“He walked into the hall with no interest in basketball, just keeping his mate company, and in the space of 15 months he became of the mindset ‘there’s nothing else but basketball.”
Aidan Igiehon immediately stands out from the crowd. When you’re 6’10 and 220 pounds, that tends to happen.
He’s also the best NBA draft prospect Ireland has ever had. There’s that too.
Like a duck to water..
Dublin Lions coach Mick White can’t help but chuckle when he recalls the first time he stumbled upon a 12-year-old Aidan Igiehon in the hall in Clondalkin.
Igiehon was 5’6 then and a talented soccer player. He excelled in track too. He was athletic even at a young age, but clumsy. A life in basketball had yet to cross his mind.
“What happened was there was this kid who was the same age as Aidan and he turned up at the door of the club and asked could he join the session,” begins White.
“I said, ‘Work away’ and there was only nine in the session but to play a scrimmage you need five on five so at the start of the session I asked Aidan if he wanted to join in and he said no thanks, he’d just watch.
“So he just leant at the pillar of the door for most of the session and then with twenty minutes to go I said, ‘We’re going for a scrimmage, will you join in just to make up the numbers?’ and he did and basically the rest is history.”
Born and bred in West Dublin, Igiehon’s unlikely journey from the courts of Clondalkin to potential future NBA star, began that very day.
He had been bitten by the basketball bug and almost immediately he worked extremely hard at his newfound passion. Tie that in with a growth spurt which saw him grow almost a foot in just a year, and quickly things began to change.
“He is the kind of player who learns very fast. He started picking up different skills and dedicating himself to it, ‘ recalls his mother Nibo, who came to Ireland from Nigeria in 2000.
“He also got very tall in a short space of time. He would come back to me and say, ‘Oh Mum, these trousers don’t fit anymore!’
I’d say, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get more trousers for you?’ Even when he was in Moyle Park (College) I used to have to go for special measurements for him because he was so tall!”
6’5 13-year-olds are a rarity no matter where you are in Ireland, but Igiehon’s talents began to catch the eye also, and when White and the Dublin Lions took a trip to a tournament in America in 2012, the Irish kid stood out.
“He developed really quickly as a player,” says White. “We had him for what was about a season and a bit. We had organised a trip for the whole squad to go to the States, we did a 76ers camp there and he was viewed well by a lot of the coaches.
“At all those American camps the last day is All-Stars and coaches from outside of the camp could come in and look at future stars plus the camp director also thought he was very good. It went from there.
“What happened then was he was offered a couple of high-school scholarships around Philadelphia, Connecticut, New York, all that area.”
“Keep him?!, No! Bring back my son!'”
The speed of Igiehon’s rise was incredible. He was being offered scholarships to play high-school ball just a year and a half after taking up the sport.
He may have towered over most grown men, but Igiehon was still a child at that time. To uproot and move to a different country without the safety net of your mother at that age is a daunting prospect, for all involved.
“I started getting emails off Mick (White) telling me Aidan was standing out and that they want to keep him,” Nibo explains.
“I said, ‘Keep him?!, No! Bring back my son!’ I was scared.
“Mick was explaining to me that he was very good and that he’d played very well and that at the 76ers camp there were coaches interested. He said, ‘I think you’re going to have to come over they want to meet you,’ I said, ‘No just bring back my son.’ I thought he was too young.”
Schools across the East Coast were all interested in Igiehon and he settled on Laurence Woodmere Academy in Woodmere, New York. A smaller school but attending meant that he could stay with his uncle, which was crucial.
Although the transition was challenging at first, ‘Sometimes he would call me crying,’ says Nibo, Igiehon worked hard and developed quickly, growing again and putting on muscle.
As has always been his style, the progression was clear to see.
Making an impression in high-school
In his freshman year he averaged 18 points and 14 rebounds per game, the next season it was 21.5 points and 15 rebounds per game, as he helped his school to Class B titles, earning the Private Schools Athletic Association MVP as well as Class B tournament MVP honours.
Crucially he was also playing with New York’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team and challenging some of the games fellow prospects.
As a junior he again saw personal improvement, 21 points and 18 rebounds per game, dominating on the floor and catching the eye as college soon came calling.
“Aidan in high-school was a dominant force,” says Emmet Ryan, author of I Like It Loud, A Basketball Tour Through Europe.
“He wasn’t just the leader of his team he was basically the most dominant player in New York. He was limited in the competition he came up against. He still played a lot of AAU in the summer against lads in a higher level but yeah the schools level he wouldn’t have been getting the same.
“The off-season in fairness is where he impressed enough to become a top-40 recruit in the US, he was 23 I think that was his ranking, which is really really good. If you’re a top 23 recruit then everyone wants you.”
It may have become a case of big fish, small pond for Igiehon over time in New York, but coaches indeed loved what they saw. A 6’10 guy who could rebound, score the basket, was crazy athletic and perhaps, more importantly, was wonderfully coachable.
