British Blazer

Ovie Soko’s Journey to Basketball—and Birmingham

By Grant Martin

Ovie Soko dunks

As a young basketball player growing up in a country obsessed with soccer, Ovie Soko knew he would need to go away if he ever wanted to get noticed playing basketball. Plenty of people are noticing him now.

Soko, a sophomore forward on the UAB men’s basketball team, left his hometown of London, England, three years ago to finish high school in the United States. This past summer, Soko returned to Europe to represent Great Britain in the 2010 Under 20 Men’s Basketball European Championship. He led his team in scoring with more than 19 points per game and put in a dominating 31-point, seven-rebound effort in the final game. Soko’s scoring average was the fourth highest among all players in the tournament.

The performance was an encouraging sign for UAB, which expects to depend heavily on Soko in the coming season—but Soko says it’s also a sign of the rising level of basketball talent in his home country.

Hoop Dreams

“Basketball is really on the way up in the U.K.,” says Soko. “When I was a kid, it was pretty much all soccer, but every time I go back, there are more people playing basketball, more people getting involved.”

Soko got involved with basketball in the traditional way—height. As a kid, he spent his time scoring goals on the neighborhood soccer fields. But once he began looking down at the heads of older teammates, he began to realize his future might lie elsewhere. “I didn’t start playing basketball until I was about 12 or 13,” he says. “It was tough to decide which direction to go, because I had always loved soccer. But I started getting taller and just kept growing, and eventually basketball won out. I guess I grew into it.”

Blazer Bits

1010_ovie4• The Blazers began practice for the 2010-11 season on October 16.

• Fans will get an early glimpse of the team during an exhibition game against West Alabama on November 5. UAB opens the season November 13 at home against Southeast Missouri State.

• Five lettermen are returning from last year’s team that finished 25-9.

• Ovie Soko is one of several young players who will be counted on to fill the void left by three departing starters from last season’s team, including the team’s two top scorers and its leading rebounder.

That interest in basketball soon became a passion, and Soko says he would often stay up until the early hours of the morning to catch NBA games on television. The soccer stars he had idolized as a boy were replaced by NBA players such as Tracy McGrady, who happens to be roughly the same height and weight as Soko was when he arrived at UAB. “I loved the way he played,” Soko recalls. “He was so exciting to watch. Even when I had school the next morning, I would stay up to see him play.”

With his burgeoning size and athleticism, Soko became convinced that a future in basketball was worth pursuing. But in order to catch the eye of American coaches, he knew would have to move away from the basketball netherworld that was London. “I wanted to challenge myself to play at the highest level possible, and that meant coming to America where the best players are.”

Improving His Game

In two years playing high school basketball in Virginia, Soko proved he had made a good decision, earning a McDonalds All-American nomination as a senior when he averaged more than 14 points and seven rebounds per game.

As a freshman at UAB, however, Soko found that the adjustment from high school to college was a bigger leap than he had anticipated, especially when the 6-8, 225-pound Soko was matched up against teammates like Kenneth Cooper—a senior who was two inches taller and a good 35 pounds heavier.

“I was like a deer in the headlights,” Soko admits. “I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t prepared mentally or physically as well as I thought I was. It was a tough year, but I learned a lot—especially on the defensive end.”

With a year of college ball under his belt, Soko says he entered this summer’s FIBA Tournament with the goals of improving his ball-handling and shooting technique—two of the things that he says set European players apart from their American counterparts.

“Over there, basketball is a lot more skill-based,” he says. “In America, I had to get used to a more physical and athletic game, but if you can make that adjustment, then you have to fine-tune the little things. A lot of players in this tournament are already playing professionally in Europe, so it was another chance for me to watch and learn to improve my game.”