Ailene Voisin

UC Davis’ Chima Moneke enjoys view of world through basketball goggles

UC Davis coach Jim Les was scouting at a junior college showcase four summers ago in St. Louis, trolling for talent, when he noticed an active, bouncy prospect whose 6-foot-6 frame bordered on skinny.

He couldn’t take his eyes off the kid. The fast-paced motor. The way he glided down court. The effortless moves around the basket. The anticipation for rebounds. And those goggles. Who wears glasses that resemble swim goggles during basketball games?

“Sometimes other players will look at me when we walk out on the court and just start laughing,” Chima Moneke recalled, with a playful grin. “One guy in the stands kept yelling at me, ‘Hey, four eyes!’ So I was like, ‘OK, watch this.’ I made some big plays, and every time I did, I just stared at him. He was giving me the thumbs-up by the end of the game. It made me laugh.”

And then he laughs again for two reasons: First because he routinely overpowers mouthy opponents these days, and then because he genuinely enjoys the attention. The goggles that are as necessary as a toothbrush – Moneke is nearsighted and hates wearing contact lenses – are an integral part of his introduction to America. This is me, he says. Get to know me, he urges. But pull up a chair and take a seat, because the junior forward from Nigeria not only leads the Big West Conference in rebounding (8.5 per game) and the Aggies in scoring (15.3 points), he might be the most interesting young man at UCD.

First of all, his full name is so long, it takes up extra lines on his driver’s license. Nwachukwu Ikeukwumere Chima Moneke goes by Chima (CHEE-muh), mainly to ease the burden of pronunciation. The youngest of six boys, he was born in Abuja to Nigerian diplomats. His early years were spent kicking soccer balls and attending schools in Abuja, Australia, Turkey, Switzerland, France and England before returning to Nigeria, then back again to Australia.

He has lived on five continents, but admits to favoring Australia and being obsessed with California.

Getting here from there is another story. Several stories in fact. Upon his return to Canberra, his basketball-crazed classmates, noting Moneke’s height and length, encouraged him to set soccer aside and experiment with basketball. His initial experiences were not pleasant. He felt clumsy, bobbled easy passes, became frustrated by his teammates’ advanced skill set.

But by his junior season, as he grew taller and played for a team that included Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum, his progress and confidence accelerated quickly. After the finale of the national state tournament in Australia, a recruiter from Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., approached and offered a scholarship.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I might actually go to America,’ ” Moneke related. “During that year, I must have emailed at least 300 schools, but I only heard back from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and one D-II school. I had basically given up hope. I figured I would just play in Australia.”

Instead, he moved on to Norfolk, where he caught Les’ attention during the junior college showcase a few months later. Though the Aggies coaches were unaware at the time, they had two early recruiting advantages. They were first in line, and they came from California.

For all his travels – and Moneke has visited five continents – he wanted badly to be cared for and coveted, and long ago bought into the California dream. The combination proved to be an easy sell. Nor did it hurt that Aggies senior J.T. Adenrele’s parents, both of whom are Nigerian, live in nearby Roseville.

“One time J.T. got the flu,” recalled Les, who also lives in Roseville, “and his mom called and asked me to pick up some medicine for him. I stop at their house, and she gives me this Nigerian elixir. I’m driving to Davis, and I can smell this stuff throughout my car, and my sinuses are wide open. It was hilarious. But those are the kinds of things we could do for Chima, bring that family atmosphere. When he comes to my house for the holidays, he gets turkey and stuffing. When he goes to J.T.’s, he gets the traditional Nigerian meals.”

On the court, Moneke’s progress is nothing short of a basketball Gold Rush. After redshirting last season and coming off the bench to start this one, the player Les refers to as his “X Factor” is easily the most athletic player in program history. More importantly, his emergence as an improving all-around contributor has pushed the second-place Aggies to a 4-1 conference record as Big West leader UC Irvine (6-0) arrives for Saturday’s 5 p.m. matchup at the Pavilion.

The unfailingly upbeat, engaging Moneke, who has not seen his parents since 2009 because of schedule conflicts, becomes noticeably subdued when asked about his family. His parents recently retired as diplomats and are starting new businesses in Nigeria. They plan to spend several months here next year, when they will see their son play basketball in person for the first time and visit other relatives in Antioch and Houston.

Undoubtedly, they will be amazed at the sight: The feisty youngster they remember as a soccer fanatic, who showed no interest in basketball before he returned to Australia in his early teens, thriving academically and as a force during the Aggies’ promising season. That clumsiness, the lack of confidence, the fear of venturing beyond rebounding and shot blocking is part of his Aussie-American history.

“Chima can make 15-foot shots, put it on the floor, finish around the basket with either hand, and he is disruptive defensively,” Les continued. “He just has a higher gear than most players. During practices, he is starting to shoot 3-pointers, too. So we don’t say he is a three (small forward) or a four (power forward). He doesn’t have a cookie-cutter position. He’s just a basketball player whose script has yet to be written.”

And who wears those goggles, proudly. No contact lenses or Lasik procedure for Chima, though at some point in the future, he might experiment with a larger frame more reminiscent of Amare Stoudemire than the narrower shape favored by Hall of Famer James Worthy.

“We’ll see,” Moneke says, smiling, while walking outside the basketball offices and hopping onto his bike. (This is Davis, remember). “I’ve been underestimated my whole career. People look at me and see the glasses and go, ‘He’s a basketball player?’ I like that edge, like nothing better than to prove them wrong.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin