Tuesday, August 4, 2015

At 6-9, Neumann-Goretti center walks tall after a tough time in Nigeria

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Gallery: At 6-9, Neumann-Goretti center walks tall after a tough time in Nigeria

SOMETHING SEEMED odd to the woman. It didn't sit well with her that this adult was lurking around these 12-year-old girls, as if she were one of them. Who invited her to this children's birthday party anyway? Why was she there? So the woman got up and confronted Felicia Aiyeotan, who towered over everyone else - including the adults.

And was so much younger.

Aiyeotan was barely 10 and stood more than 6 feet tall then. The woman told her to go sit in a corner and stay there because she made everyone feel uncomfortable. Felicia began to cry. She wept a lot back then. She'd walk slightly hunched over to make herself appear shorter. She'd curl up her shoulders and wanted to crawl so people wouldn't gawk. It never worked.

Aiyeotan reflects on those times with glassy eyes. She fights back a quivering lower lip and a subtle twinge of emotion remembering the birthday party when she wasn't allowed to stand because she was so tall, and the times she was called names that make her laugh today.

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Now Aiyeotan walks straight up. Wherever she goes in her size 17 sneakers it's a mini mob scene. She actually can't go out in public without being stopped daily. Whether it's at a local convenience store or in a packed mall, someone will invariably approach and ask her to take a picture with them.

They usually follow that by asking what WNBA team she plays for. Or what college team she's on. Then Aiyeotan tells them who she is and they're shocked.

It has taken some time, but the 16-year-old from Lagos, Nigeria, has embraced her uniqueness. She's 6-9 and one of the world's tallest teenage girls. She's also the sophomore center for coach Letty Santarelli's Neumann-Goretti Saints.

For many years, the Saints' boys basketball team has been one of the most dominant in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The girls' program was merely a shadow, almost invisible.

A transformation is taking place in South Philly on 11th Street with the Lady Saints. Long a doormat in the Philadelphia Catholic League, Neumann-Goretti is blowing out powerhouses like Cardinal O'Hara, which the Saints had not beaten in 30 years. Entering this week, the Saints had gotten off to their best start ever, and are receiving national attention in some rankings.

Part of the program's growth is Aiyeotan, athletic and highly intelligent, still learning the game and improving each day. She's light-years from where she was as recently as a year ago, when she couldn't even block a shot. She knows when she casts her long arms out, she's almost impossible to get by. She just needs to be reminded from time to time.

Aiyeotan is not yet Phoenix's Brittney Griner. But she's getting there.

"I like the way I'm tall - I'm different," a beaming Aiyeotan said with a slight accent, a smile on her face. "I didn't always like being tall. I remember the birthday party when I was 10 and bigger than everyone there. I was told to sit. You do remember things like that. In Nigeria, they always made fun of me. I used to get called a lot of names. It wasn't what they said, but it was the way they said it that made me feel bad. There were times I would come home and cry when I was real young. Now people want to take pictures with me. No one can really believe I'm only a sophomore in high school."

The middle child of three, Felicia's height comes from her mother's side. Her maternal grandfather is 7-1. Her mother, Wemimo, is 5-11. Her father Moses, 6-1, is a furniture maker.

Santarelli, formerly Letty Huntzman, a Division II All-American at Immaculata University and 1982 O'Hara grad, can understand how Aiyeotan feels. At 6-2, she was frequently the tallest person in her class.

"I can relate to Felicia on a lot of different levels," said Santarelli, whose daughter, Alexis, is among the best underclassmen hoop stars in South Jersey at Bishop Eustace. "Felicia is very intelligent and very disciplined. And even though she's 6-9, she's still very much a girl. She likes to do girl things like put on makeup and shop. It's important that she gets a lot of support.

"You also see how she relates to people. I've been out in public with her and Felicia attracts a lot of attention everywhere she goes. Everyone wants to know how tall she is. What also helps is she has a great personality. She's a funny girl with a great sense of humor. She's the kind of person that lights up a room when she walks in and it's not because she's 6-9."

Aiyeotan was discovered by Mobolaji Akiode, a fellow Nigerian who played for Fordham. Akiode is the founder of Hope for Girls Africa, a nonprofit intended to help underprivileged girls from African nations find greater opportunities through sports. At one of Akiode's Nigerian camps, an awkward, sullen 12-year-old toed the sidelines of a basketball court, too timid to step forward.

"Felicia was 6-5 when she was 12," Akiode recalled. "There were girls there of every level and that was Felicia's first time she was exposed to basketball. I had to push her onto the court. She was in tears. She was that scared.

"I told her she wasn't going to be there for an entire week and not learn and participate. When I first met Felicia, she tried to make herself small. She wasn't confident and she tried to shrink away from everything. Catching her so young, I think, really helped her. What we try to convey to these girls is, be proud of who you are. Felicia back then didn't even talk; she was really shy."

Akiode quickly noticed a few things about Aiyeotan. She never fully extended her arms or legs on the court. Akiode stressed to Felicia she had to be comfortable with her body before she could become comfortable on the court. By Felicia's second camp, she began raising her hand and asking questions.

But Akiode knew that if Felicia was going to get any chance to use basketball to open new outlets, she would have to come to the United States. Akiode has a rapport with Philadelphia Belles AAU coach Mike Flynn. She liked how Flynn was patient and willing to work with players like Felicia.

"I see Felicia now and everyone was impressed with how far she's come," Akiode said. "I don't mean just basketball. Her mother told to me she's completely changed. Felicia still holds onto that pain from her youth. She can't be bullied anymore. Everyone is proud of her in Nigeria. She carries good karma. She's going to be good at anything she does."

The Saints return a strong nucleus that finished 14-12 overall last year and lost in the Class AA state quarterfinals to Notre Dame-Green Pond, 51-49, in double overtime. Last year, Neumann-Goretti beat O'Hara for the first time since 1982.

"Felicia has unlimited potential, but just like any teenager, they need to be pushed every once in a while," Santarelli said. "She is driven. When Felicia came over, she had no idea how to play. She would catch the ball and run down the court with it without dribbling. She wouldn't get too far, because we would stop her. But that's how far she's come.

"We know there are a variety of people that would like to see us succeed and a variety of people that would like to see us fail; they put a target on our backs. I want to instill in these girls a sense of accomplishment. The goal is to be Catholic League champs. We're in a position where we have a lot of talented young ladies on this team. They're driven to win. The girls do sense that they can make history. It is about changing a culture of losing. The girls that started here don't know what it's like to win. Maybe that changes this year."

Starting with a 6-9 intimidating shot-blocker in the middle, who was once afraid to even step on a court.

For the Daily News
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