He’s 6’10”, 225lbs, a consensus top 10 recruit in his position, but all he really wants right now is a spice bag. Aidan Harris Igiehon is the biggest Irish prospect in history and he’s got the NBA in his sights. BallinEurope returns from its summer recess with a bang as Emmet Ryan sat down with the Irish Hulk to discuss the future for the young man from Dublin
This is not the land of prospects, at least athletically speaking. The history of Irish sport success has, until recently, been one wholly reliant on exporting the best we have. Soccer players had to go over to England as teenagers. Track and field prospects got out of here on scholarships as quickly as possible. Even our best cricketers used to declare for England at the earliest opportunity because that was the done thing.
There were exceptions, golfers, jockeys, and rugby players didn’t have to travel to get better. More often than not if you were Irish and wanted to make a living in sport, then you got off these shores as quickly as possible.
Ireland is now sending the bulk of its best soccer players to bigger leagues after they have developed fully at youth level here. The track and field domestic scene is at its healthiest in history and we’ve even got a proper professional cricket set-up.
Aidan Harris Igiehon has followed that trend of emigrants but, like so many before him in other sports, he’s looking to make the difference back here. In Coláiste Bríde in Clondalkin he’s working with youngsters on his brief few weeks home. It’s his first time back in 15 months and the time away never gets easy.
“It’s tough because my mom is here, that’s what draws me back again and again. My mother, who I love very much, is still here. Coming back and seeing the amount of impact that I’ve made in kids’ lives over here is so dope. I was once in their shoes and I’ve gone away to America, I’m doing good things over there, they’re noticing, and now a lot of kids are getting more interested in basketball,” he tells BallinEurope.
Igiehon is being followed by Overtime on his trip back home. They’re documenting his experience as he gets a brief chance to hang out with his buddies from here. It’s not much of a chance to be normal, Igiehon is well aware of the peculiar nature of a lad in his teens having a camera crew with him.
When we meet it’s the day before his 18th birthday. Igiehon was 13 going over to the United States, where he’s currently the star baller at Lawrence Woodmere Academy in New York. The location can’t help with the homesickness, it’s a stone’s throw from JFK International Airport with its two flights a day to Dublin.
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In the five years he’s stuck it out, Igiehon has progressed in leaps and bounds, so too has the scene back in Ireland. Igiehon left Ireland at a stage when the national senior programmes were still in mothballs and the youth sides were only beginning to come back. There wasn’t a lot to aim for back here. Now, the kids are changing the game here.
“The difference is huge now. Little kids, 5 or 6 years old, are out training 4 times a week. Back when I was starting it was only once a week. There’s more interest, more focused coaching, and work on the individual skills. Before, we didn’t really focus on the individual development of these kids. You’re going to start seeing in four or five years that Ireland is going to produce better players because of that,” he says.
Igiehon is the first of four players from the Dublin Lions who have gone on to play high school ball in the US and he knows the importance of being the first mover.
“My early success paved the path for more kids to follow me. I feel like, if I hadn’t gone over and done what I was supposed to do, it wouldn’t have happened,” says Igiehon.
Adapting to the US has made Igiehon adapt fast. Living a world away from his loved ones and thriving has meant his off-court intangibles appeal to recruiters.
“At 13 years old, I moved across the world away from my mom. I had to become a man really quickly, to understand the vastness of what was going on. College, it’s like I’m already going because the hardest thing for when you go to college is that you are basically leaving your family. I did that at an early age and it prepared me for anything,” he says.
“That’s why it doesn’t matter where the school is, they can see me and know that I’m away from home and he wouldn’t mind being away from home a little further. It’s important for coaches to see that I’m not afraid to move around.”
