Riverside-Brookfield grad Fred Nkemdi has traveled a long way from tripping over his own feet to rubbing shoulders with the college basketball elite.
Nkemdi is a member of the top-ranked Illinois basketball team, which up until a 65-64 loss to Ohio State on Sunday, had won 29 straight games. The Fighting Illini enters the Big Ten Tournament as the favorite this weekend and are expected to make it to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament beginning next week. Even though Nkemdi is a seldom-used reserve, he's enjoying every minute of it.
"It's a lot of fun," Nkemdi said. "It's a good experience to work hard every day. It's a great accomplishment to be part of the top team in the country. I consider it an accomplishment to be playing here."
The only walk-on on the Illinois roster, Nkemdi has appeared in only 16 games this year, and for an average of only 2.3 minutes per game. But like every other step along the 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior's path, he's making the most of his opportunity: He's hit six of his seven shots this year.
While he's not getting the big minutes most players crave, the payoff for Nkemdi is that he's fulfilling a long-time dream of playing Division I college basketball.
"Not many can say they've done this," Nkemdi said. "It's been a long journey. I'm in a good position and the environment has been great to me. It feels like a great accomplishment. My life's not over, but I can always look back at this part of my life and be proud of what I was able to do."
Nkemdi's basketball career had auspicious beginnings when he struggled to make the sophomore team at Riverside-Brookfield. His lack of polish would at times undermine his physical tools. It wasn't until his junior season that he joined the varsity.
"When I first got him he was like a deer in headlights," said former Bulldogs coach John Rutter. "He was a skinny kid that would trip over his own feet now and then. As a junior he didn't start right away but got a lot of playing time as the year went on."
"If you saw me back then and you saw me play now, it was like night and day," Nkemdi said.
Rutter, now the athletic director at St. Charles North, was impressed with Nkemdi's work ethic. He watched the transformation of a player who hit the weight room and refined his skills.
"He told me from day one he would play Division I basketball," Rutter said. "At that point he hadn't played a lot of varsity basketball, so we all thought he was blowing smoke, so to speak. But he never backed down. That was his goal and dream."
Nkemdi would lead RB in rebounding his senior season, pulling down nine boards per game. He also earned Suburban Prairie all-conference honors. But despite the quick growth in his game and the numbers he was putting up, Nkemdi wasn't getting a look from Division I schools.
While considering putting the basketball away in favor of textbooks, Nkemdi received an offer to play for Morton Community College. Head coach Anthony Amarino knew Nkemdi had higher aspirations, but convinced him that playing at Morton could help him improve his game and gain attention from bigger schools.
"They recruited me and told me I could come in and work on my skills," Nkemdi said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have played basketball, I'd have worked on school at a four-year college."
"He was a different kind of player when he first got to us," Amarino said. "He was really a post player and was very physical at the time. He always played hard and really dominated a lot of teams we played against because of his power inside."
Nkemdi averaged 10 points and six rebounds his freshman year, and upped his production to 10 points and 10 rebounds per game his sophomore year. He also earned second-team all-conference honors his sophomore year.
In addition to his successes on the court, he was also Morton's Academic Athlete of the Year. But Nkemdi still wasn't finding the offers he had hoped for.
"They're looking for you to be 6-8, 6-9 in the big-time post spot at that level," Amarino said. "At 6-foot-5, he's just not that size."
"Some people said I couldn't play Division I basketball, so I tried to prove those people wrong. It gave me a lot of focus and drive," said Nkemdi.
Determined to dispel the skeptics, Nkemdi decided to take a year off to polish his skills. That meant hours each day running, dribbling, shooting and lifting more weights to pack on more pounds.
"His heart was never questioned," said Amarino, who was one of the few serious supporters Nkemdi had at the time. "If he was 6-foot-5, his heart was eight feet. He worked hard, played hard, practiced hard, if not harder than anyone else in our program. He never took a day off. As a coach you love that, and I only wish we had him for four years."
Amarino said it would have been easy for Nkemdi to accept an offer from a Division II or NAIA school. But Nkemdi wasn't ready to give up on his dream. Without any offers from bigger schools, he packed his bags for Champaign to try to make it as a walk-on.
"I went to Illinois because it was the best school I could get into with my grades," Nkemdi said. "You go to the best school, and if you can play, you play. If you can't, you just try."
Improbably, Nkemdi made the team from the October 2003 tryout. During the 2003-04 season, his junior year, he appeared in six games for a total of nine minutes.
"He said he was going to Illinois and I made a call to the coaching staff to set up a meeting," Amarino said. "Then I got a call and found out he made it. It was a shock. I couldn't have been happier for him."
The Illini media guide lists Nkemdi's biggest thrill in sports as "putting on my Illini jersey." After reliving that moment over and over again the past two seasons, Nkemdi says it never gets old, adding, "It's always a thrill when you get to play."
As one of the last men off the bench, Nkemdi has also developed a cult following afforded to many underdogs and overachievers.
"My son now refuses to turn the game off until Fred gets in," said Rutter, who earlier this year saw Nkemdi play two minutes in an 89-72 Illinois win over Gonzaga. "He hopes he gets in and plays well."
As Nkemdi's basketball career winds down, the only chapter still unwritten is a storybook ending, where Illinois goes deep into the NCAA tournament. Despite his limited role, it's a challenge he takes personally.
"Being able to make it this far and being able to help the team with whatever I do in practice or on the court," Nkemdi said, "that's an accomplishment. If we make it to the Final Four, I'll consider that an accomplishment?"being part of the team."
Nkemdi, who will graduate this spring with a degree in political science, has plans to go to law school. But first he'd like to take a well-deserved year off.
After that, the sky is the limit.
"If you're not willing to work hard, talent will only take you so far," Nkemdi said. "But if you work hard, you can do whatever you set your mind to."