MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu's journey to America as a native Nigerian began with tragedy.
“I get asked this a lot, like was it hard going from Nigeria to America," Kao said. "I tell them it wasn’t tough for me because I lost my parents. I felt like it was nothing else left for me back home."
At six years old, his father died in a motorcycle accident. Just 11 months later, he lost his mom to breast cancer.
For the next five years, Kao's aunt worked to officially adopt him and his siblings, bringing them to America where they met some of their family for the first time.
“At that time, he was 5’4”, really short for a seventh grader. I felt that I could use this as a tool to mentor him, and that’s how it started,” said his cousin Solomon Ehiogu.
Never having played basketball before, Kao’s older cousin trained him, but many years passed before he saw results from his hard work.
“Freshman year made the team, but I didn’t really play that much. Sophomore year didn’t really play that much either. I was a junior on JV, and then I finally played varsity my senior year,” said Kao.
Kao wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school, but Solomon had a plan.
“We said, 'OK , you’re going to do one year. It’s either going to be NAIA or JUCO. We’re going to get your IG up a little bit, and from there, we’re going to go to a bigger school.' Then when he went to UTA we said, 'OK, we’re going to go to a bigger school again,” said Solomon.
The closest Kao had ever been to head coach Penny Hardaway was his character on NBA2K, the video game.
Getting the personal call from Hardaway asking Kao to join the Memphis Tigers was a dream come true.
“First thing I told him, I said 'you don’t know how crazy this is. I use you on 2k all the time, and now you’re recruiting me to play for your school.' That’s crazy to me,” Kao explained.
From not making the team in seventh grade to now joining the Memphis Tigers as one of the newest team players, Kao’s perseverance has allowed him to go from what he said was very few fans in the stands to possibly playing in front of one of the largest home crowds in college basketball.
“I would be doing all of these crazy things, making these crazy plays, but the fans weren’t live enough because there was nobody there. So I know it’s going to be a lot different at Memphis,” Kao said.