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Perseverance pays off for LI's Femi Olujobi at DePaul

Brentwood standout overcame broken leg and is starring at DePaul, his third college.

DePaul's Femi Olujobi dunks against St. John's at

DePaul's Femi Olujobi dunks against St. John's at Carnesecca Arena on Jan. 12, 2019. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

From his recruitment out of Brentwood High School to his upcoming games with DePaul in the Big East Tournament, Femi Olujobi’s college basketball experience has been nothing short of an odyssey.

A devastating injury took him from coveted blue-chipper to high-risk project and then to three colleges. In this first and final season with the vastly improved Blue Demons, the 6-9 forward has been nothing short of a revelation in the conference, ranking 15th in scoring and second in field-goal percentage.

There is a measure of satisfaction as the trek nears its conclusion. He is finally and precisely where he should be: a standout for a major program with a shot at an NBA career.

“I see my story as one of perseverance because I never stopped believing I would get here,” he said.

And don’t be surprised if the graduate transfer has big performances left at the Garden or possibly in a national postseason tournament. These are the final moments of his college career and, as he said, “those last 10 seconds of a game are my favorite because it’s time to shine.”

Olujobi came into his own at the end of his junior year at Brentwood, with interest and scholarship offers from elite college programs beginning to roll in. Then in seconds, everything went off course.

After winning a June camp tournament competing with Indians teammates, the group was playfully taking turns dunking.

As Olujobi went up to stuff it, he could hear his tibia snap from the strain his muscles put on it. Laid out on the court, he could see the bulge of the bone trying to push through beneath his supportive wrap.

College basketball’s reaction was swift and painful. The offers and interest almost entirely vanished because of the severity of the injury and the prognosis that he likely would miss his entire senior season. He’d gone from a high-major surety to an uncertainty. His mother, Tricia Grinnell, explained that “I knew Femi was hurting, but he was also brave — he never let it show.”

Looking back, he explains that having the elite programs bail “made me question whether they understood that I could never be the same player and it made me doubt for a time whether I’d be able to come back from it.”

A winding road back

On the day of his reconstructive surgery, Olujobi accepted a scholarship offer from Oakland (Mich.), a program that didn’t waver in its pursuit. “They believed in me,” he said. “That was the reason I committed.”

And though he may have rushed his recovery, he did not miss his entire senior season at Brentwood. He played the last half-dozen games before the Indians had a season in which they won the county championship and made a run to the state Class AA semifinals. “He got a little more explosive with each game after he came back,” Brentwood coach Anthony Jimenez said.

In the final five postseason games, Olujobi averaged 15.2 points.

Two seasons at Oakland brought only disappointment. He averaged 9.2 minutes as a freshman on a team laden with upperclassmen. His optimism for his sophomore year vanished with coaching staff changes and reduced playing time.

“I knew then I had to go,” Olujobi said. “I wasn’t getting to show what I could do.”

Transferring to a school with a team that would go 3-29 while he was required to sit out a season may not sound like a turning point, but that’s exactly what it became when Olujobi made the move to North Carolina A&T.

The transfer came together because of four people with a common background playing or coaching for Gary Charles’ AAU Long Island Panthers.

Jay Joyner of Amityville was North Carolina A&T’s new head coach. Aggies freshman Aaren Edmead from Deer Park played with Olujobi and knew he was unhappy. And Devine Smith of Copiague coached Olujobi with the Panthers and became a confidant.

The key to consummating the move: Olujobi knew that he would play when eligible.

And did he ever. The Aggies rebounded from the miserable 2016-17 campaign by going 20-15 and reaching the CIT national postseason tournament as Olujobi averaged 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds.

“I was finally having fun again playing basketball,” he said. “Oakland didn’t work out and the year sitting out was very stressful. I hate losing and so when I came back, I played with an edge . . . I cast out all doubt that year. I was finally able to show what I could do.”

“We’d told him that people would move away after the injury, but as it turned out, no one should have doubted him,” Jimenez said. “He has been a success at every level and that continues today.”

As a graduated senior last spring, Olujobi was permitted to transfer again and play immediately. When his “permission to contact” declaration went public, 15 schools called him in the first 15 minutes. “It was everyone from Nevada to Arizona to Kansas State,” he said.

Despite its struggles since joining the Big East, DePaul became his pick.

“I am not one to take an easy route,’’ Olujobi said. “I want to help shape and change things. Going to DePaul ended up a no-brainer. I liked the idea of being an underdog and proving myself and I wanted to be a part of new success.”

Said Jimenez, “Femi likes a challenge.”

Success at the top level

DePaul is more competitive this season than it had been in years. In addition to a win at Xavier, it swept the season series against both Seton Hall and St. John’s.

The first win over the Red Storm on Jan. 12 at Carnesecca Arena knocked St. John’s from the national rankings. Olojubi is not shy about expressing how much he has enjoyed beating up on the teams from his hometown, averaging 20.5 points and 8.0 rebounds and shooting 64 percent in those four victories.

Asked about the success against them, he called it “very satisfying with friends and family there.”

DePaul coach Dave Leitao said that as Olujobi visited other power conference schools, “there was some trepidation on if he would come,” but he added that since Olujobi’s arrival, “he’s been tremendous.”

The 258-pounder is the second-leading scorer on the team with a 13.5-point average and is DePaul’s top rebounder with 5.3 per game. More significantly, his inside presence opens the floor for top scorer Max Strus.

“He’s added a dimension — and even I didn’t realize it would be this way — to play inside out more than most teams do in the age of three-point shooting. He’s a weapon that’s very valuable,” Leitao said. “And off the court — and this speaks to the quality of person he is — he’s come in as a fifth-year player and made clear what he wants [for the team] but doesn’t rattle the cage.”

He is a quick study with a high basketball IQ. DePaul officials said several NBA teams have sent representatives to evaluate him, which could lead to a lifelong dream.

Grinnell recalled this past week how at age 4, he declared he would play in the NBA someday. She said his goal was questioned at many turns. None stuck out more than when he wrote a paper about it in second grade and was shattered when the teacher handed the graded submission back and said, “ ‘Yes, you and a million others,’ ” Grinnell said.

“It’s a [touchpoint]  we’ve come back to over and over ever since,” she added. “Now he always says to himself, ‘I will show you who I am.’ ”

In his senior season at Brentwood, at North Carolina A&T and now at the final stop in his odyssey, DePaul, there is no denying he’s done just that.

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