Like Ike

Men's basketball senior Ike Azotam overcomes adversity on and off the court to complete his record career

By on March 26, 2014
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Ike Azotam knew he didn’t do it; he knew he wasn’t guilty.

Yet there he was. His picture was on the front page of the local newspaper, he had been suspended from the game he loved, and his reputation was on the line. He never had to deal with such pain, such sadness.

But he knew he was innocent.

Ike dealt with things the only way he had ever known – he depended on his family.

After all, it was his parents who had given him the full name “Ikechukwu” at birth, meaning “strength of God.”

“I think it’s a name he constantly strives to live up to in everything he does,” his sister Ada said.

This situation was no exception. Ike relied on that strength. He knew the truth would come out, which would allow him to resume his everyday life on and off the basketball court.

“He didn’t let this situation define him,” his coach, Tom Moore, said.

***

Ike was getting ready to head back to Quinnipiac for his senior season in August when he sat down with his family. The youngest of four was coming off of a season in which he averaged a team-high 13.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, he was climbing the Quinnipiac program ranks in both points and rebounds for his career, and his team was headed into its inaugural season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

But Ike wasn’t worried about himself, he was worried about his family. He knew it was his last season, and he wanted to make his parents – Bennet and Ada U. – and his three older siblings – Ada, Uchenna and Dozie – proud.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked them.

Nobody answered for a moment, then Ike’s mother spoke up.

“I want you to break Rutty’s record,” she said with a smile.

His mom was talking of Justin Rutty’s 1,032 career rebounds, which ranked first all-time in Quinnipiac Division I record books. Ike entered the season with 716 rebounds, and his mother wanted him to surpass Rutty’s record set in 2011.

“If you break that record,” she told Ike, “then you’ll be my favorite.”

Ike looked across the room at his mother, slightly nodded, then looked toward his three siblings.

“I’m going to be the favorite,” he said.

***

A young Ike walked down the road one summer morning in 2005, heading from his Boston home near Roxbury Crossing to the local YMCA on Huntington Avenue. The walk had become something of a normality for Ike, who would be heading into high school during the fall. Every morning he would make that mile-long trek to the gym.

On this day, however, something was different. He would remember this day for the rest of his life.

It was the day Ike first dunked. The 15-year-old darted toward the basket, leaped and extended his arm out in one motion. He barely got his hand above the rim, throwing the ball through the hoop for the first time in his life. Ike recovered the ball, then darted at the rim and dunked again. Over and over he repeated the process, slamming the ball in at least a dozen times that day.

The proud and excited teen called his friends to the same YMCA the next day, wanting to show them his new accomplishment.

But something had changed. He couldn’t dunk. Time and time again he tried, coming up inches short without fail. His friends teased him, laughing as he missed by inches, though most of them couldn’t come close.

“I just wanted to show them I could do it,” Ike said with a smile, “but I couldn’t get it to go down.”

Ike grew four inches during that summer, making dunking easier and easier as each day went on. Every day he would go to the gym, lift weights and play basketball until it was time to return home.

“You would have to ask him to take out the trash, clean the dishes and clean his room, but you never had to ask him to play basketball,” Ada said.

Ike’s favorite person to play with was Dozie, the oldest of three boys. There was a seven-year age difference between Ike and Dozie, who played football at Georgetown while Ike was growing up.

Ike would ride to the airport with his father every time Dozie would come home for break. He would wait in the back seat of his father’s car with sweatpants on, ready to head over to the gym with his brother.

Dozie remembers the first time he came home during his freshman year. He was tired from the plane ride and wanted to catch up with his friends.

“You’re going to take Ike with you,” Ada. U. said. “He’s been waiting for you to come home.”

Dozie thought for a moment, then agreed to bring Ike to the gym before he left for the night. It became a tradition in the Azotam household. Upon arriving home Dozie, would put his bags down and greet his mother, then head to the gym with Ike.

“It just became a habit,” Dozie said. “That was always the first thing I did when I came home, go to the YMCA with Ike.”

“Family comes first,” he added.

***
Ike wasn’t the only one Moore had his eyes on during the summer of 2009. There was another forward Quinnipiac coveted, but only one spot left on the roster. Moore wasn’t sure where Quinnipiac ranked on Ike’s list. Ike wasn’t too sure, either.

Moore had spoken to Ike earlier that summer when he saw him play AAU basketball for Metro Boston Basketball. Ike and his teammates had reached the Sweet 16 of the AAU National Tournament.

