There was a time when Lehigh men's basketball senior Jesse Chuku wasn't focused on scoring points or grabbing rebounds, but rather, recovering from an illness so he could pick up a basketball again and continue pursuing his dream.
"I got sick my first year at prep school in New Hampshire and I was in the hospital for a while," said Chuku, a native of London, England. "I only planning on being at Kimball Union Academy for one year, but I ended up doing two because I wasn't in physical shape. When I was sick, the doctors were saying they weren't sure if I'd be able to play."It's hard enough being away from home for school, never mind being in an entirely different country. Add being in the hospital and the challenge is even greater.
"From what I understand, Jesse's illness was relatively rare," said Lehigh head coach Brett Reed. "You have somebody who is strong and robust as a physical specimen start to wither away as you're searching for answers."
Chuku remained determined to get better and resume his basketball career.
"I refused to believe that being sick was going to stop me," he said. "I was so excited to be in America and I did everything I could to get back into playing shape. I was planning on getting myself a Division I scholarship."
Chuku's plan came to fruition; he got that scholarship. It would be a stretch to say Chuku defied all odds, but there was certainly a time when odds were stacked against him.
Despite those odds, he wound up putting himself in a position to live out his dream and play Division I basketball. It took a lot of hard work and determination. When Chuku got out of the hospital, he immediately picked up a basketball.
"People told me to sit down and told me I was doing too much, but I just kept going," he said.
At the time, Chuku was already on Lehigh's radar, but the illness delayed his recruitment.
"We were made aware of Jesse through his prep school coach," said Reed. "Once he was healthy, we renewed the interest. We had a chance to see him play with his club team and saw the ability to shoot the basketball. We were really impressed by his length and his physique; he looks the part. As we got to know him, we saw someone who was very serious about basketball, had a tremendous desire to play and be part of a program."
Growing up in England, while most were interested in soccer, Jesse became interested in basketball.
"I was always tall and thought tall people play basketball," he said. "I felt like I was 'supposed' to be a basketball player, so I started playing and loved it."
Since basketball wasn't the most popular sport in England, it was a challenge for Chuku to play, or even watch, the sport.
"Basketball would be on around 3 a.m., so I used to run home from school, do all my homework, take a nap then wake up right before the games started," said Chuku. "I would watch some NBA basketball and go back to sleep for a few more hours."
Through his exposure to the sport, Chuku's dream of playing college basketball in the United States was formed.
"I always knew America was where the basketball players resided," said Chuku. "It looked like the right path to receive a high level of education and play at a high level."
Before coming to Lehigh, Chuku played for the Great Britain Under-20 National Team. The experience, coupled with his time at the New Hampshire prep school, helped him prepare for what was to come as a Division I basketball player in the United States.
"While attending boarding school for the first time was tough, I made the adjustment," said Chuku.
Chuku overcame significant adversity to make the adjustment at Kimball Union Academy. His dream of college basketball helped fuel his internal fire and desire to keep playing, even when times were tough. After one of the lowest points of his life, Chuku is now living his dream at Lehigh University.
Chuku was ineligible to play games during his freshman year at Lehigh and only had three years of NCAA eligibility, which Coach Reed was aware of during the recruitment process. The Lehigh coaches thought that highly of Jesse that they still pursued him.
"We were aware of the potential that Jesse may only have three years to play for us," said Reed. "We felt that his talent level, his character and his academic interests were so strong that having him for three years would be a very worthwhile investment."
After being allowed to practice (but not play games) as a freshman, Chuku started from the get-go as a sophomore. Entering his senior season, Chuku was averaging 7.2 points per game. An inside and outside threat, he has been one of Lehigh's top rebounders while also serving as one of the Mountain Hawks' top three-point shooters.
It's safe to say Chuku's tenure has been a success. Both individually and collectively, many memories will stick with him post-graduation. Beyond basketball, the life skills he's learned have been invaluable.
"Lehigh has taught me how to give something your all every day, to play with passion and carry over that passion and discipline from basketball into the classroom," he said. "I have learned to do all the extra work that's needed to be successful. With any tough situation that comes up in life, it's not as hard as 6 a.m. conditioning. I know I can get through any challenges that come my way."
Chuku has postgraduate aspirations, both on and off the court. His ultimate goal is to continue playing professionally, and for his country.
"I would definitely like to continue playing for the Men's National Team," said Chuku. "If we qualify for the Olympics, I would love to be on that squad. When the Olympics were last in London, I got to see a game or two. Just seeing those players on their home turf representing their country doing what they love is something I want to do as well."
"Jesse should have the opportunity to continue playing and really be involved in the game, hopefully for a long period of time," said Reed. "I know basketball is important to him, but it's not his sole identity. Jesse is someone who is really genuine, someone who has goals and aspirations to succeed in whatever the game of life might bring him."
A common theme for Chuku has been resiliency, a theme that shone through as a youngster in England, at prep school in New Hampshire and now at Lehigh.
"I can only imagine how scary it must have been to be ill and have his basketball career derailed as long as it was," said Reed. "You have a young man who had to rely on his inner strength, and we've seen that inner strength carry forward at Lehigh. I think that determination and resiliency comes from looking inward and really charging forward in light of adversity."
"Thinking back, I didn't know if I'd be able to make it over here to play, so I have tremendous gratitude to say that I made it to this point," said Chuku. "This experience at Lehigh has lived up to my dreams and I'm grateful every day that I'm here."