Sometime soon, a marked man named Ike Diogu will make a momentous decision -- whether to stick around Arizona State University for his senior season or set sail for the National Basketball Association.
The Pac-10's Player of the Year would be a probable first-round selection in the upcoming NBA draft if he declared his intention to leave school. How high he'd land depends on who's doing the predicting.
The 30 first-rounders each are guaranteed millions of dollars, whether they actually produce as professionals or not. That kind of money seems almost surreal to Diogu, the 21-year-old son of Dallas schoolteachers who doesn't even own a car.
But some scouting reports speak of Diogu's alleged lack of lateral foot speed, which translates into not enough explosiveness to the hoop. They wonder if his lack of stature (he's a bit smaller than the 6 feet, 8 inches the media guides claim) will hurt him on the professional level.
On the positive side, pro scouts tell New Times that Diogu excels in several critical areas: He has a keen ability to draw fouls and block shots, has superior body control, and he's extremely coachable.
Says the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy, "Oh my goodness, is he terrific! Diogu is listed as 6-8, which is why the NBA always has viewed him skeptically as a prospect and why, whenever he enters the draft, he'll be around later than he should be and will commence making some general manager appear brilliant. Well, it doesn't require any particular genius to see Diogu's greatness. Just spend two hours in the gym with him."
And Grant Wahl, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, comments, "Ike is one of the most intriguing cases in college basketball. What kind of NBA player will he be? Is he too short [for the positions he plays]? Still, anyone who follows the game considers him one of the top college players, a probable first-team All-American and a chance to be national player of the year. But it's a mystery why the rest of the team hasn't ridden his coattails to a much better season than they've had. It's all been kind of reminiscent, unfortunately, of a great NBA player on a bad NBA team."
Some NBA pundits compare him to Malik Rose, now with the New York Knicks after spending years with the San Antonio Spurs. The rugged Rose hardly is a superstar, but he's a solid professional working under a multi-year contract totaling $25 million.
Diogu might well be much better than that, though. A respected scout says Diogu could develop into an Elton Brand, or even a Charles Barkley -- that is, an "undersized" (height-wise, for the center/power forward positions) beast of the backboards eager to rumble with players inches taller than he. To boot, he's got a nasty midrange jump shot.
All of Diogu's positives came to the fore on March 5 during a breathtaking 70-68 loss to 8th-ranked Arizona in Tempe.
He scored 25 points, including two three-pointers, and played ferocious defense, despite having four fouls for most of the second half.
To those who don't follow such things, Ike Diogu has been the most recognizable, popular and compelling major-college athlete in the Valley since he arrived in Tempe as a relatively unheralded freshman in August 2002.
But until last week, most people inside and outside ASU's men's basketball program expected Diogu to call it a college career after this season ends.
After all, went the conventional wisdom, what more could the guy prove at this level?
This season, Ike Diogu led the Pacific-10 conference in points (22-plus a game), rebounds, blocked shots, minutes played, and free throws attempted and made. He's also second in the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage and ninth in free-throw percentage.
Remarkably, Diogu also has continued his streak of scoring in double figures in every one of the 89 games he's played at ASU.
And he's done all of this despite having more bodies hanging on him than a Chippendale dancer at a girls' night out. Just about every opponent this season has double- or triple-teamed him, often with considerably taller players.
USC was the league's worst team this year, but the Trojans twice beat the Sun Devils by employing a run-everyone-at-Ike defense that worked largely because his wide-open teammates failed to pick up the slack.
Yet ASU twice was able to beat third-place Stanford, after Cardinal coach Trent Johnson oddly decided to treat Diogu like a normal player. In Tempe, that resulted in a memorable 39-point, 11-rebound effort. However, the rest of the team converted only eight field goals in 28 attempts.
Overall, ASU has done better in Pac-10 play than the last-place slot the media had predicted for the team last November. But have the Sun Devils truly overachieved? A bid to the NCAA tournament that seemed a strong possibility after a 13-2 start to the season has all but vanished.
The day this story hits the streets, March 10, ASU will face the formidable Washington Huskies in a first-round game of the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles. The Devils are heavy underdogs, having already lost twice to the Huskies.
The only way the team will earn a coveted spot in the 65-team national tournament will be to take the league tournament by winning three games in three days. Most observers agree that the odds of that are slim.
After the Pac-10 tournament, ASU probably will compete in the National Invitational Tournament, a 32-team event for second-rung teams whose dreams of dancing into March Madness cruelly have been cast aside.
It does seem ludicrous that, short of a tiny sports miracle, the magnificent Diogu will have played in only one NCAA tournament in three years at ASU. That one time was as a precocious freshman in the winning 2002-2003 season that now seems long, long ago.
As this year's team fell on hard times, the whispers about ASU coach Rob Evans' immediate future with the program rose to shouts.
Recently, most local sports columnists, Internet chatters and radio talk-show hosts have been calling for Evans' scalp.
They've done so mostly because the Devils have made it to the promised land of the NCAA tourney just once in the coach's seven years on the job.
ASU play-by-play man Tim Healey referred to the team's naysayers as a "legion of doubters" during a recent broadcast.
No doubt, Evans' detractors have some strong ammunition, even though the coach remains respected nationally as a wonderful teacher and role model.
Diogu's supporting cast this season has mostly been maddeningly inconsistent, if not downright lousy at times. That's led many to question Evans' ability to adequately develop his players, and about the level of athlete that he's been able to attract to Tempe.
As the hard rain of criticism has fallen on Evans and the team, the coach says he's counseled Diogu and the other players on the ways of the world.
"Ike and the guys think that our fans should support the team no matter what," Evans tells New Times. "But I've always told them to appreciate the accolades, but to remember that the other side of accolades is what we've been getting for the last few months. I tell them not to buy into the praise because they'll have to buy into the criticism."
The sniping at Coach Evans has been eating at Diogu for weeks, though he chose until recently to maintain his stoic public silence.
In the privacy of their dorm room just down the street from the Wells Fargo Arena, Diogu and his savvy roommate, Serge Angounou, spoke passionately about the situation.
"We've definitely lost some close games that we should have won, but we have some serious ball to play yet," Diogu said a few weeks ago. "We know we have more doubters out there than fans, and we know people are lining up against Coach [Evans]. But they don't know him like we know him. He's our guy. You'd think we were 11-18, not the other way around. You can't make anybody happy in this place. If we went 32-0, they'd still figure out some way we're messing up."
Diogu paused, and added in the clipped, precise manner he employs when he wants to emphasize a point, "This is basketball, not life or death. We have an opportunity to play ball, have fun and go to college on a scholarship. It's cool here. I can chill just fine. My friends are cool, coaches are cool, classes are cool. I just wish we had more support."
The man who's carried the ASU basketball program on his back this season insisted in that dorm-room conversation that he hasn't made up his mind about his plans after this year.
But then he turned directly to his visitor, with whom he was sharing a weathered living-room couch, and said that if ASU sacks Evans, he'll sack ASU.
"I feel an obligation to Coach Evans for what he's done for me personally and on the court," Diogu stated.
That's not to say, he explained, that he still won't choose to go pro after he adds everything up. Whatever he does decide, his loyalty to ASU's beleaguered program remains unshakable.
Everyone inside the program has known that since soon after he arrived in Tempe.
Without informing Evans of his plans, Diogu called a press conference early last week. He told the beat writers what he'd been saying at the dorm -- that he's out of there if Coach Evans gets the ax.
Diogu was composed and diplomatic in his comments, and somehow made it sound like he wasn't issuing an ultimatum, though he was. Nobody's fool, Diogu knew his comments would send shock waves through ASU's athletic department and the local sports world, and they have.
Coincidentally, ASU athletic director Gene Smith -- Evans' boss -- took a similar job with Ohio State University a few days after Diogu spoke out. Smith's pending departure further muddies the waters around the ASU men's basketball team.
Soon after the short news conference, Diogu apologized to ASU's assistant sports information director, Doug Tammaro, for any hassles that his unexpected statement might cause.
Tammaro smiled, and told Diogu to relax, that people really want to know what he's thinking.
"That's Ike Diogu right there, thinking about someone else," says Tammaro. "I've dealt with great people here who weren't the best athletes, and great athletes who might not have been the best people. But no one has been better with the whole package than Ike. There's no one like him."
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.
"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.
In fact, he says, the best moment of his career came in March 2003, when ASU upset the University of Memphis in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City. Diogu led his team with 22 points.
Unless you live in Tucson, Durham, Lawrence, Storrs, Chapel Hill, Syracuse or a handful of other major-college hotbeds, 20-win seasons and NCAA tourney berths aren't a given. For most midlevel teams such as ASU, seasons usually are high-wire acts, where one missed lay-up or defensive box-out may spell the difference between a bid to the Dance and calls for the coach's head.
A few of those turning-point plays come to mind this season. On November 26, in Las Vegas, junior guard Tyrone Jackson barely missed a driving shot at the buzzer. UTEP 66, ASU 65.
Then came the devastating February 5 home loss to California, on a last-second offensive rebound and put-back basket by Cal's point guard.
On February 26, a senior playing in his last home game in Pullman, Washington, hit a desperation three-pointer with a few seconds left to give Washington State a two-point win.
Two nights earlier, the University of Arizona had been in a similar predicament to ASU's in Pullman, a perennially tough road game. But the Wildcats escaped with a 57-56 overtime win.
