Ganiyu Yahaya: From Court Sleeping to Scholarship
When Ganiyu Yahaya walks around the campus of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, he is widely recognized. Known affectionately as “G” by his classmates, the men’s basketball team’s leading scorer is a mini-celebrity at the Division III school.
All it took to get there was a gruesome injury, a few years of sleeping on outdoor courts, traversing an ocean and a little perseverance.
“It’s just life,” he said.
The senior hails from Abuja, Nigeria, and played soccer as a child. He was pretty good, getting invited to tournaments and joining a club that had a history of sending players to England. But during one event, a dirty tackle snapped Yahaya’s left arm.
The recovery took four months, which included local doctors twisting his arm, Yahaya said. By the end of it, he had decided soccer wasn’t for him.
Athletics and competition had always been a big part of Yahaya’s life: on top of soccer, he dabbled in handball, chess and others. He had played basketball before with friends, but it wasn’t until he walked away from soccer that he began to take hoops seriously.
There was a court only a 10-minute walk away from his home, and Yahaya would first cut his chops there with other locals. One day, Yahaya heard word that a kid he often played with, a 6-foot-7 lanky boy with a funny voice and limited coordination, got a scholarship to play in America. Yahaya thought to himself, if that guy could do it, then why couldn’t he?
“I felt like I was better than that kid,” Yahaya explained. “I discovered he was in a club that was about an hour away from my house. That was where I learned how to play organized basketball.”
Yahaya first went to the club in 2010, and he was hooked. But he needed a lot of work.
“I was raw. I just had athletic abilities,” he said. “I could jump. I was raw. Lacked a lot of skills. Started working on those skills, started working out every day.”
But a new challenge presented itself: transportation.
The club was an hour away on the other side of Abuja, and Yahaya didn’t have a car available to him. He is the youngest of eight children, meaning the family’s resources were already stretched thin. Add in that his parents didn’t support his basketball dreams, and that meant the outdoor court doubled as a bedroom on many nights.
“Usually I wouldn’t have transport money,” Yahaya said. “Sometimes we’d sleep on the basketball court, and it was an outdoor court. And I’m talking about 95 to 100-degree weather most days.”
During breaks from school, which are more plentiful in Nigeria than in America, Yahaya and his friends would spend all day at the complex. The mornings and early afternoons were used for personal workouts and getting their individual skills training in, then they played against current or former adult professionals in the evening who would come to the court to remain in touch with the game.
Yahaya didn’t only stay at the court for financial reasons. His parents, especially his dad, didn’t like that their son was spending so much time and effort on basketball. They didn’t see a future in basketball, and they wanted their son to put energy into something they deemed more productive, like school.
“My dad would sometimes take my basketball bag and hide it in his room,” Yahaya explained. “I would just sneak into his room, get my bag and just take it. I wouldn’t go home for days. I would just stay on the court.”
It wasn’t only his parents who tried discouraging him.
“People would see my wearing basketball shorts and carrying a backpack, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, you should go study or do something,’ but in my head, they don’t understand what I’m chasing. For me, I’m chasing a dream,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to be any regular kid in Nigeria.”
What they didn’t understand, though, was that Yahaya was doing what he was with education in mind.
“I saw you could really get an education in the United States, which would really be a big deal,” he said. “It was the dream of every kid. If you get a degree in America and you go back to Nigeria, you could really have a good job in Nigeria. Playing basketball, you could really go far.”
That’s not to mention what he knew the impact of a scholarship would have on his parents’ finances.
“I didn’t know if I was even going to have the chance to go to college because it was hard. My brother was struggling to stay in college because of funds, and I was the last,” Yahaya explained. “It was deemed that I had to go to school, but it was hard. Seeing that pressure on my mom, I just felt like, if I can get this scholarship and go to school where I don’t have to pay, that would save her a ton. That would save the family a ton.
“Seeing that, that was like a motivation to me just to keep going. And the fact that I see people every day (through the sports complex) who travel out and knew that there was no way I couldn’t do it. I know these are things that I can do. So, I dedicated my time, my effort, my energy, everything was dedicated to basketball at that point, because I knew I could do it.”
Fortunately, his sister understood. She had already moved out of the house and had her own abode, and sometimes Yahaya would crash there when he couldn’t afford or didn’t want to go home.
“I explained to my sister, ‘Listen, I can do this. I know I got skills enough to do it, and I know I have the heart enough to do it, so I know I can do it,’” he recounted. “My sister, she’s my sibling, so she’ll listen to me. If everyone was against me, she was always there. She saw that I could do it. Sometimes she came to the court and even talked to my coach. My coach probably told her that I had a chance.”
As Yahaya continued his basketball career despite his parents’ wishes, he progressed in skill and stature. Eventually, he was traveling around Nigeria to play in tournaments, and his exposure was growing. Over time, his parents realized that this could build their son a brighter future, and they came around to the idea.
Looking back, Yahaya understands why his parents were so against his passion for hoops. While he had the benefit of seeing other people in his program and area succeed and use basketball or other athletics to propel themselves, that wasn’t something they had seen before.
“They believed dead on that if you don’t go to school, if you don’t go to college, you can’t amount to anything in life,” Yahaya said. “I understood that I was doing it to go to school, I wasn’t just going it to play. I was doing it because I was trying to get a scholarship and go to school. They couldn’t see that at that point because they’d never seen a thing like that. They’d never heard of a thing like that. It was hard to communicate this stuff to them.”
Now fast forward a few years. Through connections he made in Nigeria, Yahaya found a high school home in America, and in 2014 he left Nigeria for the first time to move to Little Rock, Arkansas, to play for and attend Southwest Christian High School.
“I had no geographical idea of anyplace I was going,” he said. “I just knew I was going to America. I was so excited. I was so overwhelmed. I didn’t even care where I was going in America. Think about it: as kids, we watched movies, we just got a general perspective of what America is, like what we see on TV. We never get to see a lot of sides. It was America, regardless. Even when I got there, I was overwhelmed with the fact that I was there.”
After his junior year, Yahaya transferred to Wesley Christian in Allen, Kentucky, for his senior lap. He gained some attention on the recruiting trail and chose the Division III route, specifically selecting Capital in part because of its location in Columbus, Ohio, a major metropolitan area.
He has now been in the United States for six years, and it has taken some work to become acclimated to America. The driving and roads are much different, and people are more willing to follow rules and norms that make life more convenient for the people around them. There are also varying views on more serious topics, which Yahaya had to grapple with for a time.
“The fact that in America, homosexuals are accepted was huge for me. In Nigeria, we don’t do well with homosexuals,” Yahaya explained, referring to normalized prejudice that was instilled in him through his environment growing up. “I have friends who are gay now. I don’t care anymore, because I’m now open minded, and I’ve become a rational person. I’m used to the culture. I don’t care anymore what your sexuality is.”
America has changed Yahaya quite a bit, and it has changed his family, too. For the first time, they watched him play during his senior day game, tuning in online to catch his 15 points, five rebounds and five steals.
“They understand the whole thing now,” he said. “It was great knowing they finally got to watch me play the sport that means a lot to me and got me where I am today.”
In a handful of weeks, Yahaya will graduate and earn his degree from an American university, realizing his dream a decade in the making.
But that’s only the beginning.
“I tend to see everything as a connection, and this is just one piece to the puzzle,” he explained. “It’s been a long journey, but the real journey is just getting started.”