Semilore means “gift” in Yuroba, a language native to Nigeria, where Ottawa senior basketball star Semi Ojeleye’s father emigrated from before settling in Kansas.
It’s fitting, because Kansas City basketball fans get an early Christmas gift today: the chance to watch Ojeleye and his Cyclones, who are ranked No. 1 Kansas 4A, square off with Grandview at 4 p.m. in the Hy-Vee Shootout presented by Metro Sports at Avila’s Mabee Fieldhouse.
Ojeleye, who averaged 33 points per game as a junior and signed with Duke, is a 6-foot-6 wing with prodigious talent — range past 25 feet yet with the strength and ball skills to get to the rim at will.
“Right now, the best player in the state of Kansas is Semi Ojeleye,” Blue Valley Northwest guard Clay Custer said.
That’s high praise considering Custer, who is AAU teammates with Ojeleye on Mo-Kan Elite, just became the Huskies’ all-time leading scorer and committed to Iowa State as a junior last month.
“Being a point guard and having him on your team is nice, because he does thing that baffle us sometimes,” Custer said. “Just the natural physical gifts he’s been given are unreal, but coupled with his work ethic, it’s incredible.”
As much well-deserved acclaim as he receives as a basketball player, Ojeleye draws even higher praise for character off the court. He has a 4.0 grade-point average, ranked No. 1 in his class, with unflinching integrity.
“Semi the basketball player is amazing,” Ottawa coach Jon McKowen said. “You can Google his name and see all the clips, but Semi the person is more impressive to anybody’s that got to know him.”
McKowen and the Cyclones had just finished a morning practice in November 2011 when he glanced at the adjacent middle school football field and saw Ojeleye running toward his house.
Frost coated the cars in the parking lot, where McKowen had parked next to Ojeleye’s truck, so he figured something had to be wrong.
McKowen fired off a text to see if Ojeleye was OK or needed a ride.
After a few minutes, Ojeleye, who lives only a few blocks from the school, replied that he’d left his wallet at home and didn’t feel right driving without his license.
“I had just got my license and didn’t think it would be a good time to get any tickets,” said Ojeleye, who turned 18 last week. “My house wasn’t too far away, so I ran home and ended up finding my wallet in the driveway. It turned out I had run over it with my truck. I guess it fell out of my pocket when I was closing my door.”
It’s unlikely anyone would have been the wiser had Ojeleye hopped in his truck and scooted home, but he would have known.
“That’s just who Semi is,” McKowen said. “He does the right thing no matter if people are watching or not watching. That’s what really sets him apart, not just from other high school students but from most adults also.”
Even opposing coaches marvel at Ojeleye — the player and the person — despite the monster nights he routinely hangs on teams in the Frontier League.
“In my opinion, he is everything you want a high school athlete to be,” De Soto coach Matt Rice said. “He’s very humble on the court, and doesn’t showboat. He’s always been very polite toward me, the referees and his teammates. He doesn’t come across as selfish. He’s just everything you’d want to see.”
Rice got the inside scoop on Ojeleye from a faculty member who moved from Ottawa to De Soto this year and raves about Ojeleye’s character.
“Nobody has anything bad to say about that kid,” Rice said. “It’s been a pleasure getting to play against him. I know I enjoy the moment and I love watching him play. I’m going to miss that next year. Well, I’ll miss it and I won’t, if you know what I mean.”
During a blowout win Dec. 6 against Wray (Colo.) in the opening round of the Goodland (Kan.) Topside Tipoff, Ojeleye pumped in 58 points, but he didn’t pound his chest about it.
“He always keeps himself humble,” McKowen said. “Even after last Thursday’s game, where he scores 58 points, I turn around and he’s helping our manager put our basketballs away in a bag before he comes to the locker room.”
He spent the next hour signing autographs for children — a request he seldom turns down — and talking with them, making new fans at every stop along his basketball journey.
It’s his family, including his father, Ernest, who is a family physician in Ottawa, and his brother, Victor, who played basketball at Kansas State and won the 2012 Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Award, and his faith that keep him grounded.
“My faith is what really defines me,” Ojeleye said. “It humbles me that I’m in this position and am able to do some of these things. But you just have to remember where it comes from. It comes from God. When I think back on things or reminisce, I’m just thankful.”
Fans who make the trek to Avila to see watch him play will be thankful too — and for the bargain price of $7, which easily beats the cost of a flight to North Carolina next year and a scalped ticket at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer