Out of the NBA for four years, Ben Uzoh wanted to show he belonged. A 6-foot-3 guard for the Nigerian Olympic team, Uzoh chose an unexpected moment against a daunting defender, 6-foot-11 center DeAndre Jordan, a rim protector for Team USA.
Early in Monday’s Team USA-Nigeria showcase in Houston, Uzoh took one dribble and attacked the rim, Jordan in his way. Uzoh elevated and delivered a one-handed dunk. Teammates leaped from the Nigerian bench. Uzoh’s parents, three sisters, grandmother, and cousin cheered wildly, their voices rising amid the wonder at Toyota Center.
“That felt unbelievable,” Uzoh said the next day. “DeAndre is one of the best, if not the best rim protector in the world. It was a great feeling, a rush of adrenaline and energy to boost my team.”
The slam cut Team USA’s lead to 11-10 and made an impression. Within 48 hours, the dunk logged more than 44,000 views on YouTube.
Facing a collection of NBA All-Stars – Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Jordan among others – Uzoh, 28, finished with 10 points, six assists, three rebounds, and one steal. The following day, he and the Nigerian team flew to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympics.
Rio represents hope, hope for a return to the league he once wowed as an undrafted free agent. On April 26, 2012, Uzoh recorded a triple double, the first for the Toronto Raptors in 11 seasons. What no one knew was that Uzoh accomplished this feat – 12 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds – with one good arm, his non-shooting left. Uzoh’s right arm and hand were numb, rendering him unable to feel the release of his shots.
“I couldn’t feel the goodness of my makes,” he explained, “and I couldn’t make the adjustments on my misses.”
The numbness was not new. Uzoh first felt it in Tulsa. The ailment appeared and disappeared over the years, and all Uzoh could do was hide it from his college coach, three NBA coaches, four Development League coaches and multiple trainers. There was loss of strength and motion but no bruising, no pain. What would he say? "Help, I’ve got no feeling in my hand?"
Reaching the NBA had been hard enough. He starred at Tulsa and impressed NBA scouts with his defense but went undrafted in 2010. Uzoh signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Nets, played one season, and was released.
“I guess this is my road,” he remembers thinking. “Not everybody has the red carpet. I have to put my hard hat on and continue to fight and fight and fight.”
The harder he fought and the more he worked on his game, the more strength he seemed to lose in his hand and arm. Uzoh gave up the fight in December 2013. The morning after Christmas, he awoke to a numb hand, his right thumb ringing. “I hadn’t slept on it,” he said. “Something was wrong. The light bulb went off. I went to my trainer.”
Uzoh explained the symptoms he’d been concealing for years. He underwent a series of tests. Each one came back negative. Then he faced a new problem: disbelief. An undercurrent of suspicion ran through the D-League. Was Uzoh fabricating an ailment no test could detect?
The Tulsa 66ers traded Uzoh to the Canton Charge. Uzoh disclosed the ailment to the Charge but continued to struggle and was released. He underwent more tests, praying with his mother for an answer.
On April 29, 2014, a diagnosis emerged: thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare disorder involving the compression of blood vessels or nerves.
Thus began a search for a cure and a job. Out of the NBA and D-League, Uzoh joined the Nigerian National Team, for which he played in 2013. Last summer, he helped the Nigerians win the AfroBasket Championship and qualify for the Rio Games, in spite of a problematic shooting hand.
Once diagnosed, Uzoh spent two years trying a variety of treatments. Each attempt failed to bring significant relief and caused Uzoh to withdraw from family, to harden around friends, to become angry and confused.
“He’s always been an introvert, always kind of chill and reserved,” said Michelle Uzoh, Ben’s younger sister, “but he became way more so. What he was going through, we didn’t understand.”
Francis and Caroline Uzoh immigrated from Nigeria to Houston, where Ben was born in 1988, followed by three sisters. The Uzoh’s moved to San Antonio when Ben was 9, and he soon became the boy with the ball, waking neighbors every Saturday morning by asking them to roll a hoop into the street so he could shoot.
He won San Antonio Area Player of the Year honors at Warren and set records at Tulsa. In college, he began working with renowned San Antonio trainer Walter Kramer. Under Kramer, who trained former Spurs guard Antonio Daniels, Uzoh developed a skill set that turned him into a combo guard, able to run the point like a 1 and shoot like a 2. He elevated his game at Tulsa and landed in the NBA.
For years, Uzoh played at an elite level with occasional or little use of his right shooting hand. In his second NBA season, he recorded a triple double with one arm, a feat Hall of Famer Moses Malone or Spurs phenom Manu Ginobili never accomplished with two. How was that possible?
To compensate for an unreliable jump shot, Uzoh used his athleticism and knowledge of angles to score in other ways. He turned fear into fuel. On the morning of his triple double, Uzoh awoke to anxiety. That evening he would face the Nets, the team that signed and released him.
He confided in his mother, who shared scripture. Inspired by faith, Uzoh was able to release his anxiety. “I turned fear into anger,” he said. “I wanted to give the Nets every reason to feel like they should have kept me. I had to take myself to a different place that night, where something else took over.
“I felt the numbness. But I had to operate in other ways because of the lack of strength in my arm. I missed all my jumpers that night. But I got enough layups and floaters and dunks to go down.”
Three years later, a specialist administered sound waves, or acoustic pulses, to Uzoh’s arm. His range of motion improved. He regained feeling. His disposition changed.
“I’ve never felt better,” Uzoh said. “Each day I’m building strength and range of motion.”
Michelle agrees. “You can tell that he’s in a good place,” she said.
From his home in San Antonio, Walter Kramer watched Uzoh and Nigeria play Team USA on national television.
“He managed the game very well,” said Kramer, who has retired from training. “I thought he was the only one on his team not overwhelmed by playing Team USA. He got the ball where it needed to be. Those six assists he had could have easily been 10 and that, with his 10 points, is a double-double. It was a great springboard to Rio.”
Rio beckons, and perhaps another door will open. Maybe Uzoh will play himself back into the NBA or get an offer to compete in Europe. Whatever happens, Uzoh will pass and shoot with feeling on an international stage, rich with possibility.
Top image: Ben Uzoh (white shirt) surrounded by family and friends at the Toyota Center in Houston Monday night after the Nigeria-Team USA game. Photo courtesy of the Uzoh family.