As the top recruit in New York, offers and attention came flooding in. Famed basketball network Overtime, extensively covered him in high-school, branding him ‘The Irish Hulk.’
They even sent him to report on the 2018 NBA Draft for them, a piece in which his personality wonderfully shone through.
Cardinals come calling
In the end, it was the Louisville Cardinals, one of the country’s top collegiate teams, that Igiehon chose, with the decision coming down to on the court, but also the way the school welcomed him off it.
“He had a lot of scholarship offers from other schools and a lot of the coaches flew to Ireland to see me,” explains Nibo.
“In the end, I allowed Aidan to make the decision. I just had to guide him. I told him to pray a lot. I knew he was the one who was going to go to the school and he finally chose Louisville. He told me, he felt at home there, they welcomed him.”
The switch to Louisville was another unknown for Igiehon. The level at which he would be playing with the Cardinals far exceeds anything he would have been used to in New York.
In his first season, he found minutes difficult to come by, but as a freshman, this was expected. A shoulder injury towards the latter end of the suspended campaign didn’t help much either.
Regardless though, there is still excitement around what Igiehon can bring to Louisville in the next few years.
“He’s an athlete man,” says Louisville journalist Lucas Aulbach.
“You can’t teach physically what he has. He is 6’10 and his nickname out here is the Irish Hulk, because he’s so big. Physically he has things you can’t teach so now the coaching staff is focusing more on getting him comfortable on the court.
“When he was out there this year he had some highlight dunks, his first basket was a big-time throw down which the fans loved but he’s still learning on defence a little bit.”
Aidan Igiehon told me that his first dunk in the KFC Yum! Center will mean everything to him, well, here it is. First career bucket a loud one for the kid from Ireland. pic.twitter.com/xrNK6hacVT
— Jake (@jakeweingarten) November 14, 2019
The 19-year-old currently has two experienced players ahead of him in his position at centre. But is expected to be handed a much larger role next year and given his history of improvement and his insane work ethic, there is reason to be optimistic.
“If he was just another player and I didn’t know what I know about him and he had the same year, I wouldn’t be going, ‘Yes, NBA prospect,'” says Ryan.
“It’s the work ethic thing and the process behind it which makes me optimistic. He has the athleticism and the talent.”
It is early days still for Igiehon but the consensus is that whatever year he decides to declare for the NBA draft, he will be selected.
No Irish player has ever been drafted by an NBA team and only one has ever played in the league – Pat Burke for the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns.
It would represent a landscape changing moment for the sport in the country, with Igiehon’s pride in Ireland something he has continually discussed.
“It would be such a joy for me,” says Nibo of her son potentially playing in the NBA.
“We are just going to be so proud. I think he is going to be an ambassador too for Ireland. He will represent Ireland. He used to say to me, ‘Mum I am going to play for Ireland in the Olympics.’ I would say, ‘Of course, you can’t play for America!’ It’s going to be a blessing for myself, my family and for the people of Ireland.”
Even the man whose footsteps he would be following in, Pat Burke, believes Igiehon is destined for the top.
“I think he’ll be next. He’s very athletic, he’s got the size. He was very highly recruited coming out of high school. He’s definitely on track.”
For a sport which was on its knees in this country just ten years ago, Igiehon’s emergence, as well as other collegiate stars like Sean Flood, Sean Jenkins and Jordan Blount, have been a necessary boost.
“Everyone here is rooting for him,” says Ryan, who has extensively covered the game in Ireland.
“We obviously want to see him in a green jersey one of the summers but also there’s an understanding that the best thing he can do for Ireland is get to the NBA and the second thing is wear a green jersey. It’d be such an extraordinary advert for the game.”
Igiehon returns home when he can, although his schedule with Louisville and the Covid-19 crisis has meant that he has been unable to come back to Ireland this year.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) November 17, 2019
In the past when he has returned, he has played with his old team, Dublin Lions and helped out with camps for younger kids. The new generation.
He sees the importance of giving back.
“I’m glad he has pride in Ireland,” begins Nibo.
“Him and his brother Brendan, I always tell them both, wherever you are you have to be proud of your country, of where you come from.
“You have to let them know this is who you are. Ireland has been a good place to my kids. They must be able to represent the country in a good way, not a bad way. They have to bring that good name back to Ireland.”
His NBA career is far from set in stone. A lot could change over the next few years. Igiehon though has proven time and time again that, when he sets his mind to something, he can and he will achieve it.
A bit like another well-known basketball player.
“I would say to myself when I was younger that if I ever had children my son is going to be greater than Michael Jordan!,” laughs Nibo.
“When Aidan started playing I told him about Jordan and told him to watch his tapes. I used to love him so much! Aidan laughed, he said, ‘Really?’ but I said, ‘Yes!’