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Favour Aire, the WCAC’s best big man, has McNamara eyeing its first league title since 1995

Bishop McNamara center Favour Aire has helped the Mustangs to an 11-0 start this season. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

The Bishop McNamara Mustangs needed a basket and knew where to find one.

In a battle of the two top teams in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, No. 5 McNamara and No. 10 O’Connell were tied with less than a minute remaining Friday night. The Mustangs inbounded the ball and immediately lobbed a pass to the low block.

There, the 6-foot-11 frame of Favour Aire arched backward to feel the defender behind him, then Aire caught the pass with one hand. Once he settled himself a few feet from the basket, the outcome was inevitable: a right-handed hook to give the Mustangs the lead and, soon enough, a 62-55 victory.

Aire is the towering totem of this McNamara program, a four-year varsity player who has long been at the center of this team’s hopes for local ascension. As he has developed as a player, the Mustangs have developed as a program.

Aire is averaging 14.5 points and 10.8 rebounds, with double-doubles in 10 of 11 games. And McNamara (11-0) stands as the only undefeated team remaining in the WCAC. The Prince George’s County program has transitioned from a hot start to something more concrete: A new power within the area’s proudest conference.

The development of the Nigeria native, widely considered the best big man in the WCAC, has been a catalyst for the team’s rise.

“He’s a huge part of it,” Coach Marty Keithline said. “Watching him develop has been amazing, and now we’re just blessed to have him in this community. Everybody here, teachers and students, they love him.”

In November, Aire signed to play for Jim Larranaga at the University of Miami. Coral Gables will serve as the destination for a journey that began in 2017, when Aire came to America with the goal of finding a future in the game he had just begun to love.

Making himself big

Aire estimates he grew about a foot between ages 11 and 14, going from 5-8 to 6-8 and drawing gasps and nicknames each time he returned to school from summer break a little (or a lot) taller.

He was a soccer player in Nigeria who saw himself as a striker but was mostly relegated to goalie because of his length. When he was in the seventh grade, a family friend joked he was tall enough to start chasing basketball money instead. He had never really considered the sport and started to play soon after.

In November of that year, he attended a youth basketball camp in his home country. He was surrounded by older kids but big enough to compete. He wasn’t completely sure what he was doing on the floor but felt afterward that he had performed well. In fact, he looked around and grew confident that this new sport was his to dominate.

“When I was back home, I thought I was LeBron [James],” Aire remembered. “There wasn’t a whole lot of people that played. … I was probably one of the tallest people I had seen in my whole life, so I thought nobody could really stop me. With no skills, no workouts, anything, I just assumed it would all pan out.”

It was at that camp that his father learned about the possibility of sending his son to the United States to play, and the process was set in motion a few months later. Aire arrived in America on Sept. 5, 2017, a date he recalls proudly.

He would live with a guardian, Taj Hawkins, who was an AAU coach in the D.C. area. He attended eighth grade at Capitol Christian Academy in Prince George’s County, and occasionally they would have basketball practice at the high school up the road, McNamara.

Call for the ball

Not long after those middle school practices, Aire was a freshman member of the Mustangs’ varsity team. His offensive game was still raw, but he excelled on defense. He found that the footwork and timing necessary to protect the rim came naturally to him, something he credits to a childhood spent on the soccer field.

Against much stiffer competition, the sky-high confidence he once possessed in Nigeria was tabled for a more patient approach. He focused on earning playing time for the Mustangs and helping himself in the weight room, concentrating on incremental improvements such as developing a left-handed layup.

Over his sophomore and junior years, Aire rounded out his game and started to attract college interest. But if the scouts were watching, he never really noticed. His humble approach might have been an overcorrection. Aire says it was a shock to him that on the first day college coaches were able to contact 2022 prospects, his phone kept buzzing with scholarship offers.

“I didn’t think anybody knew who I was,” Aire said. “I thought I was just playing basketball on the low. … So getting all those offers in one day, it made things feel possible.”

Eventually ranked as a four-star prospect, he chose the Hurricanes over Georgetown and Rutgers. Aire said Miami, in the midst of a bounce-back season, felt like the best place for him to develop — and the pleasant weather didn’t hurt.

But before the big man heads to college, he has unfinished business at McNamara. He wants to bring the Mustangs their first WCAC championship since 1995.

“You see the banners on the wall; it’s been a long time,” Aire said. “This school has done a lot for me, so it would be a nice way to leave: giving them another one.”

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