By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
One day before Ike Diogu's unanticipated public comments, Rob Evans' voice broke as he tried to sum up what his superstar player means to him.
"What Ike has gone through this year, the ups and downs, has told me a lot about his soul," the coach said. "He has performed in every single game, though he's had more pressure on him than anyone else I can remember coaching. He could have taken off to the pros after last year, but he listened to himself and his family and decided he wanted to stick around with me and his teammates. Ike will do what's best for Ike. With all the speculation about whether he's going to turn pro or if I'm going to have a job, people have been missing the point: We have one of the best college players in America right here in our own backyard, and one of the best people. I wish more folks would cherish the moment. "
Evans is right about the pressure, though Diogu steadfastly denies feeling it.
"When people get to thinking of basketball as more than a game, that's when the pressure can start mounting," Diogu says. "It is real hard to take when you lose. But you're not going to die playing; no one's gonna shoot you. When it's over, you go back to your dorm and hang with your friends. I don't want to be a player who says when it's over that I wish I had had more fun. So I try to have fun when I play. I play hard, play to win, but that's how it is."
That said, Diogu knows his team's fortunes have been swaying like a newly planted tree in a big storm, and that for all his achievements, he hasn't single-handedly been able to propel his ASU team to the next level.
But he has everything to be proud of.
Diogu, the youngest child of Nigerian immigrants, has set records, made all-star teams in his adopted home state of Texas and now at ASU, and has represented the United States in international competition. He has dominated game after college game by dint of his relentless drive to succeed, a powerful body, and an unflinching belief that God put him here for a reason and he ought to take advantage of it.
Diogu has a facile brain, maturity beyond his years, and a sense of decency that would make him exceptional if he'd never touched a basketball. His naturally even demeanor has allowed him, as he puts it, "to chill whenever possible and to try to keep things in perspective at all times."
It should come as no surprise that he prefers to play old-school basketball, the kind where the team always comes first and personal accolades are an afterthought.
Diogu would rather wear a championship ring than street-smart bling. He says that, given the choice of one band to hear live, he'd choose R&B superstars Earth, Wind & Fire, whose biggest hits came before he was born in 1983.
It's not accurate, however, to make Diogu out as too retro, though he does insist that the '70s disco craze really was the bomb. Just for kicks, he can recite the machine-gun lyrics of rappers such as Chameleon and OutKast, and he's been known to freestyle himself when he feels the spirit.
Though he rarely smiles on the court, Diogu has a distinct impish side that his family, friends and teammates know well.
"One of the funniest people I've ever known," says roommate Serge Angounou.
"When Ike comes home to Garland [Texas]," adds his father, Edward Diogu, "we know there's going to be laughter all over the house. Ike is a very funny guy, yes, sir!"
Asked last week by New Times where he expects to be in, say, 10 or 15 years, Diogu pondered the question before responding with the utmost gravity, "After basketball, I'm going to pursue a career in modeling."
Two of ASU's assistant coaches walking by overheard him, and broke up laughing. Diogu couldn't hold his deadpan, and started to giggle like a kid.
No one in Tempe seems to be a stranger to Ike.
He smiles and says hello to dozens of people on campus every day while sauntering to class. (Diogu is a confirmed slowpoke, except on the court, where he moves deceptively fast for a 250-pound guy.) This semester, he's taking Printmaking, Film 406, Science of Painting, and Art History, certainly not the usual fare for a major-sport athlete.
Diogu says he considers himself a typical college student, and he behaves as such -- sans the drugs, alcohol and other experimentation that often is part of life on campus. Last December, for example, Diogu rushed the floor with a bevy of other students (including his pal, senior point guard Jason Braxton) when the excellent ASU women's team had just upset the defending national champion UConn Huskies.
"I was excited for the girls," he says. "It was a very cool moment."
It's a pity that Diogu and his teammates haven't had their own cool on-court moment like that during his three years at ASU.