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Alumnus Nnamdi Okonkwo showed faith in God’s miracles by teaching himself basketball and getting admitted to BYUH

landscape photo of man in navy suit and blue necktie with flower leis standing at the pulpit in the Cannon Activities Center delivering a speech with his image on the screen behind him and some greenery
Alumnus Nnamdi Okonkwo shares his story of leaving Nigeria to get an education in America and finding faith and family at BYUH

BYU–Hawaii alumnus and sculptor Nnamdi Okonkwo reasoned if God could temporarily blind the eyes of men in Sodom and Gomorrah, he could blind the people at the United States embassy in Nigeria. He explained the only way he could make it to BYUH was if the embassy workers didn’t see his denied visa and expired documents.

“I was at this point ready to try anything to show my faith in God! To show that faith, I purchased a nonrefundable plane ticket to Hawaii, and against every logic and reason, but armed with the same faith as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I went back to the embassy with the expired documents,” he described.

Okonkwo admitted his plan was foolhardy and reckless, but he explained, “On that fateful day, I not only walked out of that embassy with an American visa, but I also walked out with something else, much more valuable than a visa: An absolute conviction of the reality of God.”

As Nnamdi Okonkwo’s wife, Diedra Okonkwo, welcomed her husband to the podium, she said, “To know Nnamdi is to know pure joy.”

portrait photo of a tall man in a blue suit, purple lei and mask hugging a shorter woman with a red mask in the Cannon Activities Center
Devotional speaker Nnamdi Okonkwo, a BYUH alumnus, sculptor and former basketball player, hugs a member of the audience after his speech on September 14, 2021.

The animated, 6’9” Nigerian artist shared his story of coming to BYUH on a basketball scholarship, a tale riddled with miracles from God during a BYUH devotional on Tuesday, Sept. 14. Jacob Kuta, a biology sophomore from Texas, said, “[The meeting] opened really nice with a great musical number and then Okonkwo came in with a slam dunk.”

Okonkwo taught students the power of faith and prayer. “Attending this institution answered my prayer and the culmination of many years of hard work and sacrifice,” he said. He said if he were to list all of his blessings in life, studying at BYUH would be at the top of his list.

Okonkwo shared he was raised by his single mother in Nigeria with two brothers. He said he always dreamed of coming to the United States, and when he discovered basketball, he said he “realized immediately that basketball could be [his] passport to America and mastering the sport became the most important thing in [his] life.”

He said he faced impossible odds to earn a scholarship to play basketball in the U.S. He described the heavy competition he faced with life-long players, whereas he had just started playing at 18 years old.

“The enormity of my task loomed like Mount Everest before me. I knew it would certainly take a miracle for me to succeed. But that was okay because I believed in miracles.” He said he taught the game to himself and painfully and persistently improved with hard work and prayer.

Okonkwo said his dream loomed closer but had not happened. He realized going to school in the U.S. could be more than an opportunity to play basketball and live the American dream. He reasoned studying in the U.S. could help him get closer to God.

He said he prayed, “Please God … send me to a college where I will also have the opportunity to learn more about You and draw closer to You so I can better serve You.”
Okonkwo said his prayer was answered in the form of BYUH’s basketball coach, Chic Hess, who recruited him just a few weeks later.

landscape shot of devotional speaker, his wife, the two students who gave the prayers, and President and Sister Kauwe smiling for a group photo in front of greenery in the Cannon Activities Center
Devotional speaker Nnamdi Okonkwo and his wife Deidra pose for a picture with the two students who gave the prayers and President and Sister Kauwe.

Serena Wall, a sophomore from Utah studying hospitality and tourism management, said Okonkwo’s faith inspired her. “Everything just kind of fell into place. It shows when we have faith in Christ, and we exercise that faith without doubting, then Christ will reward us.”

She said sometimes the Lord blesses people in unexpected ways. “It’s not always in the way we think. [Coming to BYUH] wasn’t the way he thought he was going to come to America, but in the end he was able to receive what he had been asking for because of his faith.”