Basketball found Nelly Junior Joseph, bringing him from the streets of Nigeria to the NCAA Tournament

Mar. 19—Nelly Junior Joseph was looking for food, not basketball.

Walking the streets of Benin City, Nigeria, the 11-year-old who lived alone in his grandmother's home after she died, had no idea about charter flights or college degrees and certainly wasn't thinking about that odd sport that involved using your hands to put a ball through a small hoop.

"I was just in the street during that time, struggling, trying to feed myself," recalls Junior Joseph, the 6-foot-10 senior center for the University of New Mexico Lobos — the No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament preparing to play No. 6 Clemson on Friday in Memphis.

"I stayed where my grandma used to stay, but nobody was looking out for me. I'm just taking care of myself for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I would go out and work, asking people to fetch water or clean their rooms. That's the kind of job I was doing then ... trying to find a meal every day. Trying to get a daily bread."

And when the tall, clearly athletic boy would occasionally try to kick a ball into a net, people in the neighborhood would tell him he was wasting his time, and physical gifts, playing soccer rather than giving that odd sport a try.

But Junior Joseph wasn't looking for basketball.

"I didn't even know what was basketball. A lot of people were telling me, go play basketball. You're so tall. I was taller than everybody (playing soccer in the streets)," he said.

Then one day, around the age of 12, he walked down Wire Road. That was where the older kids — 16-, 17-, 18-year old young men — played this game called basketball.

"There's no way I'll be playing with these tall people," Junior Joseph said of his reaction when he got to the courts. "I got so discouraged. There were people there like 7-(foot)-1, 7-2 — bigger than me, stronger than me. ... I went back home. I never even played."

Junior Joseph remained the same — a boy alone in Nigeria.

But basketball didn't give up on him.

When he was 13, a pastor named Kingsley Omeonu took notice.

"I was playing soccer and there was this pastor who had played basketball when he was younger," said Junior Joseph. "He saw me in the streets and he was like, 'How tall are you? Why are you playing soccer?'

"He said I should go play basketball. He asked me to come to his church."

That encounter got the ball rolling.

Later that year, Junior Joseph saved enough money for a bus ticket four hours east to Lagos, Nigeria, to train at a basketball school. There, he met, and eventually lived with, another player a little older than him.

"Charles Bassey, he's the superstar of Lagos. Everyone knew him," Junior Joseph said of his new friend and now 23-year-old power forward for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.

Through Bassey, Junior Joseph began to see how the sport could open doors. He trained in Lagos, in Japan a couple years and was back in school again.

Somewhere along the way, he met Roland Houston, the technical director of NBA Academy Africa, who invited the still raw, but athletic Junior Joseph, now around 16 years old, to take part in a 2018 Basketball without Borders event in South Africa.

That led to Junior Joseph joining NBA Academy Africa and moving into its training facility in Saly, Senegal.

"The academies are really our first foray into a sort of year-round development and really taking a holistic approach to providing all the resources we know are required for young prospects to ultimately make it to the next level, whether that be college or pro," said Chris Ebersole, NBA vice president and head of international basketball development.

"So that players like Nelly, when they arrive at their next step, whether that's college or pro, have all the tools and they've add all the education to really be able to hit the ground running and have success," Ebersole said.

NBA Africa Academy allowed Junior Joseph to compete in Australia, twice at the NBA G League Winter Showcase, at a Basketball Without Borders event at the NBA All-Star weekend in 2019, at the Final Four that same year, and beyond.

"That time when I first left Nigeria to America (with NBA Academy)," Junior Joseph said, "I was like, 'Wow. This can really be something that would take me to where I want to be in life. I want to go to school.' Nobody in my family was ever able to go to school."

College coaches in the United States took an interest as Junior Joseph's basketball skills began to increase.

"Nelly was always very, very receptive of coaching and learning and bought into the program quickly," said Greg Collucci, the NBA's director of elite basketball collegiate recruiting and alumni relations. "... He's always been the kind of guy to take information and be able to translate those things into success on the court."

In January 2019, in an event in Hungary, Ebersole got a quick first impression that seems to hold true today.

"He was shyer and a little more passive with being a new player on the team, but you would see these flashes during the games of just dominance where he would just physically take over with rebounding, finishing," Ebersole said. "And so I just remember having a conversation with him — 'Hey, man, I love the fact that you're trying to be a good teammate and defer, but that aggressiveness and that ability to really turn it on and dominate, that's going to be your calling card. That motor is going to be your calling card.'"

Gorgui Dieng, who now plays with the San Antonio Spurs, saw it, too.

The Senegal native, also an alum of Basketball Without Borders, made a call to his former Louisville coach Rick Pitino after seeing Junior Joseph play in 2020.

And on the eve of committing to play for Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, Junior Joseph instead chose to play for Pitino — then coaching at Iona — where he flourished for three seasons.

Pitino left the Gaels for St. John's after last season and Junior Joseph didn't have to look long when he decided to transfer.

"It's been amazing (at UNM)," he said with a smile, now playing for Richard Pitino, Rick's son, in a much higher-level league than he was in before. He said both Pitinos are great coaches and funny guys.

Junior Joseph, a starter, is averaging 8.8 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game and has one year of eligibility remaining. He said the Lobo locker room is the best he's ever been a part of in terms of friendships and chemistry.

He hopes to use his college degree to go into business, but after playing basketball professionally.

"For us, I think Nelly's already a success," Ebersole said. "Obviously we want to see him continue developing and blossoming in his career, which we I think we're pretty confident he will, but the fact that he's already performing at the level he is the fact that he's on track to get his college degree at some point. These are all huge success markers for us."

Walking down the Pit ramp definitely beats walking the streets looking for food and work.

"I feel like everything just happened by God's Grace," Junior Joseph said. "I never thought I would play basketball or go to school. ...

"(If not for basketball), I'd probably be in the streets. ... I was just walking the streets trying to survive."