I’m not even supposed to be here, thank you to every school and coach that has spent time and effort recruiting me, I’ve made lifelong relationships during this process. I am blessed to announce my final four schools. @TiptonEdits pic.twitter.com/B4tYOkCcgp
— Aidan Harris Igiehon (@Big_harris22) August 28, 2018
Igiehon had already narrowed down to his final 10 choices for college ball before the trip and part of his trip home was to be able to discuss the next stage, cutting it to his final four schools. The decision came last week. One of St John’s, Kentucky, Louisville, and Oregon will have Harris Igiehon on their roster for the 2019/20 season. While he is still working out where he’s going to play NCAA hoops, the talk about him in Ireland is essentially about the expectation that he’ll make it to the NBA. He appeared on the Late Late Show dribbling around Ryan Tubridy, the Irish answer to dunking on Jimmy Fallon, and every mention of him in local media is about how this 17 year old could go to the NBA.
“I don’t think it’s weird. It’s the work that I put in and I don’t expect anything less from myself. At first it was a big dream but once you take it up as your job to be at that elite level, I accept the burden of greatness,” says Igiehon.
“Pat Burke was the first Irish born NBA player but he moved over when he was 3 years old so I’m going to be the first Irish born and raised.”
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Igiehon’s nickname is the Irish Hulk and he’s got the frame to back it up. While his listed weight is 225lbs, he’s clearly got the frame to add more with ease if he wants to but is already a ripped athlete. Despite this, he’s rarely lifted weights and only started for the first time this past summer.
“I think I’m genetically blessed. I focus a lot on calisthenics, such as push-ups and pull-ups, I do work out a lot but I haven’t really done any weights. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, we just never focused on it. Every professional athlete has to touch weights, there’s only so much your own body weight can do, but I only started lifting 7 weeks ago,” he says.
“I’m not looking to bulk up, I’m already pretty big, I’m just looking to get stronger and strengthen different parts of my body.”
Ireland isn’t Serbia, it’s not a nation awash with guys approaching the 7 foot mark. With Igiehon, size fortunately runs in the family.
“Height runs in the family but this was not expected. My Mom, for a woman she’s very tall, she’s about 6’1”/ 6’2”. At the age of 13 I basically grew a foot. She was scared, every morning I got a lot taller.”
The natural gifts help Igiehon but he’s looking to prove he’s more than just a big body. He sees the 5 position, although he’s also been touted as a 4, as one that is demanding more than ever of players coming up.
“You’ve got to be more versatile, you’ve got to be able to shoot the ball and handle the ball. That’s what I’ve been working on. The game is changing. You’ve got to be able to hit threes, to play defence, to cover for a guard, and to be able to guard all five positions otherwise you’re not going to stay on the floor. You’re going to see more agile 4s and 5s that can really move. I’ve added the three pointer to my game and a couple of combo moves like a dribble heavy pull-up. It’s not to complicated but it shows I can actually play and am not just a big body,” he says.
“AAU helped because you’re playing against elite prospects in every game and surrounding yourself with elite prospects also. I think to play better you’ve got to play with better people and against better competition. The whole of my summer I’ve been playing against the top players in the country,”
— Overtime (@overtime) August 18, 2018
“I’m training two or three times a day. You have to work smart, you can’t just work in the gym or shoot the odd three and dribble a little bit. You’ve got to have a regimen, find what type of player you want to be, and work in that direction. If you don’t know what type of player you are trying to be, you are just working without a map. I know what player I’m trying to be, and I’m trying to work towards that.”
A short while before coming home, Igiehon got to work out at Steph Curry’s camp. Just getting to hang out with a MVP, three time NBA champion, and FIBA World Cup winner is no small deal and Igiehon found the experience hugely beneficial.
“Hanging out with Steph Curry was a great thing, I learned so much. That was probably my favourite camp. I learned a lot and I think I became a better basketball player because I understood the game a little bit more through his eyes. People don’t understand how smart he is, he’s a good shooter, he dribbles the ball well but…his IQ. Going to that camp, it made the game kind of slow down for me and I understood their game a lot more,” he says.
Keeping his brain in the game is aiding the Irish big man. With 3.7 GPA, he’s ensuring his mother doesn’t have to worry about him easing off on his studies.
