Feb. 5, 2014
All people face ordinary problems on a daily basis. It's something everybody unfortunately has in common. Not everyone can take an ordinary, everyday problem - such as a cluttered closet with too many shoes - and turn that into an opportunity to change the lives of young people halfway across the globe.
Well, not everybody is as clever and thoughtful as Georgetown sophomore forward Ki-Ke Rafiu.
Ki-Ke, a native of Offa, Nigeria, who moved to the United States in 2010, immediately thought back to scenes from one of her last visits to her homeland when dealing with her messy closet.
While on that visit back home, she witnessed some young girls playing basketball on the exact same courts where she once honed her skills years earlier. She couldn't help but notice how much they were enjoying themselves even though they didn't have the best equipment.
One girl in particular really caught Ki-Ke's eye, mostly due to her ragged shoes.
Fast forward to that scene in front of a messy closest and it all came together for Ki-Ke. She knew what she had to do and it involved a lot more than a simple spring cleaning.
"One day I opened up my wardrobe and I had 10 pairs of shoes and was like `Wow, I have come a long way'", Ki-Ke recalled in a recent interview at McDonough Arena.
"I remembered the girl [in Nigeria] that didn't have the shoes and was like it just doesn't make sense to keep 10 pairs of shoes when there's someone out there that doesn't have one."
And just like that, Ki-Ke found a calling.
She wanted to give young girls in Nigeria a fighting chance to compete in the sport she loves so dearly - basketball. Ironically enough, Ki-Ke had to do a bit of fighting herself just to convince her family that she belonged on a court in the first place.
"Playing basketball I don't think my parents ever expected me to do that," Ki-Ke explained.
"They were hoping I would just go to school. Me deciding to play basketball, it was a little bit tough, but I fought through. My dad - he didn't like it - but I just made him believe good things were going to happen through basketball, which, at the end of the day, they did happen."
Where her older brother previously failed in being allowed to pursue an interest in soccer, Ki-Ke claims her `stubbornness' worked in her favor as she was allowed to participate in several basketball camps in Nigeria. Once given a chance to showcase her skills, she was noticed by Mike Flynn who helped facilitate her move to the Philadelphia area.
Flynn helped ease her parent's concerns and ensured them of her well being on a different contitnet. After becoming the first person from her family to come to the United States, Ki-Ke starred at Neumann-Goretti High School for two years before deciding to come to the Hilltop as a member of the Class of 2016.
"I took a couple of visits before I came to Georgetown, Georgetown was the last visit," Ki-Ke remembered.
"And after I came to Georgetown I was like this is it, I'm done -this is where I'm going."
Ki-Ke played in 26 games as a freshman on a Georgetown team that went 15-16 during the 2012-13 season. She posted a double-double with 14 points and ten rebounds against Providence in the BIG EAST Championships but it was her first ever basket that she will always remember because she was finally fulfilling a childhood dream.
"I remember they put me in the game and actually ran a play for me," Ki-Ke said with a big smile.
"The play was actually successful. I remember that was my first two points - against Sacred Heart."
After the season concluded she started with those ten pairs of shoes that were taking up too much closet space and then enlisted the help of her teammates, classmates, and basically anybody she could talk to about helping give young girls in Nigeria a chance to play some hoops.
Her message was clear - it didn't matter what it was, or what condition it came in - she would collect the gear and then pass it to young girls who she knew would be appreciative. In just a short time Ki-Ke had gone full circle from camper to being the one making a difference.
Upon returning home, she quickly found 20 girls interested in the gear. For Ki-Ke it was the perfect number because it meant that each would get shoes, shirts, and even socks. Making things better is that all of the kids had fun, even when touching on important issues such as education
"We talked about basketball, we talked about life outside of basketball, and we talked about school most importantly. I talked to them about what I was going through right now. I know most of them are back home right now and they are working hard to step into my shoes and I'm looking forward to seeing them."
One person not surprised by Ki-Ke's impact on so many lives is Georgetown women's coach Jim Lewis. Lewis, who has been coaching young people since 1969, said it took all of five minutes for him to realize he was dealing with something special.
"Ki-Ke is one of the most unique young people -male or female - that I've ever been around and she brings a great depth and a great dimension about the world to our program and to Georgetown University. We are really blessed and fortunate to have her as a young woman that can talk about things outside of the DMV."
Seeing herself as a role model to those kids back home, Ki-Ke plans on continuing to give back for the foreseeable future. For her, it's really important that those girls know it's OK to play sports. While she was lucky in convincing her parents to let her play, not all girls receive the same fate. Far too many are talked out of playing and that's something Ki-Ke wants to eliminate as best she can.
"You don't get to see a lot of parents encouraging girls to play basketball," Ki-Ke explained.
"The first obstacle that you have to come across is your parents. It's not even the game itself, it's your parents. You just have to let them understand this is basketball, there are no strings attached."
"Most parents are always scared at first but after a couple of years they see how determined you are and how focused you are on the game. Then they will be like OK - even though it's not like a full OK -we got your back."
Now in her second season with the Hoyas, Ki-Ke is just starting to get back on the court after undergoing knee surgery during the off-season.
While she has great enthusiasm and expectations for her team this season Ki-Ke can't help it if her mind drifts a bit down the road at times to a day when her parents can one day come to the United States and watch her play in person for the first time.
"I hope someday, maybe my senior year, they are going to be here to see me play but unfortunately it's something that breaks my heart all the time," Ki-Ke admitted.
"My dad and my mom have never seen me play basketball. They've probably seen me dress and go off to practice but they've never seen me play and it really breaks my heart."
With the way things are heading, not only will Ki-Ke finally get her chance to play in front of her parents one day, but, thanks to her efforts, so will many other girls that grew up under similar circumstances in Nigeria.
Luckily for the rest of us, Ki-Ke Rafiucontinues to turn problems into opportunities.