Her first trip to Nigeria as an adult had a profound effect on Temple’s Ugo Nwaigwe.
“I saw kids that were playing with rocks and walking miles to get water, but everybody was smiling,” she said. “Things that we consider bad, such as lack of water and electricity, they were doing what they had to do to survive and they were so happy in spite of the struggles they go through.”
Suddenly, being distraught over basketball was not that big of a deal.
Nwaigwe (pronounced WEEG-way) transferred from Wagner, where she averaged about seven minutes as a freshman before an Achilles injury derailed what would have been her sophomore season. She returned in a big way and was named the Northeast Conference’s defensive player of the year in 2013-14 after placing fourth nationally in blocked shots at 3.8 per game.
However, the 6-3 center would play only five more games for the Seahawks. Between coaching staff changes and players transferring out of the program her passion for the game waned. She left the program early last season.
“I love college basketball so much, but after I left the team I could not even watch it because it was so emotional for me,” said Nwaigwe, who was president of Wagner’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee.
With winter break approaching, Nwaigwe’s mother suggested she travel to Nigeria with her. Given her emotional state Nwaigwe felt it would be great to get away. She spent three weeks in her parents’ native land before returning to Wagner to complete her undergrad in sociology and government politics.
“After I came back home I was like, ‘You owe it to yourself to play one more year and finish your career with a bang,’” said the Long Island native. “I came back and my outlook was different. I am so grateful my mom took me (to Nigeria). If she had not I probably would not be here right now.”
A number of schools contacted Nwaigwe, whose older brother was a linebacker at St. Lawrence and a younger brother is a defensive back at Albany.
About a year ago she narrowed it down to Temple thanks in part Jacqui Thompson, Nwaigwe’s best friend at Wagner before the former transferred to Manhattan. Thompson is from Philadelphia and has a younger sister who is a student at Temple.
“They were always talking about Philadelphia,” said Nwaigwe. “I did not want to go to a school too far away and I ended up looking at schools in the American Athletic Conference. I figured Temple was a good fit. They get to play great schools and travel to a lot of different places.”
Nwaigwe took a look at what the team’s needs might be for this season and who was part of coach Tonya Cardoza’s staff. She first emailed assistant Willnett Crockett, who works primarily with post players. That got the ball rolling. Nwaigwe also was in contact with another assistant, Meg Barber, who knew Nwaigwe’s AAU coach from Long Island.
“Talk about a small world,” said Nwaigwe, who has come off the bench to average 1.7 blocks per contest, good for third in the AAC. “He (the AAU coach) vouched for me and coach Meg then contacted me and we hit it off from there. Temple was the only school I contacted and it has worked out perfectly.”
Cardoza is glad she has an older player to help out.
“She is a very mature person with a great head on her shoulders,” she said. “We have a bunch of young players on the team and she has done a great job of keeping them upbeat. She has been in the program only four months and you would think she has been here four years.”
Away from the court Nwaigwe’s master’s program is in globalization and development communications. She initially wanted to get into law and become a judge, but steered herself toward a discipline that focuses on social change, public policy and community development.
“I could do a lot of things that are rewarding to the public,” she said. “Like trying to level the playing fields between the upper and lower class, trying to make sure everybody receives an education and write legislation for people that are less fortunate.”
One thing Nwaigwe would like to do when it comes to assisting the less fortunate is using basketball as a vehicle to help girls in Nigeria.
“I was thinking that if someday I am well established and I have the money I would like to start a foundation in Nigeria where girls go to school, develop their skills and come (to the U.S.) to play college basketball,” she said. “It is just a thought, but I love what basketball has done for me. It has been a huge vehicle in my life and I would love to give back to people that are less fortunate and that would be a great way for me to give back to my culture.”