Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Toby Ojukwu is everywhere. At least that’s what his maternal grandmother thinks each time she sees a basketball game on TV, whether it’s college or pro. She’ll pick up the phone and invariably call her daughter, Toby’s mother Gigi, and ask if that’s Toby playing on TV.
But you have a sense it’s coming by the poise in which the 6-foot-1 Roman Catholic sophomore carries himself as the Cahillites’ starting point guard through this early rough patch of the season.
Sophomore guard Toby Ojukwu (above) is the first athlete in his family, with a diplomatic background. (Photo: Joseph Santoliquito/CoBL)
With junior point guard Xzayvier Brown out indefinitely with an ankle injury, Ojukwu has filled in nicely. Another case in point came Thursday night when Roman made easy work out of visiting Cardinal O’Hara, 84-52, in the first game played in Roman’s classic shoebox gym in two years after COVID turned the basketball heirloom into a temporary classroom last year.
Roman’s Hofstra-bound Khalil Farmer led all scorers with 27 points, followed by Cincinnati-bound Daniel Skillings’ 26 and Ojukwu’s 15.
That Ojukwu is beginning to expand shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Call it genetics. His family is originally from Nigeria. His father was born in London, England. His maternal grandmother, the one who sees her grandson everywhere there is a basketball, is the former Nigerian ambassador to Trinidad, while his maternal grandfather was the Nigerian ambassador to Russia, where Gigi was born.
Toby and his family are originally from New York, and the family moved to South Jersey when he was five. He’s the only basketball player in the family, after falling in love with the game at a young age.
“I definitely have pictures of me really young with the basketball as big as my head,” said Toby, laughing. “I just fell in love with the game.”
Ojukwu says he’s used to his role handling the ball more frequently. He doesn’t hear his parents in the crowd as much as he used to. They usually wait until after the game to praise him, as they did Thursday night.
“It is a great, crazy journey that led Toby here, from me being born in Russia, to his father coming from London. My father was the Nigerian ambassador to Russia when I was born in Moscow,” Gigi said. “Most of Toby’s family is still in Nigeria and England. We’re more of an academic family, but when we put Toby in sports as something to do when he was young, people kept telling us how good he was.
“My mother (Nne) calls me and keeps asking if Toby’s games are on TV. It doesn’t matter, it could be an NBA game or a college game, she thinks it’s Toby playing. His grandmother thinks every game is Toby playing (laughs).”
One thing is certain, Ojukwu is playing the point for Roman—and playing it well.
Roman coach Chris McNesby had no trouble turning over the keys to the offense to Ojukwu.
“Toby is our hardest worker and our leader as a sophomore,” McNesby said. “Toby starts for us as a combo guard, and probably does 60, 70-percent of the ballhandling duties. When ‘X’ comes back, we’ll have a great situation with two guys who can handle the ball.
“You can see Toby one day being a starter for an Ivy League school, because he has that kind of mentality and maturity. Early on, Toby showed a toughness that no one is going to take the ball away from him. For a sophomore, he’s ahead of his years.”
And he has the confidence of his teammates.
“Toby plays with good pace and makes the right decisions,” Skillings said. “I know he’s a sophomore, but he always plays the role as a leader on the team. He does a great job at it. I have a lot of confidence in Toby, and I had a lot of confidence in Toby last year. He’s going to be to handle the shine that’s going to come to him.”
Roman (6-2 overall, 1-0 Catholic League) easily handled O’Hara (4-4, 0-1). The Cahillites were up by 51-23 at halftime and had a running clock by the third quarter.
O’Hara did have a few bright spots, one of which was Izaiah Pasha dropping a team-high 19 points and Hunter Johnson and Josh Coulanges each dropping 13.
As for Ojukwu, his TV time may come.
Cardinal O’Hara: 13 | 10 | 18 | 11 || 52
Roman Catholic: 24 | 27 | 16 | 17 || 84
Cardinal O’Hara: Izaiah Pasha 19, Hunter Johnson 13, Josh Coulanges 13, Pearse McGuinn 3, Maasai Harris 2, Amir Speights 2
Roman Catholic: Khalil Farmer 27, Daniel Skillings 26, Toby Ojukwu 15, Quadir Brown 6, William Felder 6, Sebastian Ash 3, Shareef Jackson 1
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.