Warriors' Udoh honors family by pursuing degree during lockout

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For Sam Udoh, it was always about the education.

His fearless pursuit of higher learning brought him from the Nigerian village of Ikot-Oku-Okon to Edmond, Okla., in the summer of 1982, a monumental move that came after he was forced to drop out of school as a youngster to join the workforce and help support the family. The two degrees he eventually earned would keep him stateside, too, as his homeland's military ruler at the time, Ibrahim Babangida, was so deeply resentful of Nigerians who pursued an education that Udoh's family and friends feared for his life if he returned.

So he stayed, kept studying, kept succeeding. The education he yearned for led to his career as a radiology technician, forever changing the path taken with his wife, Alice, and their four children in their version of the American dream.

When Sam's son Ekpe crosses the commencement stage next month at Baylor, the NBA lockout will have spawned an unexpected and refreshing tale that shouldn't go unnoticed amid the collective bargaining cacophony. The Golden State forward, a 24-year-old with no dire financial need for schooling considering he made $3 million in his rookie season alone as the sixth pick in the 2010 draft, is using the extra down time to put the finishing touches on his degree.

Ekpe isn't alone in that regard. Cavaliers point guard Baron Davis is back in the classrooms of UCLA at the ripe age of 32, not only to get closer to his degree but also to "better myself at this point in my life," as he told ESPN.com. Hornets small forward Trevor Ariza is there, too, chipping away at the three years of school he skirted by coming out after his freshman season.

But Ekpe's decision to finish his general studies degree isn't about his own accomplishment as much as it's about honoring his family, from the parents who passed on a thirst for knowledge to the younger sisters who now know their brother is willing to practice what he's always preached.

"That is greatness," an excited Sam said in his thick African accent earlier this week. "That is putting your money where your mouth is. For him to go back to school to complete his program, I was very excited.

"As he is going to school, his two sisters [one in junior high, the other in high school] are watching. He could say, 'I'm in the NBA. I don't have to go to school.' But he decided to go to school to set an example for his two little sisters to follow. They will never say, 'No, I'm not going to go to school.' The example that he has set, they are bound to follow."

It's hard to imagine that just one generation separates Ekpe from his father. This is a man who doesn't know his true birth date because his parents -- who had no schooling and included his father, mother and a second wife whom Sam referred to as his stepmother, along with five kids in all -- lacked the writing skills to make note of his arrival. That cause was even more lost when the family's farm burned down not long after Sam was born. Their practice of gauging each child's age in relation to a five-year cultivation pattern of the crops was thereby lost amid the flames.

Sam, who settled on Jan. 25, 1952, as a birthday for legal purposes, estimates that he was nearing 30 when he came to America. His job at the local oil company paid far better than his work as a farmhand and policeman, so Sam saved up and made the move that would pay off for generations to come.

He first attended Central State University (now the University of Central Oklahoma) for his undergraduate degree and later earned his MBA at Oklahoma City University, all while spending two years away from Alice before she joined him. It was the first of many sacrifices that came with the move.

"When I was in graduate school, there was a coup in Nigeria," Sam said. "General Ibrahim was very ruthless. People had told me, 'You'd better not come back. Stay where you are,' because the general wasn't friendly with the educated people.

"When he came to power, he was very ruthless. He single-handedly dragged the country into where we are now. He was very, very corrupt and very ruthless. I so love this country, because this country has been so good to me."

None of it is lost on Ekpe, who wouldn't have been able to finish the degree in a non-lockout summer because he would have taken part in the Las Vegas Summer League. This isn't a reaction to his unexpected personal losses, either. SI.com reported that Udoh was among the many athletes, college coaches and administrators who were scammed by late Houston-area money manager and AAU operator David Salinas. The most recent valuation of his at-risk investment was $350,000, according to SI.com. Udoh said he "didn't want to talk about that situation until everything gets settled."

His desire for the degree and what it would mean to his family are the driving forces here, the reasons why he's enduring the culture shock of 8 a.m. classes, enjoying afternoon anatomy lessons, then doing his day-job training at the Baylor gym five days a week with Perry Jones and his Bears teammates.

"I knew how important it was for my parents that I graduate from a university," said Ekpe, who transferred from Michigan to Baylor after two seasons. "That was the main deal, just always having that Plan B that if this lockout goes forever, I can use that degree for some good.

"Since I was born, they taught me to take education seriously. [Sam] would always buy books and try to read as much as he could, try to understand as much as he could. Then having little sisters, trying to set an example for them. Now when I tell them how important it is, they'll have to say, 'Yeah, he's right. He got a degree.' "

He's not done, either. Ekpe wants to get his physical education degree next, for himself and for his family.

"The real joy will be when I'll be able to walk across the stage," Ekpe said. "They'll be real happy."