Monday, January 4, 2010

With a Head on Education, Tunde Agboola Had His Heart Set on Basketball

BOSTON-Tunde Agboola has much to be proud of. You’d never know it if you spoke to him or glanced at statistics though. The senior guard who made the Terriers’ basketball team in tryouts as a walk-on three years ago doesn’t brag about his academic achievements and doesn’t mope about sitting on the bench. He doesn’t have time to.

If you ask Agboola about graduating in the top five percent of his high school class, he’ll just laugh it off saying his high school wasn’t that competitive.

Bring up academics at Boston University and you’ll assume nothing more than a relatively high grade point average for an athlete. He won’t mention the dean’s list, the academic scholarship or the fact his younger sister just earned a scholarship to play for the Terriers next season.

Prod him for a highlight of his basketball career and you won’t hear an exciting account of the baskets he nailed in consecutive games last month, his first points since 2007.

“Definitely the free gear we get especially the hoodies and the sneakers,” said Agboola with a straight face before laughing and then turning serious. “The memory of just being a team is good enough for me.”

“He’s not very comfortable talking about himself and is very humble,” said Terriers’ head coach Patrick Chambers. “To have that type of personality is really a gift, especially in this day and age where everybody has an ego and is so into their name being in the paper, or on the internet, and the whole popularity thing. He’s got a cool way about him.”

A way that’s so cool, confident and focused, he’d be the well rounded guy to bring home to mom and dad.

“I have a one-year-old daughter and if she was 19, 20-years-old and was dating a Tunde, I’d be ecstatic,” said Chambers.

Agboola’s motivation for playing a Division I sport without guaranteed significant playing time is simple. He loves basketball and the camaraderie that surrounds his team.

“Basketball is also a means to get away from all the engineering work and everything else that I’m doing with school,” said the 6-foot-4 fan favorite. “And it’s the sport that I just always liked to play.”

A computer engineering major, he also works as a teaching assistant for a freshman engineering class. He agreed to talk in a dormitory lounge one evening despite being “extremely busy with final projects.” Dividing time between the basketball court, the laboratory and the classroom can be a challenge, but one he thrives on.

“It’s definitely hard, but when you have less time on your hands, you have less time to do nothing,” he said donning a striped polo shirt as opposed to the BU athletic staple of red and grey sweats.

When he’s not busy conducting research on mobile phone development, like Google’s Android, or peer-to-peer network algorithms, he’s sitting in back to back two hour engineering lectures and running drills in three hour basketball practices. He also could be playing the occasional round of FIFA soccer with teammates on the locker room Xbox.

“I came here for the education. That’s my main priority. Basketball has to come second sometimes,” he said adding that his teammates and coaches have always been supportive of his situation.

After consulting with his coaches, he didn’t travel with the team for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off games in San Juan this November because he would have missed too many classes and did not travel at all last season because of a tough academic year.

His attention to school work paid off. He was named to the America East Commissioner's Honor Roll in 2008 which recognizes the conference’s athletes with a 3.5 GPA or higher. This May, he was awarded the Harold C. Case Scholarship for outstanding scholarly accomplishment and participation in extracurricular activities. To be considered, candidates must have at least a cumulative GPA of 3.7.

“It was definitely a great honor just based on how prestigious the award is, but it was even better to be able to help my parents out who actually sacrifice and pay for my education,” said Agboola.

A native of Springfield, Mass., his father was originally from Nigeria while his mother was born in South Carolina. His idol growing up was the great Michael Jordan, the man who also lends his name to Agboola’s favorite sneakers. He always enjoyed playing basketball since he was seven, especially with his older brother Walter, but it wasn’t until his senior year at Methuen High School that he got serious about it. Not making the varsity team his sophomore and junior year was the spark.

“I just thought ‘well maybe if I work at it,’” he said. So he trained harder and Rich Barden, the head coach of the boys’ basketball team noticed.

“Right away one of the things Tunde brought to the team was his confidence in himself and his willingness to be a great teammate,” said Barden in a telephone interview.
Pulling down rebounds, making good passes and knowing when to speak up were some of his strengths.

“He knew how to get to other people and make them play better. He was so good at saying ‘listen you didn’t do that right, or ‘you need to do that better’ but didn’t ever make someone feel bad. He’s a born leader and so well spoken and so appropriate that people want to be around a kid like him.”

Barden takes his team once a year to a Terriers game to cheer on Agboola and to inspire them to continue their own education.

“He loves competing and loves basketball, but he knew his ticket in life was academics,” said Barden.

Agboola chuckled when asked about his future after graduation.

“Not a basketball career. I mean, I’d like to play in a men’s league or something but nothing too serious. After graduation, I’ll probably go to business school or get a job in something to do with computer engineering,” he said.

He may not be a star according to the stat sheets, but his contributions to the Terriers, 4-6 so far this season, should not to be discounted.

“He’s a senior and a leader who knows what it takes to be successful because he’s successful on the floor and off the floor,” said Chambers. “He’s a big piece to this puzzle.”

Agboola said he was excited and surprised when former Terriers head coach Dennis Wolff picked him in open tryouts to make the team in 2006. Only one other player of the nine who tried out was chosen.

“He is a great teammate and always plays hard when he gets in practice,” said Scott Brittain, a senior forward on the Terriers. “He’s also improved incredible amounts since he first walked on the team and would fire free throws off the backboard,” he added jokingly.

Aside from being well respected in the locker room, he’s also known for keeping guys fired up and loose with his knack for wit and humor according to his coaches and teammates.

“Off the court he is the hardest working kid I ever met,” said Brittain. “On the court he is a vocal leader” or “the hype man.”

“I can hear him on the bench and in huddles before I get in there encouraging guys to keep fighting,” said Coach Chambers. “In the position that he’s in, he could easily be quiet and say, ‘Hey, I’m just a walk on.’ He takes great pride in his role.”

Coach Chambers recognizes Agboola’s full plate thinks he’s gotten everything he’s asked of him.

“What we ask him to do is probably enough as far as his gifts and his talents. If he wasn’t in such a difficult major, and worked on his game more, you never know. He could probably play some more minutes,” said Chambers.

Agboola has just six career points, and fifteen minutes of action in three seasons with the team. Yet when the announcer belts out the player substitutions, “Coming in is number 20 Tunde Agboola,” the Terrier fans near the pep band section always seem to howl just a little bit louder.

They especially erupted when he scored his first point since the 2007 season in the Terriers 78-70 loss against the Harvard Crimson this November. With 15 seconds left in the first half, he stole the ball, raced down the court, and hit the net with a perfect layup to bring the Terriers back to within one point of Harvard. In the team’s following game against No. 13 University of Connecticut, he dropped down another layup.

“It’s just a sigh of relief like oh, I did it finally,” said Agboola about his scoring mindset.
When the Terriers faced off against Bucknell University in the sprawling Agganis Arena earlier this month, they rallied for an early 21-6 lead. Agboola said he favors the modest Case Gymnasium where practices are held and doesn’t mind that the basketball games don’t draw as many fans as the men’s hockey games.

With a clear white t-shirt underneath his Terriers jersey, he jumped out of his seat and onto the court. The last nineteen seconds of the half were his. Two minutes more came later, but no baskets or steals to be recorded next to his name this time.

The empty seats and minutes spent watching from afar didn’t faze him and they never do.
“You’re not necessarily here just to play for the fans,” said Agboola. “You want to play basketball to play basketball. That’s the main focus.”