And while we're on the subject of the 'Cats, a last-seconds basket by Arizona's Salim Stoudamire ended the Sun Devils' hopes for an upset in that March 5 game.
Good teams, as the saying goes, find a way to win tough games. Lesser teams find ways to lose.
Most discouraging was that, just two days earlier, ASU had played one of its best games of the season in losing 90-82 to a University of Washington squad currently ranked 10th in the land.
The Devils played very hard, and well at times, and trailed by only three points with about a minute to go. But ASU needed top offensive output from someone other than Diogu and sophomore shooting guard Kevin Kruger.
For his part, Diogu played all 40 minutes against the Huskies, scored 31 points, gathered 15 rebounds (eight of them off his own team's many missed shots) and hit his last 17free throws in succession. Seventeen!
It truly was an All-American performance.
After the game, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar compared ASU and Diogu to Joe Frazier, the heavyweight great whose style was to bore in on his opponent without regard for his own physical well-being.
"They just came at us, and they played at a very high level," Romar said. "Ike Diogu was just phenomenal, that's all that I can say about him. That kid is a heck of a player."
More telling was a comment by Washington's Nate Robinson, one of the nation's very best little men.
In 1980, Jane and Edward Diogu moved to Buffalo, New York, from their native Nigeria to continue their respective educations.
Edward Diogu was completing work on his doctorate at the state University at Buffalo, while his wife was working on her bachelor's degree in education.
The Diogus already had two young sons, both of them born in Africa. Jane Diogu soon gave birth in the States to another child, a daughter.
Then, in June 1983, she bore her fourth and final baby, an 11-pound, 24-inch-long specimen with unusually long fingers and big feet.
The couple decided to name their youngest Ikechukwa Somotochukwa Diogu.
Edward Diogu explains that the first name (pronounced E-KAY-CHU-KWU) means "God's power" in his native language. The surname Diogu means "leader of the troops," or general.
"I have always called him a child of destiny, destiny's child," says Edward Diogu, who holds a Ph.D. "Did I dream he was going to play basketball and lead his team? No, I never had those dreams. We just liked the name and it came out that way."
The Diogu boys all loved to play football (the two older boys later played major-college ball), and their parents encouraged all of their children to participate in athletics. But sports always have taken second place in this family to academics.
"To tell you how diligent we have been," Edward Diogu says, "Ike did not miss one day of school ever -- in elementary school, middle school and high school. Ever."
Even now, with Diogu's future at ASU hanging in the balance, his parents remain concerned about his continued academic success.
"It would be the greatest paradox for Ike not to earn his degree, especially in our household," his father says, chuckling only slightly.
He points out that Ike's two brothers are working on their master's degrees, and his sister is set to graduate this May from North Texas State. Edward and Jane Diogu teach in the Dallas school district: He teaches high school French, and English As a Second Language. She teaches elementary school social studies.
Coach Evans says that Mrs. Diogu asked to speak with him for a moment during a basketball practice around Christmas.
"They had to leave for Texas, and she wanted me to know something," he recalls. "I turned the practice over to my assistants, and sat down with her. She said, 'Coach, we love what you've done with Ike, but please make sure you stay on him about this certain class. He needs to do well in it to get to the next level.' I said, 'You know we'll do that.'"
Suffice it to say that Ike Diogu decided to attend ASU after a series of fortuitous events combined with hard recruiting work. Assistant coach Tony Benford says he first identified Diogu as a prospect as a sophomore at Garland High School.
"He was overlooked at first, but we saw something in him right away," says Benford. "Later on, we were the first to offer him a scholarship. We went to his home three times, Coach [Evans] and me. We saw right away that this was a great Christian family all about substance, not flash and dash. Loyalty is huge to Ike, and to us. I told him that before it was over, his name was going to be synonymous with ASU basketball, and he was going to be an All-American. I told him that he was going to get a lot of touches in his freshman year, and he did. He developed a lot quicker because of his opportunity."
But getting Diogu to commit wasn't a slam dunk for the Devils after his stock rose precipitously during his junior season at Garland High.
Bigger-name programs -- including Illinois, Kansas, Georgetown, Alabama and, finally, powerful Connecticut -- came courting, and Rob Evans feared he might lose an essential piece of his rebuilding plan.
"I brought him to Tempe as soon as we could do so legally during our first week of school in his senior year," Evans says. "He came out with his mom and a coach. Mrs. Diogu was very, very meticulous in everything she was looking at and the questions she was asking of me and my wife [Carolyn]. It was all about academics and about how we treat our kids."
Knowing of the other colleges hot on Diogu's trail, the coach traveled to Garland the very next week: "We sat in their living room with two of Ike's coaches, his mom and dad, brothers, aunts, uncles and so on. Mrs. Diogu tells us that they can tell him where to go to school, but they wouldn't do that. . . . I felt like I had to make a stand.
