Outside Shots with Mike Ojo: Can’t Spell ‘Cypriot’ without ‘Riot’
Last time on “Outside Shots,” Mike Ojo spent his summer barnstorming around China. This week, in his own words, he shares wild stories from his first season along the Mediterranean Sea.
Coming off a successful summer tour in China, my name was relatively hot among agents and teams. I was fielding offers from countries that I really wanted to go to: Italy, Spain, France, Greece.
But family obligations kept me from capitalizing. By the time I was able to commit to a job, primary signings had already come and gone. For the first time in six years, I was still in Los Angeles in late September.
Fortunately, other pros were still around. The grind didn’t stop. I just had to adapt.
Once October hit, an offer came along from Cyprus and I accepted. I was headed to an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea—a far cry from cold, dreary England. Hello, Paradise!
The trip wouldn’t be without its challenges, from financial crises to a language barrier, but neither would keep me off the 17-hour flight to Larnaca. Even standing around the baggage claim at the airport, it was clear that I wasn’t in the UK anymore.
I took note of other tall, athletic people meandering around the airport. The team (Apollon) scheduled most of its imports’ flights to land around the same time. We identified each other pretty quickly: Darryl Ashford from Creighton, Trevor Gaskins from Ole Miss (whom I knew from China), and James Hublin from Northwestern State. We all shuffled into a van to Limassol.
A half hour later, we were on the side of the road.
Mike Ojo's time in Cyprus got off to an auspicious start. (Mike Ojo)
My agent had warned me that this country was extremely cutthroat on the court. I thought I understood what he meant, but I really had no idea.
Three days in, Trevor was sent home. The reason? Not mine to disclose, but let me tell you: his talent was not the problem. His replacement, Vanderbilt’s Brad Tinsley, was a talented guard in his own right.
As we departed for our first preseason game, my agent mentioned that I might be next on the chopping block. I thought I was performing well, but the coach had his doubts. I had to prove him wrong.
Fortunately, I didn’t have too much time to think about it on our trip to Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital. Since the island was so small, the longest bus trip was only about two hours. During that ride, I noticed some unusual sights—namely, white UN trucks driving on the highway and a gigantic Turkish flag painted on the side of a mountain.
The Turkish flag and the phrase "I am proud to be a Turk" are etched on to the side of a mountain in Cyprus. (Courtesy of Mike Ojo)
As I found out, the Greek nation of Cyprus had technically been at war with Turkey since 1974. Patriotic Turks painted that flag—along with a quote reading “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’”—in the 1980s as a (not so) friendly reminder. The UN was there to enforce a green line between the two countries.
With Jay-Z’s “Crown” blasting from my headphones, I stepped off the bus. The humidity was so crazy, sweat instantly started to drip from my body. But I had to go to work.
They can't keep a good man down
Always keep a smile when they want me to frowns
Keep the vibes and they stood my grounds
They will never ever take my crown
From tip-off of that first game, I knew it was gonna be a good one. I was in a great flow. It didn’t hurt to have some friendly chatter going on between me and a few members of the opposing team. I was told that my coach didn’t believe I could score efficiently or play as a combo guard.
I can humbly say, I proved him wrong. In 27 minutes, I dropped 30 points on nine shots (7-of-9 from the field, 3-of-3 from three, 13-of-14 from the free throw line). By the grace of God, I locked up my spot for the season.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for Brad, who got the short end of the stick. Even though our time together was brief, I consider him, to this day, one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.
Having survived the preseason, I was looking forward to our first meaningful game. We weren’t going to have to travel too far, since we were playing our literal next-door neighbor: the A.E.L. 1964 basketball club.
The bad blood in this rivalry ran deep, like Duke vs. North Carolina, but each team is affiliated with different political parties. Our president and general manager told us this game—again, the very first one on the schedule that counted—would determine the outcome of our season.
Still, I didn’t think too much about the rivalry.
It’s just a game, I figured. The fans can’t touch us. They aren’t even really a part of the game, right?
For a rivalry game, the gym was eerily quiet and relatively empty with 30 minutes until the opening tip.
Oh yeah, I thought, they definitely gassed this up.
While going through lay-up lines, I heard a what began as a faint drumming sound, but grew louder and louder, as if approaching the gym.
