Richard Njoku is having his best year. His parents, well, they’re not.
Njoku is the 6-foot-7 blue-collar forward in dress whites at Navy. The Midshipmen are 11-2 overall and 8-1 in the Patriot League and return to action at American Feb. 20-21 following a pandemic pause. The junior is the team’s third-leading scorer at 7.7 points per game and fourth-leading rebounder at 3.9 per game.
Richard’s parents, Raymond and Benedicta, Nigerians who came to the United States for a better life, are healthcare professionals on the front lines during the pandemic helping others just to fight for life now.
“It’s still pretty tough for them because this COVID thing is showing no signs of slowing down,” said Richard, the oldest of four Njoku kids. “I remember the first time I saw my mom in full facemask, the full suit and I thought ‘This is crazy.’ My dad was doing the same thing. It really makes you think about how many people are out there in the world risking their life every single day to make sure other people are safe.”
Njoku (pronounced “Nuh-Joe-coo”) said his father doesn’t talk much about what he sees every day as a registered nurse with Genesis HealthCare System, but his mother, who is a nursing assistant at skilled nursing facility Collington in Bowie, Md., tells him about the details of being cautious in the current circumstance.
“There are so many procedures families have to go through just to allow them just to go see their family members in the nursing home,” Njoku said. “As much caution as there was before, it’s even more high risk with the elderly people there, making sure everyone was safe, including the nurses and rest of the people working there to make sure they’re not bringing anything back home.”
Back home is Washington, D.C., where Njoku was always the tallest in his class at school but a late bloomer in basketball, the sport that would give him notoriety and eventually a scholarship to Navy. His work ethic, handed down from his parents, is as ingrained in his game and his persona as is his love for the sport.
He has no qualms playing through the pandemic. In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way, given the choice. He stole time practicing at facilities where his younger sisters’ AAU teams were working out this summer as guidelines in D.C. were tough during the height of the pandemic. Outdoor courts were shut down around his home to keep people from gathering. Njoku, as is his family’s unspoken credo, was determined to better himself even in basketball.
“His parents are wonderful people,” Navy head coach Ed DeChellis said. “They thought [Navy would be] the foundation that he needs for the rest of his life so this has worked out really, really well.”
Njoku played at St. John’s College High School in the rugged Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which he says is “the best conference in the country” and is “ready to argue with anyone who says it’s not.” He began to blossom at St. John’s after a late start in the game. He really didn’t pick up basketball until middle school when a P.E. teacher saw him and asked if he’d be interested.
By his senior year at St. John’s, Njoku was a captain and averaged a double-double in points and rebounds. The offers had begun flooding in. Brown and Columbia in the Ivy League, nearly all of the Patriot League, MEAC schools and further away, Furman and Tulsa, all showed interest. Ultimately it came down to Bucknell, Boston University and Navy.
Navy assistant Emmett Davis was his primary recruiter and said something that stuck with Njoku.
“Coach Davis would always text me and he said, ‘Don’t think about the next four years, think about the next 40,'” Njoku recalled. “That really resonated with me. Being a first-generation Nigerian-American, you just have a lot of family you want to help take care [of] and a lot of people that helped you in life.”
Njoku credited his parents for his success.
“Both of my parents are from Nigeria, and the way they’ve worked hard their entire life and seeing what they’ve gotten from that hard work put me in a position to make a choice like this,” he said. “I just want to continue to push on.”
No wonder DeChellis said Njoku is a “really, really good teammate” on a team full of them.
“He’s a tough kid. He’s very, very competitive. He’s a wonderful person, just a wonderful young guy,” the coach said. “He’s a hard-working kid on the floor, wants to do well. He gives us some toughness inside. He can score the ball in there. He can rebound it. He can defend in there. Doesn’t need the ball to be effective, he’ll set great screens for guys.”
DeChellis loves that Njoku filled up a stat sheet, but in a way hardly noticeable until the game is over. He’s a solid defender and certainly among the team leaders in floor burns, always after loose balls with abandon. He has more offensive rebounds than defensive, a testament to his scrap and growing instincts in the game. Plus, it’s often the best way he can get the ball and score on that end of the court.
“Every player has a role and for me, growing up, offense wasn’t a huge thing” he said. “I was always athletic so blocking shots, getting rebounds and defense [was] my game. I was always behind starting late but my offense is getting better. Attitude and effort, whatever I can do — dive on a loose ball, jump out of bounds for a loose ball, whatever I can do, I’m going to do that.”
Now, he and his teammates just want back on the floor. Their last game was Jan. 30, a 70-52 win against Loyola. Njoku had eight points on 4-of-6 shooting against the Greyhounds and added seven rebounds. Navy hopes to take the court Feb. 20-21 with two games at American.
The Mids had split two games with Army Jan. 23-24, a Sunday overtime loss snapping an impressive nine-game winning streak. They were without second-leading scorer John Carter Jr., out with a sprained ankle. He was back against Loyola, but he team is minus senior big man Luke Loehr, gone for the season with a torn ACL. A couple more Mids have missed time due to contact tracing in their dorm. And that just put more on Patriot League Player of the Year candidate Cam Davis and others like Njoku.
“Coach D has told us all along the season would have its ups and downs and it’s really the team that is best prepared to handle that,” Njoku said. “Right now, we’ve been given a tough hand with some players out and not knowing what the future holds but it’s really that next-man-up attitude.”
Njoku was in double-figure scoring both games against Army because the team needed that from him. He equaled career highs with 13 points and seven rebounds Jan. 24. He had eight more points Jan. 30. Basically, Njoku does what’s asked of him, whatever he can to help the cause. That’s the way he’s wired.
He wants to continue that commitment to others long term. That’s why so many choose a service academy in the first place. He’s an English major there and plans to serve his five-year commitment as a Surface Warfare Officer. But then it’s medical school for Njoku, something that certainly has his parents beaming with pride.
Even through their heavy protective masks.
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics