Outside Shots With Mike Ojo: Preparing to Hoop Across the Pond
Last week on “Outside Shots,” Mike Ojo recounted how he found his first agent. This week, in his own words, he details how he got his body and mind ready for his first professional basketball opportunity in Europe.
Rule of thumb: trust is earned and not just given. I had started to form a basic business relationship with Dozie Mbonu, my agent and fellow Lehigh alum. But by no means would I say I trusted him yet.
Before I fully committed to signing with Dozie, I wanted him to show me something—anything— that would prove his ability to get me a job. (Agents do an AMAZING job at selling dreams…)
Next thing I knew, I had an invite to training camp with the Nigerian national men’s basketball team in 2011. Dozie was now my agent. At the time, I wasn’t aware just how big of a deal this actually was or what could have potentially come from it.
As a soon-to-be rookie, I had so much learning to do. Masai Ujiri, the current president of the Toronto Raptors, essentially was the general manager of the Nigerian team. John Lucas II was the head coach. Current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka was playing on the team. So was Ben Uzoh, who played for the New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Raptors. It was a great experience. It helped set the stage for my first summer as a pro.
Basketball had always been a priority to me, but when it became my job, my level of commitment went through the roof. For a second summer, I stayed on the East Coast—in North Babylon, New York—to work out and focus on my game. I was fortunate enough to work with Jerry Powell, who had trained the likes of Paul George, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Mike James, among others. All of this came about through my best friend and collegiate point guard, Prentice Small.
(Much Thanks and Love to the Small family. No words to describe how much I Love and appreciate you guys.)
Prentice also had aspirations of playing overseas, so it worked out perfectly. We were on the grind, to say the least. We worked out 2-3 times daily because in order to be a pro, you have to work like a pro.
Mornings would start with a 9 a.m. wake-up call, typically from Prentice’s little bro—who’s now a 6’2", 310-pound NFL prospect—wandering into my room shouting, “Mike! Mike! Mike!”
After a quick breakfast, we’d be out of the house and in the car heading to “The Hill.” Imagine two young college grads blasting Ace Hood’s “Hustle Hard" while shooting the shit and reflecting on funny moments from the past.
The Hill was a 400-meter sprint up a 35-degree incline, up to 12 times, in that sticky, swamp-like East Coast heat. From there, we’d head right to the annex, where the on-court work would begin: ball-handling with heavy basketballs, moves on the move, shots off the bounce, catch and shoot, King of the Court, 3s, 5s, and occasionally (and unfortunately) the Vertimax. After a quick Chipotle lunch (pre-E. coli issues) and a two-hour nap, it was back to the gym for more work. We did this five days a week.
I made some lifelong friends from that gym: Josh Smith, Tim Ambrose (I'll never forget how you dunked on my college teammate, not naming names), Ak Bennett, Jon Rivera, Pat Quinn, Tyrone Gilmore, Nikko Callender and Drew Ayodeji. Great people, but even greater competitors.
While I was putting in the work on the court, my agent was trying to make things happen for me off of it. Initially, things moved pretty slowly, and as a rookie, I was extremely anxious about it. The initial offers just weren’t up to par. Dozie stressed patience. I listened, and should have kept listening. Many more offers would come in—from Germany, France, Spain and Italy, to name a few—but none felt right.
Fast forward to August 2011. I’ve had one of the most productive summers of my life. My game is up, my confidence is up, and I’m ready to play.
Finally, an offer that felt right fell my way. It came from the Plymouth Raiders of the British Basketball League, which lined up perfectly with my British passport. With my agent's guidance and tutelage, I decided this was where I wanted to start my career.
Mike began his professional career with the Plymouth Raiders of the British Basketball League. (Courtesy of Mike Ojo)
I was nervous. Even though it would be an easy transition due to the similarities between America and England, I didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, a friend of mine connected me with a woman named Catherine Carr, who also was headed out there to play. Knowing I had at least one familiar face over there other than family was comforting.
(Little did I know she was a walking bucket! She casually scored 1,995 points at Holy Family University, and would go on to become the LeBron James of her league.)
With 14 hours of travel ahead of me, I boarded a 747 headed for Plymouth, England. Though faced with the unknown, I was ready for the challenge. Fortunately, I was out like a light on the flight.
The travel day felt short, but landing in a foreign airport was something else. I remember thinking to myself, Thank God everyone speaks English. Unbeknownst to me, I was the last player to arrive, with training camp set to begin the next day. My sleeping pattern was destroyed. (It’s never recovered.)
We hit the ground running right into two-a-days—nothing new for me, coming off a full summer of work. We had strength and conditioning in the mornings, and practice in the evenings. The lifts weren’t out of this world and the conditioning stuff was light. I was already in shape.
On the court, though, was a different story. I needed time to adjust. The European game was different. That first week was a struggle.
But instead of getting down on myself, I just got to work. I immediately started putting in extra time on the court. I wanted to succeed. As the youngest guy on the team, that work was necessary.
My life as a professional had officially begun…