the wrong man

words: tim struby

art: seb agresti


On the afternoon of April 26, 1986, 20-year-old Oghogho Ayo Agbonkpolo arrived at John F. Kennedy airport. He’d had a long trip. An hour drive from his home in Ibadan, Nigeria, to Lagos, then a connection in Abidjan, another connection in Dakar that he nearly missed, and finally the eight-hour flight to New York. He’d traveled the 5,253 miles not for a visit, but to start a new life. Ayo had come to play Division I basketball at Fordham University.


An excited Assistant Coach Buddy Mahar met Ayo at the airport. The two drove back to the Fordham Rose Hill Bronx campus, dropped Ayo’s bags in room 702 of the Walsh Hall dorm, and went to the diner across the street. While Ayo knew next to nothing about the Bronx or Fordham basketball, everyone on the Rams team had heard of Ayo.


“Our coaches had been warning us that some big African guy was coming over,” says Doug Bantam, who played on the men’s basketball team from ’86 to ’89. “They told us that this guy was going to take our spots, that we would have to work harder if we wanted to play, that he was great.” On a resurgent Fordham basketball team that had made it to the National Invitation Tournament five consecutive years, Ayo was to be the final piece of the puzzle to take them to “The Dance”—the NCAA Tournament.


As Buddy stared at Ayo at the diner, he couldn’t believe the team’s luck. A Jesuit priest in Nigeria stumbles upon a basketball game—who could make that up? And Ayo looked every bit as advertised: 6′ 9″ with shoulders as wide as a doorframe and a wingspan to match. Hell, maybe he could be the next Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. It was no surprise Ayo had gotten a full athletic scholarship.


Yet there was something Buddy didn’t know. Something the Rams players, coaches, staff, and administrators didn’t know. Ayo wasn’t going to be a difference maker, the next Olajuwon. Why? Because Oghogho Ayo Agbonkpolo was the wrong man.




Twenty years later, Ayo sits in a booth at the Cheesecake Factory at the Irvine Spectrum, California’s “premiere dining, shopping, and entertainment destination.” Dressed in a black skintight Lycra shirt and shorts with a clean-shaven scalp, he’s still in the immaculate shape he was the first day he set foot on campus. As he picks over his Cajon sirloin and plantains, he vividly recalls that afternoon. “I hoped I’d be alone in a room so I could lock the door and cry,” he mumbles. “I was so scared.”


Ayo was frightened because he had never imagined playing basketball abroad. Never pictured himself living in the United States. Back in the mid-’80s, there were no NBA African development programs. College programs didn’t have scouts combing the continent. Ayo was recruited by accident. 




“I’m not sure how I found the game,” says Father George McCauley, SJ. “I think someone must have told me about it.”


In 1964, the Jesuits founded the Pastoral Institute, a Catholic mission based in Ibadan, Nigeria. McCauley arrived in January 1986 for a six-month stay; his duties included performing weekly mass at an “out station” 30 minutes out of the city. Ayo was a parishioner. “I went to see him play and thought he had the moves,” explains the 75-year-old priest. With a background in poetry and music, McCauley wasn’t completely confident in his assessment skills, so he enlisted a pair of visiting Jesuits to join him courtside. When, according to McCauley, they gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up, he reached out to the Fordham Athletic department and men’s basketball coach Tom Penders. “He said Ayo had tremendous ability but was raw,” recalls Penders. “Today it would have been illegal, because Father McCauley wasn’t a designated recruiter.” But the now-former coach welcomed the gamble. In the late ’70s, he’d signed Sudanese cousins Dud Tongal and Ed Bona, who led the Rams to a 1983 MAAC title. “They were my biggest recruits during my tenure at Fordham,” says Penders. “They turned the program around.” Plane ticket and four-year ride in hand, Ayo bid farewell to his mother, Arien Victoria, and seven sisters and headed to America.


That fall, during the first unofficial practices of the ’86–’87 season at the Lombardi Center, the Rams hoopsters finally met their heralded prospect in person. “The Dream” was not the term that came to mind. “He didn’t have a feel for the game,” explains Tom Parrotta (’84–’88), now an assistant coach at Fairfield University. “It was too fast and too physical for him. He shouldn’t have been playing D-I ball.” Others were less polite. “How long did it take to tell he couldn’t play?” says Pat Macarchuk, Ayo’s former JV teammate. “Until he touched the ball. In his sweats you’d think he was a project. Big. Great body. But then they’d throw him the ball and he’d have to run with it, and you’re like, ‘Oh, boy . . .’”


Athleticism wasn’t Ayo’s problem. When the team was given a fitness evaluation, he beat everyone with a 5:05 mile. Effort wasn’t an issue either. “He was a hard worker,” explains then–Assistant Coach Jack Armstrong, now a commentator for the Toronto Raptors. “But he was just a limited, limited player.”


Not simply a limited player. He was the wrong player. “We had a tape of him in office before he got there,” explains Armstrong. “He looked impressive with shot blocking and skills around the basket. But when I peeked my head into the Lombardi Center—we couldn’t be in the gym with players until October 15th—it didn’t look like same guy. And the players said the same thing. ‘Who is this kid?’”


