COQUITLAM — Ask K.C. Ibekwe about the origins of his abbreviated first name, and the Centennial Centaurs’ towering senior centre tells a story every bit as big as his 6-foot-10, 275 pound frame.
“My parents have said to me that K.C. is for King of the City,” begins Ibekwe, the son of Nigerian immigrants who was born in Toronto and moved to B.C. when he was seven.
“They were, I think, trying to say how special I was to them,” continued Ibekwe.
If even a small part of that ‘special’ included his potential and prowess as a student-athlete, then the name these days most certainly fits the young man.
Over the first half of his Grade 12 season with the Coquitlam-based Quad-A school, Ibekwe has averaged 29 points, 14 rebounds and a jaw-dropping eight blocks per game, and it’s one of the biggest reasons that over 20 universities and colleges have reached out to the kid with the 7-foot-2 wingspan.
This is just his fourth season resembling any kind of serious basketball instruction and experience.
Reflecting his parents’ sport of first choice, Ibekwe spent his formative years as a soccer goalkeeper, and as a result was a near-complete basketball neophyte, despite his height, when he first set foot in the hallways of hoops-mad Centennial for ninth grade back in the fall of 2018.
“I was teaching Social Studies 9 that September when K.C., on the first day of class, walked into my room,” laughs Centennial head coach Lucian Sauciuc of what must be every basketball coach’s wildest dream
“I couldn’t help but notice this big kid walking in,” continued Sauciuc, “so I introduced myself to him right away. I asked him what sport he played and he told me it was soccer. He said he had played just a little bit of basketball in middle school, but nothing organized.”
That same week, Ibekwe’s height had been opening eyes all over Centennial’s school grounds.
It didn’t take long at all for the Centaurs’ then-Grade 11 star forward Dominic Parolin, all 6-foot-8, and 225 pounds of him, to strike up a chat with Ibekwe.
“Dom talked to me, he said I should come to basketball, and Lucian, he invited me to his basketball camp,” remembers Ibekwe of the overwhelming signs he was being sent to trade in his soccer cleats for a pair of basketball shoes. “Up until that time, I didn’t focus on basketball at all, but I am thankful I walked into that class that day, because if I didn’t, my life would be totally different.”
Parolin, these days a sophomore forward playing NCAA Div. 1 hoops at Lehigh University, remains an important part of Ibekwe’s development.
“Every single day I learned from Dom,” says Ibekwe of Parolin, who over his senior season with the Centaurs averaged 34 points and 18 rebounds per game.
The pair have continued to keep in touch the past two years and it’s clear that Ibekwe counts their relationship as a blessing.
“I didn’t have any post moves, but Dom taught me all of his stuff,” Ibekwe says. “It was crazy. I am so thankful, because it would have been a different story if I hadn’t had him as a mentor.”
And part of the reason Ibekwe’s athletic career seemed to have progressed within a rare vacuum, insulated from the basketball world at large, was because it wasn’t until the latter stages of his Grade 8 year at Maillard Middle School that he underwent a most substantial growth spurt.
He’s not exactly positive how much, but by Ibekwe’s own estimation, he grew at least four inches from the summer through the fall of his Grade 9 year heading into Centennial, with a slower but steady spurt ever since bringing him to his current altitude.
So when you add all of that up, it’s pretty clear that the ceiling he has to gain full command of his height, weight and strength on the court is still very far from being realized.
And that’s the part that has next-level coaches most excited.
Ask Sauciuc if he thinks Ibekwe can realize that potential, and the way in which he paints a picture of his pupil’s growth thus far seems to answer clearly in the affirmative.
“In Grade 10, he wasn’t ready full-time for the senior team, but he played against Dom in every practice,” Sauciuc recalls. “He didn’t shy away. But Dom would kick his but. He’d dunk on him. He’d block his shot. None of it ever phased K.C. He kept coming back for more.”
Those lessons have not only served Ibekwe well, they remind both he and Sauciuc just how far he’s come since that day he first stepped into his Social Studies 9 class in September of 2018.
“He has incredible hands,” the coach begins, “but back then, he literally couldn’t catch the ball, and he couldn’t make a lay-up.”
Ibekwe has no problem making light of himself when asked how green he actually was.
“In Grade 9, I was shooting the ball with two hands,” he admits. “I couldn’t dribble. I couldn’t make a lay-up. I had a lot of weight on me. I had to slim down a bit.”
“I think he is the most dominant player in the province when he asserts himself,” says Sauciuc. “In our first two tournaments he averaged eight blocks a game, so he protects the rim. He is playing through the double- and triple-teams that we expected. And, he has unreal hands. Anything you throw him now, he catches.”
Of course every player has areas that need improvement.
Sauciuc says that in Ibekwe’s case, it’s learning that his motor has to be fully engaged at all times.
For his part, Ibekwe’s basketball experience has been so positive that he recently convinced his younger sister, 6-foot-2 Blessing Ibekwe, to take up the sport.
“She started in Grade 9 (at Centennial) and I made her play,” big brother says with pride. “She thanks me now.”
Sauciuc loves to talk about how much Ibekwe is appreciated by his fellow student body at Centennial.
“He’s quiet, a big teddy bear, and in the hallways you can tell that everybody loves him,” the coach says.
K.C. Ibekwe is, after all, the King of the City, and it’s a name he’s honoured to have grown into.
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