The roster of the Riverside Military Academy basketball team is unlike any other.
It doesn’t feature a plethora of AAU talent, nor does it contain a slew of players that grew up playing along side each other in local rec leagues. The Eagles are much more diverse.
Along with players from Georgia and several other states, Riverside Military’s team boasts an international flavor, as well. So much so that you could call the Eagles a small-scale United Nations of basketball.
First there’s Soung Woo Han and Sang Min Lee of South Korea. Two players whose paths never crossed while growing up in the same country, yet became friends in a foreign land on a foreign court.
Then there’s 6-foot-6 John Ogunniya of London, who despite being the tallest member of the Eagles, is one of the most raw when it comes to tapped basketball ability.
"Here it’s not unique," said Riverside coach Matt Bohon of having a roster filled with players from around the world. "We always have a very unique blend of players. It’s one of the things that makes this job appealing."
The three players came to Riverside with one common goal, to better their education and obtain a career and lifestyle that they may not have been afforded in their homeland.
"My dad didn’t really see England as a positive place," said 18-year-old Ogunniya, who sees the most playing time out of the trio and averages 7.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
Had he not left England, Ogunniya may not have found the game of basketball, a sport he picked up last year at the suggestion of Bohon.
"Coach saw my height and told me to come out," Ogunniya said. "Ever since then I’ve enjoyed playing."
Learning the game of basketball didn’t come easy for Ogunniya, but it was just another adjustment that he, as well as, Han and Lee had to overcome.
Life in the states
For every Ogunniya post move or Lee assist, one constant remains, there’s no loved one in the stands cheering them on. The fans in the stands send well-wishes to the trio when they’re on the court, but those cheers are not the ones they long to hear. With their families an ocean away, the three cadets all wish their mothers and fathers could see them play just once.
"My dad said he’s gonna make it to one game," said Ogunniya, who is the only one of the three who’s had a family member visit him while he’s been at Riverside. "I hope he does make it. If I had my mom and dad here it would make me feel good because it would show me that they are interested in what I’m doing."
Missing their parents doesn’t just occur during basketball season. In fact, each cadet admits to missing their family almost every day.
"If I have a game on any parents weekend, my parents can’t be here," said Han, 19, who’s been back to South Korea twice in his three years at Riverside. "So I have to do everything by myself."
With no escape home for the weekends or holidays, the trio can sometimes feel trapped inside the walls of Riverside.
"I don’t have any relatives or friends from home," Lee, 18, said. "When we have breaks I don’t have anywhere to go."
"I don’t have a life outside of boarding school," Han said. "I cannot experience American culture. In Korea I’m free."
And in Korea he and his fellow countryman Lee can experience one other aspect of the culture they miss: the food.
"I miss the food the most," Lee said. "Especially my mother’s food."
Ogunniya’s "misses" are much more extensive than Lee’s.
"I miss my friends, my family, everything," he said. "I always feel homesick, but I just have to cope with it."
One way to do that is by playing basketball.
"It’s something to occupy my time and something I enjoy," Ogunniya said.
Trading in a "football" for a basketball
Standing no taller than 5-5, Han knows he’ll never step foot on a college basketball court. But three years ago, he never thought he’d step foot on any basketball court.
"I was interested in playing basketball," he said. "I just try my best to learn and get better.
"I’m not that good at basketball," he added. "But my teammates still cheer me on. They’re all better than me and I’m trying to learn something from them."
Han’s not the only one trying to learn.
"In Korea I played street basketball, not team basketball," Lee said. "When I first came to Riverside, the team aspect was confusing."
At least he had some experience with the sport.
"John had never picked up a basketball until last year," Bohon said. "It’s fun to see kids like him get better over the years."
A lifelong soccer player — or football as he knows it — Ogunniya said he still has a long way to go to become a polished basketball player.
"Some of the moves are quite difficult, like the drop step and trying not to travel," he said.
One move he has down is the dunk.
"When I first started I couldn’t dunk," he said. "But I started working out and getting my legs under me, and midway through last year I could do it and it feels good.
"I wouldn’t say being able to dunk sets me apart, it’s just one of my unique specialities," he added. "I’m very lucky I can dunk."
Yet despite his new-found love of the one-handed jam, Ogunniya would trade it all in for a chance to watch his first love on TV.
"It’s frustrating," he said of not being able to see his favorite team Arsenal play. "But I still get online and stay posted."
Ogunniya and Han will be able to get their soccer fix in the spring, as both cadets plan to play the sport for the Eagles.
That’s what lies in the immediate future, but the trio already have their career paths lined up, as well.
What the future holds
Like so many others in America, the cadets at Riverside Military stopped what they were doing to watch Tuesday’s presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. According to Ogunniya, the event was watched with mixed emotions as some cadets are not fond of the 44th President of the United States. But for him — a black male — being able to see a person of his race sworn into office was something he’ll never forget.
"I was really impressed," he said of the fact that this country elected a black president. "I never thought it would happen."
But it did, and like many other young black males, it gave him hope.
"It motivates you," he said. "It makes black people realize that nothing should hold them down."
A son of a politician, Ogunniya said that he could follow his father’s career path and major in political science in college. "I’m interested in politics, maybe one day," said Ogunniya, who hopes to attend Georgia State University in Atlanta and walk-on to the basketball team.
When finding out Georgia State also has a soccer team, he said, "Well, maybe I’ll try that too."
Han and Lee have a more definitive stand on their futures. And like Ogunniya, Lee is headed down the political path.
"I want to be a diplomat," said Lee, who has applied to Georgetown University. "I want to graduate from college and move back to South Korea."
Han also plans on moving back to South Korea after college, and he hopes to arrive with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I have one dream college, M.I.T., but I’m not sure I can get in," said Han, who would like to study mechanical engineering. "It’s one of the best engineering schools in the world and I heard about it before coming here. I always imagined what it would be like to go there."
Lee hasn’t heard whether or not he has been accepted to the school, but with his current academic standing, he could very well achieve his lifelong dream.
"He has a very good chance at being this year’s valedictorian," said Bohon, who teaches math to all three cadets.
A standout in the classroom, Han’s most valuable lesson from his life so far in the United States may have been learned on the basketball court.
"I heard a lot about racial conflicts in the U.S.A., but one good thing about Riverside Military Academy is that we’re all good friends together," Han said. "There’s blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites ... we all stick together."