Most people attended Metro Boston’s games to watch Ike’s teammate Shabazz Napier, who now plays at the University of Connecticut. Napier had attracted the attention of many Division I scouts across the country, and Ike was an afterthought.

“Ike never let that get to him,” Metro Boston Head Coach Mo Vasquez said. “He just continued to get better. The team always went first with him.”

Moore saw Ike’s potential and was impressed with his strength and use of hands. He reached out to the junior and wanted Ike to visit Quinnipiac

“We were really excited about him,” Moore said.

Ike and his parents visited the university in September 2009 and he loved everything about the campus, especially the TD Bank Sports Center, which had opened only two years prior. His parents approved of the academic advising Ike would get as a player. School always came first for all four of their children, which wasn’t about to change.

“I didn’t think I was going to come here until that visit,” Ike said, “but it went really well.”

Soon after, Moore called Ike, warning him a visit with the other forward was scheduled for next weekend.

“Not to deadline you, but once he gets here he’s taking the scholarship,” Moore said. “If you’re going to take this, do it tonight or tomorrow.”

The next day, Moore’s top choice called. Ike committed.

***

The Azotam family grew up on the south end of Roxbury, Mass., just down the road from the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center on 1350 Tremont St.

That building was the first thing he thought of.

It was Jan. 15, 2011, and Ike and his teammates at Quinnipiac were getting ready for a game against rival Central Connecticut State when a feeling of uneasiness took over the freshman’s body. His heart was pounding and his breath was short.

Ike played sparingly, waiting until after the game was over to deal with things.

He was scared.

He called his sister when he got back to his room. The first thing he brought up was the building in honor of Lewis only a few steps down the road from his house.

Lewis, a former budding star for the Boston Celtics, suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and died unexpectedly at 27 years of age. One day Lewis was in the starting lineup of an NBA team, the next he was gone. Ike remembered that story.

Ike sat out of the next game two days later. Specialists gave him various tests, including an EKG and a cardio gram, to try and find out what plagued him.

“It was threatening something he loved to do,” Ada said. “He just wanted answers.”

The results came with good news, as Ike was cleared to play after missing only one game. His experience was a result of not properly eating and hydrating before games.

Through the whole process, though, he was most concerned with his teammates. He didn’t want to let them down. He wanted to play.

“It’s just how he is,” Ada said. “He could never put himself before his teammates.”

***

Twenty-three days later, when the health issues which concerned Ike and everyone around him, were all an afterthought, Quinnipiac hosted Sacred Heart. Ike came off the bench in his usual role as the backup forward.

Rutty got into early foul trouble, playing for only six minutes in the first half and 18 in the game. Rutty and James Johnson shot a combined 3 of 19 from the floor that night, and the Bobcats had a recipe for disaster.

But Ike was there, waiting for his opportunity. He came up with the biggest game of his collegiate career to date, putting up a 16 points and 13 rebounds.

“Those are little milestones, as you have a career, that you need to accomplish to move forward,” Moore said. “That went a long way for him in terms of confidence.”

Years later, Ike looks back on that night as much more than an opportunity. Much more than just a win.

“It allowed me to really grow,” he said. “They are going to throw you in there, and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t. It’s all about how you improve from that point.”

“Life is full of ups and downs,” Ike added. “What matters most is how you respond.”

***
Vasquez was a coach, but also a mentor to his team.

“Don’t be guilty by association,” Vasquez would tell his AAU players. “Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re in trouble for the people you’re with and not yourself.”

Ike was heading into his sophomore season at Quinnipiac when it happened, when Vasquez’s advice came to mind.

He had just averaged 5.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game as a freshman, and the Quinnipiac coaching staff saw many similarities between he and Rutty. But Rutty graduated after Ike’s freshman year, allowing Ike to move into the starting lineup. Ike had three years left at Quinnipiac and his upside seemed to be limitless. Then everything changed.

On the morning of Sept. 21, 2011, both Ike and Johnson were charged with third-degree assault and breach of peace in the second degree. Ike allegedly struck another student in an attempt to break up a fight, according to the report.

Four students in total were injured. One suffered a bruised jaw, cracked tooth and laceration to the face which required 17 stitches. Another suffered a broken nose, a third was allegedly knocked unconscious, and the last had minor facial injuries.

Both players were released on a $5,000 bond, but were expected to appear back in court a week later. Moore suspended them from the team once he heard of the incident.

“He’s a big guy, but he literally wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Dozie said. “When I heard of the situation, I said, ‘That’s not Ike, he doesn’t fight anybody.’”

