‘shoot for the stars’

Huntley basketball player Amanze Egekeze (center) and his parents, Liza and Gilbert, pose for a portrait at their home in Lake in the Hills.
Huntley basketball player Amanze Egekeze (center) and his parents, Liza and Gilbert, pose for a portrait at their home in Lake in the Hills.

Gilbert Egekeze leaned back on a sofa in his family’s meticulously styled Lake in the Hills home, arms folded, with a smile on his face.

Egekeze spoke with pride about his four children, while his wife Liza sat a few feet away on a loveseat, also smiling.

They came to the U.S. from Nigeria in the 1980s. Since then, both have earned multiple degrees – Gilbert became a medical doctor, Lisa a registered nurse. They are raising four children in a home where education, religious faith, love and humility provide the foundation.

“Be humble and respectful to people you meet along the way, don’t look down on anybody,” is one of Gilbert’s favorite messages. “And don’t think you’re above anybody.”

Another is “Shoot for the stars. Even if you hit the moon, you’re still above the Earth.”

Then, there is “Don’t ever feel that you have arrived, you have to still work on your game.”

Education and faith top the list for Gilbert and Liza. Any notoriety through athletics, which their second son Amanze has gained and which their youngest son Uchenna someday will see, is considered a bonus. Although any drive to be the best in basketball is similar to the one that pushed Gilbert and Liza to keep striving.

They are pleased that Amanze, a 6-foot-7 junior forward on Huntley’s boys basketball team, has offers from six NCAA Division I schools to play basketball. But they are even more delighted that he is a 3.5 student who works as a teacher’s assistant in the Children’s Ministry Department at Life Changers International Church.

“[Education] is a part of the psyche where we come from,” Gilbert said. “Education is stressed more than anything else. That’s why most of us [from Nigeria] come here, for the education. We try to stress the same thing to our children, that education comes first. The achievements in sports, and all that, are secondary. That can go any day.”

Remarkable ride

Gilbert immigrated to the U.S. in 1985 to earn a Master of Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State. While he worked as a process engineer at ARCO in Houston, he met Liza, who had come to the U.S. in 1988 to study at Texas Southern University.

Gilbert enjoyed what he was doing, and made a good living, but he felt another calling. He often thought back to the summer after his freshman year in college in Nigeria, when he shadowed a physician. He wanted to be able to treat and heal others.

“I felt I would derive more professional satisfaction and fulfillment if I pursued that desire,” he said. “For me, it was not about money, but fulfilling God’s purpose for my life.”

That, he says, made it easy for him to leave one profession to train for another. He entered medical school at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1993. Liza stayed in Houston for a while and they had their first son, Kemdi, now 19, while there. When she was pregnant with Amanze, she joined Gilbert in Chicago.

When Gilbert began his solo practice in 2003 – he is a doctor of internal medicine now with offices in Crystal Lake and Huntley – Liza helped him set up the office. After interacting with Gilbert’s patients, she also felt a calling. With daughter Ogechi (now 15) and Uchenna (now 10) in the family, Liza went back to school and earned her nursing degree. She plans on completing her master’s degree in nursing by December this year.

It is only natural, then, that the Egekeze children have thrived academically.

“We’re very proud – they’re very disciplined kids,” said Liza, a registered nurse at Centegra Hospital-Woodstock. “Kemdi (a pre-med student at Saint Louis University) is a very good trailblazer for the rest of them. he really set high standards for the rest of them. He was always so independent. I didn’t have to remind him to do homework or push him at all.”

Picking up hoops

Gilbert was a soccer player growing up in Nigeria and through college. When he and Liza met in Houston, Nigerian center Hakeem Olajuwon was hitting it big with the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Kemdi and Amanze arrived just in time to catch the end of the Bulls’ magical run of six NBA titles in eight years.

Liza laughs while telling how the boys, then 4 and 2, used to entertain the ladies at their day care by telling them what the Bulls did over the weekend.

“Kemdi actually would know what happened, and Amanze would say, ‘Michael “Jonas” and Scottie Pippen.’ ” she said. “Amanze would try to outtalk him.”

Gilbert, who is 5-foot-10, says the boys’ competitiveness comes from him, while the height comes from Liza’s side. She is 5-9, but her father was 6-11 and her grandfather was 7-0. By third grade, Amanze was tall enough and talented enough to play with Kemdi’s fifth-grade team. But Gilbert noticed something early on.

“He was kind of soft,” Gilbert said. “He’s a gentleman, so he would not want to hurt them. He was much bigger. It took him a while to get that toughness.”

Amanze learned, something the Egekezes are good at.

No one calls him soft anymore when they watch him swoop in to block shots, bang for rebounds inside or put a little shimmy-shake, between-the-legs move on a defender before pulling up and swishing a 16-footer.

Amanze has played three varsity seasons, two with Kemdi, and Huntley has won the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division championships thrice in that span. Egekeze leads the Raiders at 12 points a game and has 18 blocked shots in the 11 games he played. He missed the first 13 games while recovering from surgery on his right knee to relieve the patellar tendinitis that nagged him throughout the summer and fall.

While Amanze is gifted with size, quickness and a strong outside game, he does not hesitate to predict bigger things for Uchenna, who is the second-tallest player on his fifth-grade team.

“He’s making the same kind of progression I felt myself making,” Amanze said. “I can see him doing the same thing, except he’s starting at a younger age. He’s going to be the best out of all of us. He’s a point guard right now, and I was a post. I just started learning guard skills recently. He’s probably going to grow to be 6-6. With those guard skills, I can really see him being hard to guard.”

Coach’s dream

Amanze’s upbringing and maturity played parts, along with his ability, in Red Raiders coach Marty Manning playing him on varsity as a freshman. Manning admires the Egekezes for reasons beyond basketball.

“The kids have two great parents as role models to listen to,” Manning said. “They have had to work hard to reach their expectations in the classroom and their church, as well. He’s used to that type of discipline.

“Their faith has a lot to do with it. With religion as their backbone, they have a rosier outlook on life and understand that they’re blessed, and they don’t let their kids take things for granted. They’re the warmest, nicest people you could ask for. Every time Mrs. Egekeze sees you, she wants to give you a hug.”

Much of Gilbert’s advice is based on the principles of faith and of helping others.

“We strongly believe all this is a gift from God,” Gilbert said. “Wherever you’re going to go is by God’s design. Our faith is our foundation. That’s basically what guides all of us.”

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