Why an alleged 29-year-old posed as a teenage basketball player

Jeff Eisenberg
Jonathon Nicola speaking to reporters earlier this year (screen shot via the Windsor Star)

One morning last spring, Gregory Dole received a call from a friend with whom he'd played high school basketball in Tanzania nearly two decades ago.

Deng D'Awol asked Dole for help finding a school in Canada that would be interested in a 16-year-old basketball phenom he'd discovered in war-weary South Sudan.

"Deng told me, 'There's this amazing kid I want to help get a scholarship,'" Dole told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. "He told me this kid is the best player he's seen in Eastern Africa. He told me this kid reminds him of a young Kevin Durant.' When someone says that, your ears tend to perk up."

Such sky-high praise typically would have inspired skepticism in basketball circles, but Dole trusted his friend's assessment. After all, Deng is a 7-foot-1 center who set shot-blocking records at NAIA Wayland Baptist University, played professionally in the American Basketball Association and overseas and now helps coach and train kids in his native South Sudan.

Dole reached out to a longtime high school coach in Windsor. Catholic Central coach Pete Cusumano agreed to not only take the 6-foot-9 center on his team but also house him for the remainder of his high school career. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until Dole and Cusumano learned that Jonathon Nicola may only be posing as a teenager.

Nicola was arrested last Friday by Canadian border officers for allegedly misrepresenting his age on his application ‎for a study permit for Canada, the Windsor Star first reported Wednesday night. Yahoo Sports confirmed on Thursday that Canadian authorities have evidence Nicola may actually be 12 years older than he purported to be.

When Nicola arrived in Canada last November, his passport indicated his date of birth was Nov. 25, 1998, as did his application for a Canadian study abroad permit. The Canada Border Service Agency flagged Nicola when he tried to enter Michigan last Friday because a fingerprint match revealed he was the same person who had previously applied to visit the U.S. using a date of birth of Nov. 1, 1986.

"Mr. Nicola‘s date of birth was determined to be November 1, 1986 following his application for a U.S. visitor visa," said Anna Pape of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board. Pape added that Nicola is being detained until his next admissibility hearing on Tuesday "on the grounds that he presents a flight risk."

While the notion of a 29-year-old man posing as a high school junior has to be terrifying to everyone at Catholic Central, school officials thus far are staying tight-lipped. Cusumano told Yahoo Sports on Thursday that he is "not allowed to comment," citing a directive from the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board.

School board spokesman Stephen Fields told Yahoo Sports he would not comment specifically on Nicola's arrest because the case is ongoing. Speaking in general terms, Fields cited the "rigorous system" the school board has in place requiring international students to present valid government documentation — passports and study permits — before they can be enrolled.

Among the few at Catholic Central to address the saga publicly was Richie Akinsanya, a senior point guard on the school's basketball team. Akinsanya tweeted in support of Nicola on Wednesday night, writing "If you were in a war torn country and were given an opportunity to get out, you'd take it in a heartbeat too."

The prospect of a fresh start in a new country had to be very appealing to Nicola. Residents of conflict-stricken South Sudan face ongoing civil war, frequent food shortages and unfathomable poverty.

When D'Awol first saw Nicola play last spring at a tournament in South Sudan's capital city of Juba, he asked to speak with Nicola's mother about the possibility of helping her son find a scholarship opportunity overseas. The scene D'Awol found at Nicola's house was tragic yet typical for South Sudan.

D'Awol estimated that Nicola and as many as 30 relatives lived in one house with just four or five bedrooms. One of the few members of the family with a full-time job was Nicola's father, a petroleum engineer who works primarily in the Middle East and sends home as much money as he can.  

"He comes from a poor family," D'Awol told Yahoo Sports. "They all stay in one house including uncles, aunts, their children and their children's children. And the whole household is supported by an individual or two. That's basically the reality for about 85 percent of people in South Sudan."

Before last spring, D'Awol had no prior relationship with Nicola because he comes from a different tribe and he had traveled for several years with his father. Among the first things D'Awol says he asked Nicola was his age and whether he had documentation. Nicola told him he was a few months shy of his 17th birthday and then produced a passport that appeared to verify that.

