The plans had been in the works for months. His parents would travel to Sacramento from Nigeria. Two of his brothers would arrive from Australia. The sellout crowd would be rocking, emotionally pumped Thursday night to celebrate the team’s three seniors, among them the most charismatic, accomplished player in the history of the UC Davis men’s basketball program.
Chima Moneke will participate in the night’s festivities before the Aggies host Hawaii in the home finale in the Pavilion, and afterward, join his teammates on the sidelines.
But he won’t have much to celebrate, and he won’t play. His college career most likely ended when he was suspended indefinitely Feb. 3 for “violating team rules that govern conduct at the team’s hotel.”
The circumstances remain murky, even a bit mysterious. University officials and members of the Los Angeles Police Department are steadfastly refusing to divulge details. Employees at the Warner Center Marriott Hotel in Woodland Hills, where the alleged incident took place, are refusing to speak on the record.
What is known is this: Moneke was questioned, but not arrested, by police officers called to the hotel. The incident is being investigated by Detective Thomas Townsend of LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division that handles robberies, special assaults, cold cases and various types of homicides. It is unclear whether Moneke will face criminal charges, a division spokesman said Wednesday.
Meantime, after absorbing the initial shock of losing their best player, perhaps for the season, the Aggies have proven to be a surprisingly resilient bunch. They have won four of six games since the suspension and are a half-game out of first place in the Big West Conference standings. They finish league play Saturday at UC Irvine and will travel to Anaheim next week for the conference tournament opener and the chance to grab an automatic bid to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament.
“There is a lot on the line,” coach Jim Les said Wednesday. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group, how they have handled everything, and really played with a chip on their shoulder. Everybody elevated their game, and it starts with TJ (Shorts).”
Two of the four victories came on game-winning shots by Shorts, the junior point guard out of Saddleback College. But Siler Schneider and Joe Mooney have converted timely baskets, Rogers Printup and Michael Onyebalu have contributed in their extended minutes, and AJ John has been steady as Moneke’s replacement in the starting lineup.
Yet realistically, there is no replacing Moneke. Besides leading the Aggies in scoring and rebounding, earning recognition on several postseason and preseason polls and watch lists, the power forward transformed the Pavilion into his personal playground, captivating the crowd with his expressive demeanor, bouncy enthusiasm, playful banter.
Moneke had been warming up for his next act – what he hoped would be a second consecutive conference title, an encore appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and a chance at an NBA career.
Now, who knows? Regardless of whether or not charges are filed, his shortened senior season is troubling on many levels. Besides reducing his exposure to NBA scouts and a potential national audience, his situation complicates his fascinating personal story.
The youngest of six boys born in Abuja to Nigerian diplomats, Moneke has lived on five continents and attended schools in Turkey, Switzerland, France, Nigeria and Canberra, Australia. After high school, he emailed 300 Division I programs in the United States, hoping for a scholarship, but heard back only from Alaska-Anchorage.
Instead, he enrolled at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., where he caught Les’ attention during the junior college showcase. California, it turned out, was a lifelong obsession. Moneke accepted the scholarship and seemed to have little difficulty adjusting to his new environment. He became close friends with senior J.T. Adenrele, whose parents are Nigerian and live in Roseville, and as a junior, quickly emerged as a major talent.
His senior season was supposed to be when it all came together. He would earn a college degree, improve his defense, expand his range, attract NBA scouts, and in the closing weeks, share senior night and the conference tournament in Anaheim with parents he has not seen in almost a decade.
Moneke’s mother still made the trip and is staying with relatives, and two of his brothers will arrive in time for Thursday’s events, presumably to offer their comfort and encouragement. Les, who canceled practice the day after the alleged incident because several of his players were shaken, has tried to balance his team’s desire to remain supportive of their leader with the need to prepare for his continued absence.