Imagine what it would have been like if Paschal Chukwu had stuck with the sport he first became familiar with.
You are the soccer team’s goalkeeper with this 7-foot striker coming at you in a one-on-one situation. Or he lines up to take a penalty kick on you. Imagine someone a foot smaller trying to defend him.
So instead, four years after picking up a basketball for the first time, Chukwu turned himself into a fine player at the high school level, leading Fairfield Prep to consecutive Class LL state championship finals and the Register State Player of the Year honors this past season.
“I played soccer growing up. I played striker,” Chukwu said. “I wasn’t the fastest guy, but I competed and I was skilled. I didn’t see myself playing basketball. Even the first time I played, I said, ‘This is not for me. All I could do was block shots.”
Chukwu averaged 14.3 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots this past season for the Jesuits, who won their first 27 games before falling in the LL final to Bridgeport Central. Prep won its first Southern Connecticut Conference tournament title this year and Chukwu was also the league’s MVP.
“I argue the most improvement he made was learning more and more about the game,” Fairfield Prep coach Leo Redgate said. “I think his understanding of the game and him learning the game about where to be (on the court) and why is where he showed tremendous growth.”
Soccer may have been the sport of choice for Chukwu growing up in his native Nigeria, but he quickly fell in love with basketball. Despite how unsure he was after the first game he played, he still showed some promise.
“The first time I played a scrimmage in Nigeria, I blocked five shots,” Chukwu said. “Blocking shots was like a gift from God. I didn’t know what I was doing, but blocking shots is something I’ve always had the ability to do.”
Chukwu came over from Nigeria in November of 2010. He enrolled at Trinity Catholic in Stamford and was still a long way from being a player. But as he said, he always had the ability to block shots.
He blocked several in his final game that season – the Class M state championship final against Career – helping Crusaders win the title.
He helped Trinity reach the Class L state quarterfinals the following year. Then he transferred to Fairfield Prep and the Jesuits lost just four games the past two seasons.
He put up his numbers this season — including 21 points, 17 rebounds and 12 blocks in his final game — seeing plenty of double- and triple-teams in the post.
“He got beat up a lot this year (in the lane) because he improved so much offensively,” Redgate said. “That only helped him improve. He never really got frustrated, he took it like a man. I always told him it would lead to better growth.”
Chukwu said he has spoken to his natural parents from time to time, but has not seen them since leaving Nigeria. His current guardians are John and Sheila Featherston.
As Chukwu’s game improved, so did the interest among the Division I schools. Kevin Ollie, who just won a national championship in just his second year as coach at UConn, attended several of Chukwu’s game during his junior season. The Huskies were one of the programs to offer Chukwu a scholarship.
According to both Chukwu and Redgate, other schools making offers included St. Joseph, UConn, NC State, St. John’s, George Mason, Georgetown, Syracuse and Boston College. The choice came down to St. Joseph and Providence. In late August, Chukwu made a verbal commitment to the eventual Big East champion Friars, then signed a national letter of intent in November.
“Either Coach (Ed) Cooley or assistant coach Bob Simon was at almost every single game during his junior and senior year,” Redgate said. “Even after Paschal signed, they didn’t miss too many games. It’s not just about getting kids to come. They truly care about Paschal as a person, not just as a widget who will play basketball.”
Said Chukwu: “Coach Cooley is a big-guy coach. Another big thing for me is my family can come see my games. They have a good campus and good players.”
Chukwu said he would like to put on an additional 10 pounds in the off-season to get to 230 before he gets to Providence. However his collegiate career turns out, Redgate feels he will continue to prosper at Providence.
“The thing I’m most proud of was he was so coachable and so eager to please. He wanted to get better for other people. He doesn’t want to let people down. When you are recruited heavily, sometimes kids get an ultra sense of entitlement. Paschal didn’t have that.
“There was not a practice we ever had where he didn’t leave being a better basketball player. To Paschal’s credit, he always pushed himself. He will be a force to be reckoned with.”