Discovering Kao: The rise of UT-Arlington defensive anchor Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu

From childhood hardship to paving his path towards a D-1 scholarship, the story of UT Arlington’s Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu is unlike anything you have seen before.

To call Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu’s path to Division-1 basketball “unorthodox” would probably sell it short. “Unorthodox” would apply to a player who transferred up a level of competition. Or one who walked on and later earned a scholarship. Or one whose basketball trajectory changed with a late growth spurt.

But for guys who experienced all three (and then some), “unorthodox” wouldn’t do them justice. That’s the case for Akobundu-Ehiogu or “Kao” as friends and teammates call him.

It would be easy to look at Kao — his broad shoulders, his 7-4 wingspan, his hands the size of coffee table books — and think basketball always came easily for him. The on-court product would tell you the same — Tik Toks of his circus dunks have received over 100 thousand views, and he currently ranks fourth nationally in block percentage.

However, Kao’s campaign from west Nigeria to east Texas halted on more than one occasion. This is his story.

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***

Kao speaks softly. There’s unique politeness in his cadence on the day that we talk. For example, he keeps calling me “sir,” and I want to tell him I’m not that much older than him. The 6-9 center is fresh off of a five-block performance in a triumph over Little Rock, but he doesn’t want to harp on his laurels. Instead, he focuses more on the win, since that will better position UT-Arlington in the Sun Belt standings.

Regardless, as Kao reminisces on his past, he can’t prevent a smirk from unveiling across his face. “I started playing basketball when I was thirteen,” he says wistfully. “And I turned thirteen four days before moving to America.”

In the backyard of his aunt’s house in Mesquite, Texas, his cousin Solomon Ehiogu passed him a ball for the first time. “I started kicking it, just playing soccer by myself. I knew about basketball a little bit, you know, from watching American movies. But I had never seen one in real life,” Kao remarks.

However, before long, Solomon started training his cousin, showing him how to dribble and teaching him other nuances of the game. As Kao thinks back to his early days on the court, he notes that he “picked up the sport pretty fast.”

But learning on the fly was nothing new for him. Because five years before his move to Mesquite, Kao endured a tragic and devastating event — a transition that gave him no choice but to figure life out as he went. In an eleven-month stretch, when he still lived in his hometown of Mbaise, Nigeria, Akobundu-Ehiogu lost both parents.

First, the unexpected death of his father: “My dad used to take us to church on his motorcycle,” Kao recalls. “And he would do multiple trips because of the size of my family. One day, he dropped me and one of my siblings off. And he was taking forever to get my mom and my little sister. Then, later that day, we found out he got hit by an 18 wheeler.”

Within a year, his mother passed away after a multi-year battle with breast cancer. Kao speaks openly about their deaths, his grieving process, and how he no longer “gets sad about them all the time.” Still, the indescribable pain of losing his parents is “just one of those things you’ll never forget.” His words stand as a reminder of the way grief lingers, even a decade and a half later.

He writes their initials on his shoes before every game.

***

After the death of his parents, Kao and his siblings moved to Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, to live with his mother’s sister. Meanwhile, his father’s sister — the one in Mesquite, Texas — worked on getting her nephews and nieces to America. It was a mammoth of an undertaking, but finally, Kao’s paternal aunt legally adopted him and his siblings, expediting their immigration processes.

Upon arriving in Texas, one would assume the young Akobundu-Ehiogu would notice some stark differences between the Lone Star State and his home country. But on the contrary, one similarity struck his adolescent mind.

“I was disappointed when I saw sand. I had watched all these Christmas movies like Home Alone where there’s snow everywhere. So that shocked me. I guess it was because I was so young … I just did not think America had sand. So I was like ‘Oh, that’s not that much different than Africa.’”

Well, it was in that sandy, sub-Saharan Dallas-Fort Worth suburb where Kao learned a new sport under the tutelage of his cousin — a sport that would alter the course of his life.

***

Kao’s basketball career didn’t blow up immediately. He never played at an IMG or a Montverde-type prep school, and he never appeared on any of the major recruiting sites. Even after his senior year of high school basketball, not a single program at any level offered him a scholarship. So he turned again to Solomon.

His cousin did some research and found a showcase for unsigned seniors at the nearby Dallas Baptist University. During this event, Kao balled out in front of a handful of junior colleges, scoring 31 points and hitting five of his 11 3-point attempts in four 10-minute games.

The showing was enough to earn him an offer from Southwestern Assemblies of God (SAGU), an NAIA school in Waxahachie, Texas. At the time, Akobundu-Ehiogu stood 6-6 and weighed just 160 pounds. Yet he remained undeterred in his vision: “I always knew the plan was to go play Division-1 … it just happened that I had to go through SAGU first.”

But the only problem was … Kao didn’t exactly light it up at his first stop. Though he had grown three inches since enrolling, he struggled to adjust to his body. Thus, in his lone season at SAGU, he averaged less than a point per game in limited floor time.

Compounding matters, Akobundu-Ehiogu suffered an injury in a pickup game after the season. As he went up for a dunk, he felt his foot crack under an opponent’s sneaker, and a Jones fracture diagnosis soon followed. This news dealt him a brutal blow — Kao had an upcoming visit to St. Bonaventure, where he hoped to land an offer. But those plans evaporated like early morning dew.

Maybe that would have been the end of his basketball career if not for some Instagram DMs.

***

Akobundu-Ehiogu did not play a second of collegiate basketball during the 2019-20 season. Right before the COVID pandemic broke out in the U.S., he had started working at a Home Depot, with faint remnants of his hoop dreams hanging in the back of his mind. Sure, Kao enjoyed helping doers get more done (and customers appreciated a 6-9 behemoth who could grab products off the top shelf). But he still longed to get back on the hardwood.

So, he circled back to a connection he made while at SAGU. During that season, Akobundu-Ehiogu got an Instagram notification from ESPN/DraftExpress’ Mike Schmitz. Solomon had first reached out to the draft analyst, sharing both his cousin’s story and some iPhone videos of Kao playing basketball. That prompted Schmitz’s follow, which created an avenue for a friendship via direct message. After a year of periodic contact, Kao felt comfortable asking for help.

His message was simple: “I’m looking to play Division-1. You’ve heard what I’m capable of and what I could bring to a team. Do you know of any Division-1 programs that are looking for my skill set?”

Well, it just so happened that one of Schmitz’s former DraftExpress colleagues worked as a video coordinator for UT-Arlington’s men’s basketball program.

Matt McGann was starting his third year as part of the Mavericks’ staff when Schmitz texted him. At the time, he just sent him a photo of Kao and some of the highlights from Solomon. Those snippets alone intrigued McGann.

“That picture itself sold me, just because it showed Kao putting on weight. You could just tell he had thick shoulders and length and was just scratching the surface of his body,” he says.

McGann, whose mother was a professional bodybuilder, credits his upbringing to developing his eye for talent. Even videos of Akobundu-Ehiogu running the floor showed him all he needed to know. So from there, McGann “ran it up the ladder” to assistant coach Riley Davis (we connected over our name) and then-head coach Chris Ogden. Soon after, the staff started their recruitment.

***

Davis grins as he recalls those infamous iPhone videos as the catalyst of Kao’s courtship. “With so little tape on him, the videos were really all we had,” he shares. “I couldn’t tell if he could actually play. But I could tell that he was incredibly coordinated. His hand-eye coordination was pretty impressive for a hyper-athletic, skinny kid.”

The athleticism. Every member of the UTA staff waxes poetic on this explosive attribute of Kao. Davis goes into more detail: “People question Kao’s skill level. But that’s really because he hasn’t played enough five on five. And he knows that. He just knows he’s got to keep playing more and get experience. But if you put him in a cone drill or any sort of trainer drill, you’d be like ‘this guy is freakin’ Giannis.’”

So what exactly did Kao do in these recordings? How could they be that impressive? Well, per Davis, he’d receive these messages from Solomon, sharing clips of Akobundu-Ehiogu “crossing dudes up one-on-one, doing some ridiculous spin move, and then finishing with a 360 dunk.” The assistant coach questioned the level of competition (“I don’t know if his defender could play for the Sisters of the Blind,” he says), but he still found Kao’s work impressive.

Thus, thanks to McGann’s intel, Davis decided to contact Akobundu-Ehiogu. When he reached out, Kao was nearly a year removed from his foot injury and his last live basketball game. Nevertheless, the staff felt the recruitment came with low risk and a high reward. “We thought we might have a real talent here,” Davis adds. “What did we have to lose?”

***

All of Davis’ initial conversations with Kao occurred virtually. It was the summer of 2020, and the NCAA prohibited face-to-face recruiting visits due to COVID. However, the assistant coach still vividly remembers the first phone call.

“I was just kind of poking around, and McGann had shown me his athleticism. So I ask Kao if he knows his vertical. He goes ‘No, I’ve never measured it. I have no idea.’ So I go, ‘well if you jumped up to touch the backboard, how high do you think you could get up there? Like maybe touch the top of the white square?’ And he’s like, ‘Coach, I think I can touch the top of the backboard.’ And at that moment, I was done. I was like ‘this freakin’ guy, there’s no way.’”

Yet for some reason, Davis couldn’t completely dismiss Akobundu-Ehiogu’s claim. “After that conversation, I started thinking… what if he really can?”

So Davis and then-head coach Chris Ogden offered Kao a spot as a walk-on. The staff communicated that they couldn’t guarantee him a scholarship the following season either. But they did promise he would have a chance to earn one.

The pitch resonated with Kao. He recalls how Davis and Ogden assured him that he wouldn’t be treated like “any regular walk-on.” Under their watch, he would receive the time and energy needed to develop his game.

And when he got on campus a few months later, he showed his confidence in his vertical was not unfounded.

***

A few rocky patches surfaced on Kao’s road to Arlington. The first came in the form of a subpar transcript. Akobundu-Ehiogu will tell you himself that he did poorly in his classes at SAGU. And he couldn’t sneak that past UTA’s Office of Admissions. Davis served as the primary liaison to the office, and they gave him an ultimatum: Kao must make an “A” in two community college classes that summer.

“So I told Kao, ‘Look, man, if you’re serious about this, this is what you have to do. And it would likely be the same at other universities,” Davis says.

Kao verbally agreed. However, like many college-age guys, he fell victim to the sly deviant known as procrastination.

“It became a nightmare,” Davis divulges. “Because I’d call Kao and his cousin and be like, ‘Hey, the deadline to enroll is by midnight, whatever day it was.’ And they’d say ‘Yeah, we’ll get it done.’ So I stayed up till midnight. And I’m looking at the clock. And I keep calling him and texting him ‘Hey, have you enrolled.’ He’d respond ‘Not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet.’ And he missed the deadline to enroll in the class.”

Furious, Davis gave Akobundu-Ehiogu a final call the next day. “And he couldn’t answer until he was on his fifteen-minute break at Home Depot,” he laughs. But when Kao returned the call, he gave Davis a “yes sir.” Then he found a way to enroll in two courses at Collin College, a community college in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“We had to pay a late fee,” Kao remembers. “But I was working, so I didn’t care. I was just trying to get to class.”

Sure enough, at Collin College, Akobundu-Ehiogu made those two As. And he did it while maintaining a 40-hour workweek at Home Depot.

***

The 2021-22 season started slowly for Kao. Not only was he a walk-on, but the coaching staff also planned on redshirting him. In addition, practices crushed him. After the very first one, he failed to show up the next day. Davis found him in his room, alive but immobile, after a day of strength and conditioning. “I had never seen someone just not show up,” the coach adds with a smile.

Kao opens up about these early challenges, specifically noting the size and strength of players at this level. “When I first got to UTA, it was a struggle, man. The bigs especially … they shoved me around as I was just trying to get rebounds.”

