Less than three years ago, Abdulhakim Ado, barely a teenager, put what was to him a foreign object into his man-sized hands.
While attending a futbol (soccer to Americans) match in north Nigeria where he lived, a man strolled up to Ado and asked if he would be interested in practicing with the basketball team he coached.
Even then, as a 13-year-old boy, Ado stood out in a crowd.
He was "like 6-7 or 6-8" and the coach had an eye for youngsters who were taller than their peers.
But Ado was a futbol player and had no clue about the rules of basketball.
Rather bluntly, Ado told the coach what he thought about playing hoops.
“I said, ‘I know basketball is mainly for girls and I don’t want to play a girls’ sport,” Ado recalled during an interview on Wednesday at a downtown coffee shop. “I wanted to play a man’s sport and that was futbol. The main said he would teach me basketball and that if I didn’t like it fine. I told him I would practice with his team the next day.”
Ado showed up the following day and was introduced to a new sport that, unknown to him at the time, could wind up taking him all the way to the lucrative world of professional basketball in the three to five years.
For Ado, it was Basketball 101 pure and simple.
“I didn’t have shoes,” Ado told the coach. “The coach asked me where my shoes were. I said, ‘I told you I never played basketball before. I’m just here to see if I would like it.’ So, I played flat-footed without shoes. When I got home I had all these blisters on my feet. My feet were bad that day.”
Now a rising junior at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, Ado is making a meteoric climb on the national recruiting scene – just Wednesday ESPN ranked him No. 38 on its list of Top 60 prospects in the 2016 class with a four-star (out of five) rating.
“That’s a blessing,” Ado said. “I thank God for everything. Without my family, especially my mom (Amina), I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. My mom has seen me play one time in Nigeria. Even though she’s a sports person, she didn’t have time because she was always taking care of her kids.”
Ado has an older brother and younger sister.
Big-time schools like Louisville, Ohio State, Tennessee, South Florida, UConn, Princeton and Memphis already have shown serious interest in the 6-foot-11 post player, who has the potential to become the top-rated big man in America by the time he graduates from Hamilton Heights, a small Christian school in Chattanooga.
Vanderbilt saw Ado play once and made a scholarship offer a week later.
Tennessee’s new head coach, Donnie Tyndall, wasted no time putting the Vols’ name in the Ado recruiting hat with a second offer. Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson told Zach Ferrell, Ado’s Hamilton Heights coach, the Cardinals wanted the Hawks’ big man to set up a visit when coach Rick Pitino was on campus.
Greg Paulus, former point guard at Duke and now an assistant at Ohio State, has made the Buckeyes’ early pitch for Ado to Ferrell.
There will be more – many more – such offers in the months to come.
That’s a remarkable, stunning amount of interest for Ado, who has played one full season of high school basketball and two summers with AAU teams.
For the 2014-15 season, Hamilton Heights – with Ado serving as the biggest attraction, although the Hawks have other talented players that includes fellow Nigerians Ezekiel Balogun and Silas Adheke – will be major drawing cards at regular-season games and tournaments.
All three players from Nigeria will take unofficial visits to Middle Tennessee State University on Friday and Vanderbilt two days later.
The Hawks have scheduled a strong schedule for next season, including games against national powers Oak Hill Academy, Arlington Country Day and Huntington Prep.
Games such as those, plus many others on the slate, are sure to pull in hoards of college recruiters and Ferrell, along with Hamilton Heights headmaster Duke Stone, are gearing up for the huge spotlight will put on their basketball program.
“Mr. Stone and I are coming up with solid plans for preseason and regular season games that can accommodate a lot of attention and coaches so Abdul won’t be overwhelmed by the process.
“Abdul is doing well handling the attention. He’s staying humble, staying grounded and is appreciative for it. I think it has helped his confidence. He’s very thankful for all of this.”
What exactly is “all of this?”
Ado has been invited to the Nike Elite 100 Basketball Camp at St. Louis University in mid-June. He will leave St. Louis on June 14 and fly to France with the USA Elite National Under-20 team at the World Championships on June 18-23.
He played AAU ball with the Georgia Elite last summer and was a main cog for the Georgia Stars – a Nike-sponsored team playing on a Nike circuit – in their drive to winning tournaments in Hampton, Va., and Suwanee, Ga., that catapulted the team into a No. 1 national 16-under ranking in two polls – IndiHoops and Five Star Basketball.
Ado helped was named to the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions All-Tournament team in May. Also, after competing at the Big Shots Southern Shootout in March, Ado and Balogun, a 6-6 junior, were named Top 40 prospects.
As a sophomore, Ado averaged 9.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 7.3 blocked shots per game for the Hawks, who finished fourth in the National Association of Christian Athletes tournament last February.
Ado has scoring ability that has rarely been on display, primarily because the Hawks had other scorers on the floor. But he displayed offensive skills by scoring a career-high 41 points – to go with 20 rebounds and 10 blocked shots for a triple-double effort – against Bradley Central on Nov. 26. Four days earlier Ado scored three points against the same Bears.
While hesitant to ramp up his offense as a sophomore, Ado concentrated on post defense and had a high level of success intimidating opposing players thinking about driving to the hoop.
Thinking back to that first practice back in Nigeria, Ado was asked what exactly he could do going against players with much more experience.
“Block shots,” he said.
Because of his defensive skills, Ado has been described best as a “protector of the rim.”
But after a full season of American basketball under his belt, Ado may be on the verge of ramping up his offensive output.
“I’m used to blocking shots and I can get some rebounds,” he said. “Even though I had a little bit of footwork, I wouldn’t use it to score. I just blocked shots. I probably was free under the hoop (to score) some, but I wanted to pass the ball. I knew I could score and now all of a sudden I’m scoring like 10, 15 or 20 points a game. I’ve really improved fast.”
Much of that improvement has come from God-given talent. Much has been derived from good coaching and a strong work ethic.
Ferrell, about to enter his second year as the Hawks’ head coach, knows his school’s recent past of importing superb out-of-the-country basketball players, a growing trend around the country, is about to pay off handsomely with the exposure the program will receive in the next two seasons with Ado on the roster.
“I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to coach Abdul,” Ferrell said. “It’s a blessing to have his talent on the floor. More than that, it’s a blessing to have him in our school. He’s a great kid – all our guys are great kids – and someone I would want around my family all the time.”
As a coach, Ferrell knows he has a rare basketball talent surrounded by players with skills that complement the big man in the middle.
A big man that no longer has to worry about playing barefooted.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)