After warmups, I jogged to the opposite side of the court with my back to the out basket, when I heard what sounded like an explosion. The opposing team's fans had stormed the gym. Hundreds of chanting and screaming Cypriots suddenly piled into the stands. They lit flares, set off fireworks—the whole nine. I had never seen anything like it.
Those fans weren’t any more polite with their words. They spat at us, tossed coins at us, even poured water on the side of our court. It was mayhem. The smoke in the arena didn’t help my asthma, either.
Despite those distractions, we came to play that day. We put away our rivals early, though that did nothing to quell their maniacal fans. As the second half began, I had to inbound the ball right in front of some of the craziest ones, who showered me with foreign liquids and spit. The referee seemed to get a kick out of this because he took his sweet time handing me the ball.
The Cypriot fans truly were of a different breed. We were warned the game wouldn’t finish because these fans didn’t want to see their team lose. At the time, it didn't make any sense to me. I thought they would simply just leave.
Instead, they stopped the game. Fans rushed the floor to attack the referees, as well as some of us players.
That first person you see rushing into the tunnel? That was me. I wanted NO part of that.
That was the first of three riots I would see during this one season.
In a playing environment like this, off-days were essential. I made a point of immersing myself in the local culture. One experience took me to the ruins of Kourion, an ancient city that was about 15 miles from my home. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to check out Greek ruins, let alone as a break from on-court chaos.
While in Cyprus, Mike got to enjoy the sight of ancient Greek ruins. (Mike Ojo)
All told, we had 17 different players come through our team during the season. We managed to adapt and persevere. We were hovering around second and third place for most of the season while making a major push to win the Cup tournament.
We won the draw and were awarded a home game against Keravnos in the Cup semifinals. I actually grew up training with one of their players, named Bill Clark. Bill wasn’t one to play games and he had been having a great season.
Our fans came out in droves, going crazy with flares lit. It definitely felt better having them on our side that time.
The game itself was hard fought. We were up four with just over a minute left. Our fans were spitting on the opposing team, and jumping over plexiglass awnings to get through security.
Turns out, they picked the wrong team to spit on. Their saliva caught Bill, along with another import named Jourdan Demuynck, who decided to spit back.
Then, all hell broke loose.
Our fans rushed the floor and chased them out of the arena, thereby ending the game. Keravnos filed an appeal to play out the remainder at a later date, but since they decided not to come back out of the locker room that night, that appeal was null and void.
A win is a win, I guess. Heading into the Cup championship, I was expecting our team to be set, but no—another favorite teammate of mine, Daryl Ashford, was sent home.
Those who remained and who were just brought in were treated like kings. There was so much excitement among the club and the front office.
We went to this game with a police escort, which made sense given our experience with Cypriot fans. Upon arriving at the arena, it felt like it was going to be our night. Again, 30 minutes before tip-off, it was eerily quiet. But this time, I knew what was to come.
Fans burst in screaming, chanting, setting off flares. It was time for battle. Our matchup: Apoel, a perennial powerhouse and another rival of ours. (In retrospect, it seemed as if everyone hated us.)
As we competed on the floor, fights broke out among fans in the stands. Some were throwing fireworks at each other. During one trip to the free throw line, I saw coins and lighters tossed my way. Clearly, I was target practice for the opposing fans.
With around two minutes left on the clock and our squad up 10, Apoel fans began to take action, in typical Cypriot fashion. As I stood in the right corner waiting for the ball, I saw a bright red flash out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see a flare flying at me, so I took off toward the locker room.
I’d seen this story before: the fans were trying to shut it down.
Then came the tear gas. Both teams were sent to their locker rooms, where I already was. I’d had enough.
After the arena had been cleared, we played out the remaining two minutes of the game. We won, but it definitely didn’t feel right. Without any fans in the stands, we could only celebrate with each other, but that was enough.
Through all that adversity, we still managed to win something. We were all gassed up to get a bonus for winning, too. At least, it was in our contracts. (I haven’t nor will I ever see that money.)
After that victory, everything chilled out. It was almost as if no one cared about the rest of the season. We lost in the second round of the playoffs to Apoel, the eventual champions of the league.
All in all, it was a successful season. I finished in the top five in multiple statistical categories and ended up on the All-Bosman team and third-team All-Cyprus. I was already thinking about my next step, but things would come to a screeching halt that summer…