But as the season wore on, Akobundu-Ehiogu started acclimating to the practices. He pushed himself beyond his limits while his coaching staff didn’t let up. Davis, in particular, coached Kao with unrivaled intensity.

“I’m by far the hardest on Kao,” he shares. “At the moment, he may argue. Other coaches say we bicker like an old couple. But I’m okay with that! I don’t need him to be a robot.” Now-head coach Greg Young echoes this sentiment, adding that sometimes he hears them going back and forth like “Fred and Wilma having another Flintstone fight.”

But Kao clearly responds to Davis’ coaching methods. “Me and Coach Riley, we’re real close,” he says. “He promised my family, my cousin, that he was gonna make sure I became the best player I could be, and he was gonna be hard on me. I knew what I was signing up for, and I expected nothing less.”

Specifically, he credits individual skill workouts, “especially on shooting and passing,” with Davis for netting progress. His improvements in practice plus the NCAA’s announcement of a “COVID year” caused a change of heart in the staff. They burned his redshirt.

Young reflects on the decision: “Because of COVID, and getting the year back, we thought ‘Let’s play him a little bit, get him some game experience.’ And then we started playing him a lot, actually, because we had some guys injured. And it’s not like the reps were gonna hurt him.”

Kao saw action in December tilts with D-2 Dallas Christian and D-3 Howard Payne. But when the calendar flipped to January, his court time decreased. He played no more than five minutes in the first four conference games. However, the staff decided to make some changes heading into a home bout with Louisiana.

“We had been horrible defensively up to this point. I think dead last in the league,” Davis discloses. “So we decided to play Kao more to see what would happen. I think he had something like six blocked shots. During and after the game, as a staff, we all thought, ‘Wow. This kid could be special. Maybe we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here!’”

That six-block outburst served as a harbinger of performances to come. Akobundu-Ehiogu became a fixture in the lineup, playing 20-plus minutes in all but two contests the rest of the season. At the year’s conclusion, Kao finished third in the country in blocked shots. So much for being a walk-on.

***

Kao’s first season on scholarship started with a coaching change. Ogden departed to Austin to join Chris Beard’s staff at Texas, and Young got the big promotion. This came as welcome news to Akobundu-Ehiogu, who shares that he “probably would have left” had the job gone to an external candidate.

Nevertheless, this year has still brought adversity. Of course, most teams with new head coaches experience growing pains. But Kao has dealt with the added challenge of being scouted by opposing coaches. “He’s no longer the unknown,” Young says.

The head coach elaborates. He praises Akobundu-Ehiogu’s rim protection while simultaneously bemoaning how teams gameplan against him. “Opponents will put a body on him. That’s the best thing you can do against rim protection, it’s no different than what we would do.”

Yet Young — and McGann and Davis, for that matter — all describe Kao as “resilient.” And how could they not? Whether it was finding a showcase to get recruited or skirting into community college classes, he has always found a way to inch closer to his goals. That trend has continued this season.

“To his credit, he’s had to learn and adjust and we’ve had to coach and teach. He’s got a long way to go. But I think whatever he does — considering how he’s grown and adapted — this year is way more impressive than what he did his first year,” Young shares.

***

So while “unorthodox” does not detail Kao’s journey, a few other “un” words do: unfathomable, unheard of, even unprecedented. The athlete appreciates the uniqueness of his story. But he also knows it unfolded this way because of hours and hours of work. “At one point, I was 6-2 and I couldn’t dunk,” he reveals. “My athleticism … I wasn’t just born with it.”

Davis agrees, adding that Kao “knew what he needed to do, and he did it all himself.” Then, the assistant coach gives one final thought. “No one is responsible for ‘discovering’ Kao,” he says and then pauses.

He looks up, deep in thought, then finally shares, “Kao discovered Kao.”

You can watch Kao and UT-Arlington as the Sun Belt Tournament tips off Thursday, March 3rd, at 12:30 ET on ESPN+

Header image courtesy of UT Arlington Athletics.



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