"I said, 'Your son is our number-one guy, but we have numbers two, three and four waiting in the wings. I don't want to lose all of them waiting for Ike's decision.' Mrs. Diogu stood up, walked in front of us and said, 'Coach, nobody pressures Ike. If you must move on, move on.' I say, 'No, ma'am, you don't understand. I'm gonna stay with Ike as long as I can. I just have to tell you what's going on on my end."
Diogu signed with ASU, but not before he addressed members of a Sun Devils sports Web site in defense of his father. It seems Edward Diogu had told a reporter that his son hadn't made up his mind yet, even after Diogu had suggested that he was going to ASU. That led some joker to write something untoward about the elder Diogu.
"Please don't make it seem like my dad is the enemy because he is not," Ike responded in his own e-mail. "He will support me in anything I decide. [But] if push comes to shove, I will not disobey my parents."
In the end, Diogu says, he didn't have to think about disobedience. And even though UConn went on to win the national championship last year, and Illinois currently is the nation's number-one team, Diogu swears that he has no regrets.
"I made the decision, and my parents agreed with it," he says. "Everything happens for a reason, and there was a reason I came to ASU, and for everything that's happening now."
In the hours before the February 17 home game against Oregon State, Ike Diogu sits with a visitor in his dorm room engaging in one of his favorite pastimes -- chilling.
It's a must-win for the Sun Devils, coming as they are off back-to-back losses in Los Angeles to UCLA and lowly USC. With the defeats, public talk about Coach Evans' future at ASU (or lack thereof) is reaching a crescendo.
But Diogu couldn't seem more relaxed.
"I decided as a junior in high school that basketball games weren't going to get me uptight," he says. "By then, I knew I had some people watching me, and I played lousy because I wasn't relaxed out there. I did some talking to myself after that."
His cell phone has been ringing incessantly. Diogu decides to answer one call, and has fun with a young woman on the other end.
"Of course I go to class," he says, feigning exasperation. "If I didn't go to class, I wouldn't be able to play. We have people who check up on us."
He listens to her for a moment, then says in mock-seriousness, "The question is, what will you be doing this weekend?"
Though Diogu doesn't have a steady girlfriend, he's popular with the ladies, and for obvious reasons: He's the real deal -- approachable, clever, good-looking, admired by all. Yet he's more interested in picking their brains than bragging on himself.
At 4 p.m., Diogu turns on a DVD of The Chronicles of Riddick, a futuristic adventure flick. He gets lost in the yarn for the next hour or so, occasionally checking on the time. Then, precisely at 5:15, he stands up, stretches, turns off the television set, and strolls out of his third-floor room for the short walk to the arena.
On the way, two or three people honk at him, and he waves back. Someone hollers out of a car window, "Double-double, Ike, double-double," referring to Diogu's habit of scoring in double figures in both points and rebounds.
ASU takes a surprising 16-point lead into halftime after Diogu hits a three-pointer at the buzzer, but prosperity definitely isn't this team's forte.
The Beavers storm back to take a one-point lead with six minutes left, shortly after Diogu collects his fourth personal foul. Thanks largely to the inspired play of forward Serge Angounou, the Devils retake the lead, but it's a mere two points with 41 seconds to play.
ASU's Bryson Krueger runs the baseline looking for a teammate to pass the ball to, but no one's open. About 40 feet away, Diogu screams for the ball and starts running downcourt.
Krueger lets it fly.
An Oregon State player sprints toward Diogu, getting there at the same time as the ball. Diogu fully stretches out his long arms and makes a fingertip, over-the-shoulder catch like a tight end. Somehow, he stops his big body without committing a traveling violation, and dribbles forward for a few seconds until the Beaver player has to foul him.
Then he makes both pressure free throws.
ASU wins by two points, 75-73. Diogu has scored 25 points, and hauled in nine rebounds.
After doing his post-game interviews, Diogu heads for the west tunnel exit by himself. He has a happy bounce to his step, and spontaneously breaks into a soul song of undetermined origin.
Diogu and several teammates stop to sign autographs for some kids, then he and Serge step into the misty evening and head back to the dorm.
There, the relief and joy of the moment are palpable. The roommates are joined by half a dozen or so friends, including a few teammates. A girlfriend of Diogu's turns on the oven and sticks in a sheet of chocolate-chip cookies.
The sweet aroma fills the room.
No matter what Diogu says about dealing with pressure, it is off for this evening.
He surveys the room, bantering to this person and that. In this moment of revelry, it's easy to understand why Diogu seems so torn about leaving for the NBA, good as he is and frustrated as he must be with the situation at times.
Ike Diogu knows he'll never pass this way again.
His friend passes him a cookie straight out of the oven.
Diogu savors it.
"Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" he announces, laughing.
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