"I had no questions whatsoever about his age," D'Awol said. "I saw the documentation. There was no reason for me to doubt him."

Convinced that Nicola was a Division I-caliber talent at minimum, D'Awol agreed to help him find a way to further his education abroad through basketball, something he says he has done previously for a handful of other promising African prospects. D'Awol admits he accepted "a couple hundred dollars" from the family for his services yet insists his primary motivation was to give Nicola the chance to use basketball to better himself the same way he once he did. 

"Out of my own pocket I spent a lot more than the money that they gave me," D'Awol said. "From what they gave me and what I spent, I didn't gain anything."

When Nicola arrived at Catholic Central in late November after finally obtaining his study permit, his towering height, size 16 shoes and 7-foot-4 wingspan instantly attracted attention. Cusumano cautioned that Nicola had scarcely played any organized basketball in South Sudan yet even he couldn't help gushing about his new center's potential.

“I think this kid will have a chance at the NBA,” Cusumano told the Windsor Star in January. “I have never said that about any kid from Windsor.”

Despite his edge in size and strength, Nicola was far from dominant this past season. He protected the rim on defense and scored on dunks, put-backs and an occasional low-post move on offense for a Catholic Central team that won 26 games but only advanced one round in the Ontario Federation of Schools Athletic Association playoffs.

When Massey coach Keith McShan first caught a glimpse of Nicola before his team's Dec. 3 matchup with Catholic Central, he likened the massive center to former Ohio State star Greg Oden, a 7-footer who always looked older than his actual age. McShan insists that he harbors no grudge against Catholic Central for using a potentially ineligible player even though his Massey team lost twice to the Comets during the regular season.

"There's no bitterness," McShan told Yahoo Sports. "At first I was shocked, but now I just feel sorry for the man. He had to fake being 17 to leave his war-torn country and come to Canada. I felt sorry for him that he had to go to that extent."

Nicola's case is certainly not the first example of an athlete lying about his age.

Just six years ago, 21-year-old Haitian immigrant Guerdwich Montimere claimed to be 17-year-old Jerry Joseph in order to be eligible to compete in basketball for Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. The practice has also been common among Venezuelan and Dominican baseball prospects, who lie to scouts about their age to make it seem like they had more upside than they actually did.

One of the lingering questions in the Nicola case is whether anyone involved besides him knew that he was merely masquerading as a teenager.

It seems difficult to believe Cusumano would knowingly risk tarnishing a successful coaching career one year before retirement by playing a 29-year-old. Dole says he too was shocked by this week's revelation. D'Awol is still having a hard time believing Nicola isn't 17 and is hopeful the Canadian authorities have somehow made a mistake.

"There's a lot of people that have put a lot of time and energy into helping Jonathon," D'Awol said. "I've spent a lot of time with Jonathon and to be honest he is a great person. But if this information about him being 29 years old is true, then I'm very disappointed."

While both Dole and D'Awol have full-time jobs unrelated to basketball, both say they dabble in helping prospects from basketball-bereft regions find opportunities overseas. 

Dole is well connected in international basketball circles thanks to his travels in Africa, Brazil and elsewhere. Nearly a decade ago, he helped Brazilian-born NBA guard Leandro Barbosa come to the U.S. and showcase his talents for NBA scouts.

D'Awol's primary region of expertise is Africa, especially his native South Sudan. He says there are so many men 7-foot or taller there that it's the only place in the world his height doesn't make him an anomaly.

Before Nicola's arrest, D'Awol says he'd have helped any kid he believed had the talent and work ethic to succeed in basketball. Now he may limit himself to only those kids who he has known since birth and whose age he can verify.

"I haven't slept well for the last two days trying to understand how this could have happened," D'Awol said. "How could no one know that he's not 17? How can he do all these things with documentation and everything without anyone questioning it or trying to stop it from happening?"

Half the world away in Windsor, Ontario, lots of people are asking the same questions.

- - - - - - -

Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!