“I’m a pretty good student, it’s the fear of god that my mom put in me. I know I’ve got to keep up with my school work. It’s hard because you don’t really have time for anything else but school and basketball. The life of a student athlete is vigorous. You might not have time to go have fun with your friends because you’ve got to do school work and work out twice a day. It comes down to how bad you want it, I feel anybody can do it but not everybody wants it that bad. Everybody wants to be a kid and I can’t fault anyone for that. People are always saying ‘why can’t you be a regular kid?’, it’s because I’m not regular. Different things are expected.”
As he nears his decision on where he’ll take the next step, the Irishman may not know where he’s going yet but he certainly knows what he wants to get out of the college experience.
“The importance of me in the system…I want to be there and be able to make an impact straight away. Also it’s about my relationship with the coaching staff and the whole school. I want a relationship with a coach where I’ve got his back and he’s got mine too. When all goes wrong, you want your coach behind you, that’s a huge aspect. My biggest one is development, I’ve only been playing basketball for about 5 years now, I was only playing a year when I left. I want to be able to get better and better each year. Each year, I’ve made a huge jump, and I want to continue to make those huge jumps to really be set for the next level,” he says.
The NBA questions never leave him in Dublin. His frame, if not his game, is reminiscent of Ekpe Udoh coming up but it’s a player whose peak that was before Igiehon was born that is his inspiration; the Admiral, David Robinson.
“It’s not just his game, he has the intangibles that I seek. He’s similar to me, a big guy who could hit the jumper. I want to be able to do a little more around the perimeter but he’s a guy that I look up to.”
Robinson retired almost a decade before Igiehon picked up a basketball and would have assumed folk meant Tottenham not San Antonio when someone mentioned Spurs.
“I’ve always been a soccer player, it was just by chance. I was going to Moyle Park College and we’d just finished training. My friend, Simonas, asked me to try out for the first year [equivalent of seventh grade] basketball team. I was like ‘basketball, that’s a girl’s sport’ because that’s how it was known around here but I gave it a shot. The first time I picked up that orange ball, it changed my life,” he says.
One of those changes was taking him away from a wonderful Irish delicacy outside of his trips home. When the Hulk got home, he was hungry.
“It was definitely the chipper, it was the spice bag. It’s not good for you. That’s what I missed, I had it yesterday, I have it like once a year when I come home. I definitely missed that,”
For the uninitiated, a spice bag contains thick cut fries (or chips as we call them here), assorted spices and peppers, breaded chicken, with other forms of death optional. It’s glorious and wrong at the same time.
Igiehon will be finished high school before he gets to touch another and that’s probably for the best for his game.
“I want to develop myself [over the next 12 months] to be dominant at the next level. I don’t want to just be ready, I want to be dominant. I want to maintain my GPA, not to slack off. A lot of students slack off in their senior year and I don’t want to do that. I want to work on my intangibles as a player,” he says.
“The maturity in the game matters. There’s a lot of kids that are really good but don’t have the intangibles. I want to be looked on as a leader on the court, that’s one part of my game that I’ve been working on. I’m 17 years old, I can get emotional and frustrated, but I’m trying to slow the game down and be fun to play with. I want people to want me as their team mate,”
“I never overwhelm myself, I take things step by step. I never look back at what I’ve achieved because I’m not where I want to be yet. I’ve got that tunnel vision, I haven’t looked back and gone ‘wow Aidan, look how far you’ve come’ because I’m not there yet. Nothing wows me because it’s the work I’m supposed to do. When I can get there I can be like wow but the grind, I’m still so hungry.”
That hunger is what he’s looking to pass on to the kids coming up back home. He may have been born to be tall but he wants them to see it’s the work he puts in that makes him a baller.
“It’s really not, I don’t want to sound clichéd, but the truth is it’s hard work. I tell the kids that they’ve got to work hard, to want to feel better than the next person, to almost feel guilty if they’re not working. It’s harder if you’re not a big dude to make an impact but if you work at your game you’re going to be good and if you’re good nobody can deny you deserve to be where you are.”
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