He was a kid who had grown up in Ibadan playing soccer, not hoops. “We would play barefoot,” says Ayo. “In the streets, empty lots, yards, anywhere we could.” A kid who, until he turned 17 and shot up from 6’4” to 6’8”, had never even heard of the NBA or Michael Jordan. “I played basketball for only one year,” says Ayo. “I was getting paid 300 naira a month.”


Most schools wouldn’t have kept him. Within a week, basketball factories like UNLV and Cincinnati would have been running him off, badgering him, harassing him in practice, or making him feel left out. If that didn’t work, a coach would have brought him in the office, slammed door, sat him down and thrown him the NCAA book, and said, “Start circling schools, because you’re a pain in the ass and you don’t fit in.”


But none of the Fordham players made him feel unwanted. No coaches forced him to transfer or lobbied to have him shipped back to Ibadan to use the scholarship for another player. School officials honored his free ride. “Everyone recognized that Ayo was a good kid and a hard worker, so we said let’s bite the bullet and make sure he gets a degree,” Armstrong explains.


Nor did anyone call out the elephant in the room. “We talked about the ‘wrong man’ legend,” recalls Macarchuk. “But not with Ayo. I don’t think anyone asked, ‘Did they recruit your brother?’ ‘Was it someone else on the tape?’” And while Ayo was quiet and a bit of a loner, he was, despite the bizarre circumstances, well liked. “Ayo was such a nice kid,” says former Sports Information director Joe Favorito. “So everyone gave him a free pass on it.”


Off the court, Ayo gradually acclimated to college life. He went to dorm parties. Hit the New York City nightclubs. “We played Ping-Pong almost every day,” says former teammate Fred Herzog. “Ayo had a good serve and a mean return.” Mostly, he trained. “He was always playing in Lombardi Center, shooting by himself and lifting weights,” says former men’s basketball team manager Jeremy Joyce.


The dedication, however, didn’t produce results on the hardwood. Still, after two seasons on the JV squad—which was basically a club team—the team’s head coach, Nick Macarchuk, named Ayo to the varsity team for his senior year. It was more symbolic than substantive, but being a fixture on the bench didn’t sit well with Ayo. “A couple times he talked to me,” recalls Macarchuk. “He asked why he wasn’t playing and what he could do to play. There’s never a time a player who doesn’t play doesn’t question if they’ve done something wrong, and I respected that. But he thought he was better than he was. He wasn’t skilled. And we were having a very competitive year.”


Competitive enough to win the Patriot League with an 11–1 conference record (25–8 overall) and earn a chance to make the NCAA Tournament with a play-in game against St. Francis. (Fordham lost 70–64.) Some of those games, inevitably, were blowouts, and when the Rams were running up the score in front of their fans at Rose Hill something special started happening. The home crowd would begin to chant, “Ay-o! Ay-o!” See, Ayo had turned into a fan favorite. A hero of sorts. He was becoming the Rams’ own Rudy.


On the night of February 2, 1991, at Rose Hill, the 2,004 fans began that very chant. With the Rams piling it on against Adelphi University, Coach Macarchuk called Ayo’s name. The crowd leapt to their feet. With 1:57 remaining and the Rams up 87–52, Ayo made his first basket—two points of only five he’d score in his entire Fordham varsity career. They were meaningless points in a game already over, but from the reaction of the crowd you would have thought he’d just sunk the buzzer-beating game-winner in the NCAA Finals.




Finished with lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, Ayo heads for the Irvine Equinox to visit Bill, his former gym manager. After graduating from Fordham with a BA in Economics, he took a string of temporary gigs with UPS, Staples, and as a bouncer at Manhattan nightclubs like Tattoo and Coup. He tried acting and wound up in an accredited role in the film Mean Girls (he played an “African Warrior”). Eventually he got married, had a son, and moved to southern California, where he settled into a career as a certified personal trainer. A starkly different path than what he would have taken in Ibadan. “Life is so strange,” says Ayo.


When reflecting on his Fordham days, he is more bitter than thankful. Despite every account to the contrary, Ayo insists he had the skills—that coaches simply didn’t believe in him. “I didn’t get fair treatment playing basketball,” he says. “I would have turned that program around.” And in that instant another piece of the puzzle falls into place. The true final piece. Ayo never knew—or never wanted to know—he was the wrong man.


A causal stroll through the gym finds Bill and Ayo at the facility’s regulation-size outdoor basketball court. The two men step through glass doors and into the warm November sun.


“Nice, huh?” asks Bill, tossing Ayo a basketball.


“Oh my God,” says Ayo. “Amazing. If I worked here I might never want to leave.”


In his long fingers, the basketball almost disappears. Instinctually, Ayo walks to the foul line, turns, takes three quick steps, and leaps into the air for a dunk. But there is no sweet-sounding swish. Instead the ball clangs against the front of the rim and falls to the ground with a soft thud.