The next morning Ike’s parents drove two hours from their home in Boston to see their son, and Ada drove three hours from her home in Philadelphia to see her brother. They were concerned, and they knew Ike needed them.

Ike shared his side of the story with his family, insisting he was innocent.

“He felt like he was being portrayed negatively before all the facts were there,” Ada said.

But the news was out, and Ike had already been suspended from the team. He had grown up his whole life playing basketball, and just like that it was taken away.

“That was probably the lowest point of my college career,” Ike said. “I just kept myself in a shell, I really didn’t do too much.”

Ike pleaded not guilty to all charges at Meriden Superior Court on Sept. 28. Defense attorney Thomas Lynch claimed Ike had “no involvement whatsoever” in the incident, and he had been misidentified.

Ike waited for further investigation. That’s all he could do. His family and teammates remained behind him throughout the process. They knew Ike, and they knew he was innocent.

“He’s the perfect guy to be around, he’s not a trouble maker,” teammate Ousmane Drame said.

Moore reinstated Ike to the team on Oct. 14, 2011, even though the trial was still ongoing. The university had conducted an investigation of what had happened, then released sanctions, which was good enough for Moore.

Three more Quinnipiac students were arrested on Dec. 1, 2011, after they confessed their involvement to the case.

On Jan. 17, 2012, Ike appeared back in court alongside his teammates. He was granted a one-year accelerated rehabilitation program and 50 hours of individual community service. In exchange, his criminal record would be wiped clean.

“It was unfortunate, he was falsely accused,” Moore said. “It was a cruel life lesson for him.”

“It put things into perspective for me,” Ike said of the situation. “I ended up playing very well my sophomore year, and that situation really forced me to mature.”

***

In Ike’s last home game, he scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 72-70 loss. Dozie, in attendance, looked on. He knew something was wrong. He had seen his brother play his whole life, and something just wasn’t right. He reached out to Ike, trying to figure out what was bothering him.

“You okay?” Dozie’s text read.

“I’m fine,” Ike responded.

The next game, Ike’s final regular season game of his career at Quinnipiac, Azotam played only 10 minutes, sitting out the whole second half.

Dozie’s cell phone rang a few hours after the game had ended. He looked at the screen, and realized it was his father calling. His heart sunk, but he was forced to answer.

“There’s something going on with Ike again,” Bennet informed him.

Dozie called his brother, who again seemed more worried about getting back on the court with his teammates. The Bobcats were the No. 3 seed heading into the conference tournament. It was Ike’s senior season, and he wasn’t about to let something keep him off the court.

“We’re shorthanded,” Ike said. “I don’t want to let my team down.”

Ike returned to practice without missing any time. The Wednesday before Quinnipiac would play in the league quarterfinals, Ike sprained his MCL in practice but didn’t tell anybody. When he woke up the next morning and his knee was swollen, he went in to the team’s medical staff to be evaluated.

Ike wouldn’t practice Thursday or Friday, and his status for Saturday’s game was unknown. He had come so far in his career, had accomplished so much, and now might have to watch from the bench instead of playing his final games as a Bobcat.

Moore was driving to the arena from his house on Thursday morning when he got the call from his medical staff. They explained the situation to him, informing the coach there was a chance Ike may not play in Saturday’s game.

“I almost voluntarily drove off the road when I heard,” Moore said. “We were so up against it with injuries and it was the biggest weekend of his basketball career.”

He had 18 points and six rebounds in a win over Niagara on Saturday, then 18 points and 10 rebounds in the semifinal loss against Manhattan. The Bobcats had been eliminated, and Ike wouldn’t have the chance to make it to the Big Dance. Still, his coach was proud of the effort he got out of Ike.

“He was free and easy, he let the adrenaline take over,” Moore said. “Once the ball went up he was a competitor, and I was really proud of that.”

Moore and Ike sat side-by-side in the press conference room only moments after the loss to Manhattan. Ike’s career was coming to an end, and nobody had ever been more proud of Ike than his coach did at that moment.

“I was blessed to be able to coach him as a young man, a student, and teammate,” Moore said while tearing up.

Ike would record 10 more rebounds in the Bobcats first-round loss to Yale in the CIT, giving him 1,043 all-time. He would also finish third in Division I program history in scoring.

“We’re happy for him, but we’re really going to miss him,” Drame said. “He was the perfect teammate.”

It had been a career full of highs and lows, with many broken records along the way. He doesn’t know what the future entails, but he knows he will make his family proud. After all, he is the favorite.

“I can just tell they are proud,” Ike said of his family. “They let me know all the time.”

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About Nick Solari

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Year: 2016
Major: Print journalism