike was one of those "why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here" immigrants. Coach Pat Summitt met her 15 years ago next this week, in a gymnasium on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2003, when she recruited Ngozi's daughter Nicky to play basketball at the University of Tennessee. Pat and Ngozi immediately recognized something kindred in each other: They both started from "holes." "At the bottom, and I mean as far at the bottom as you can possibly go," Nicky said.
At first, Nicky Anosike didn't want the great Pat Summitt to see their Staten Island apartment in the projects, didn't want her to see the cockroaches and the mice, and the mattress on the floor instead of a real bed. She was afraid the immaculate coach who wore diamond rings and was always on ESPN would take one look at the hole she was from and pull the scholarship offer. So she asked friends to let her entertain Pat at their home instead of her own.
"I was just so embarrassed with where I had to live," Nicky told me a few years ago. "She will think so low of me, maybe she won't want me at her school. Will she still want me?" What the 18-year-old Nicky didn't know was that Pat came from a cabin on a tobacco farm in Tennessee with no water except what came from the pump off the porch and chinks in the walls that let the weather in, so sometimes you had to throw frost off the blanket in the morning.
Over the next four years, I heard my friend Pat talk about Ngozi more than I ever heard her talk about any other player's mother. She told me about how Ngozi had come from Nigeria in 1978 with a sixth-grade education and was a single mother working multiple jobs while raising eight kids — while studying to finish high school at night. How, in 2003, the same year Nicky went to Tennessee as a freshman, Ngozi got her nursing degree — at 40. It had taken her 26 years of working her way through night schools. "Can you imagine?" Pat said. "What a strong woman." Which for her was the ultimate compliment.
It hit me: Pat admired her. Just as she admired her own mother, Hazel, who had to quit school after the eighth grade to go to work in an Acme boot factory.
In a way, Ngozi's influence helped win Pat's Tennessee teams two more championships. When Pat would run the Lady Vols through a three-hour practice that ended with sprints, sometimes the players would bend double and gasp that they were tired.
"We're not tired," Nicky would say. "My mother is tired."
And everybody would straighten up and start running again.
Nicky never got tired. She moved into the starting lineup as a freshman and started 146 straight games over four years, while carrying a triple major in political science, criminal justice and legal studies. She made the honor roll every semester for all four years. And in 2007 and 2008 she led the Lady Vols to back-to-back national championships.
Pat felt Nicky was probably the hardest worker she ever had, a kid who gave absolutely her all. "She just invests so much in everything she does," Pat would say. In 2008, just after she graduated with those three majors, she was named the NCAA's Woman of the Year for her combination of athletic and academic excellence and community service. She couldn't collect the award in person, because she was playing basketball in Israel. Ngozi and Pat went to accept it for her, together. Two women who understood what tired really was stood on a stage together, holding hands.
Nicky went on to become a teacher — she teaches U.S. history to middle schoolers down in Florida.
So in answer to the question, why do we let all these people from holes into this country, I guess the answer is because they renew our energy and values, and help us combat our growing golf gut. This isn't particularly debated in the sports world, where you can't help noticing how many great American champions with Nigerian roots we have. You can't help noticing how hard they play and how much they give, and how academic-minded they tend to be. And you also can't help noticing that a lot of them go back to Nigeria, where it's said that 70 percent of people live in poverty, yet education is cherished.
Lord knows the sports world has its corruptions and troubles, from concussions to Russian conspiracies to the exploitation that is the NCAA. But at times such as this, you go running back into that world thankful for the central virtue and balm it daily provides: the simple insight that the most beautiful wildflowers come from some of the deepest holes, that the strangest people from the strangest places can become the closest allies, and that prejudice is a matter of ignorance. It arises when people do not know one another, or where we're from.
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