On the heels of my taping of “The Summer” podcast, where I talked about running your own race, & using basketball as a vehicle in life. I got the chance to interview a dynamic individual who’s literally living his best life. In this grassroots game, we get caught up on kids going to the “League”, shoe deals, and other things that are far out of reach for nearly all of the kids playing. I decided to start interviewing guys who used basketball to go PRO at something else. Ugo Ihekweazu, former Westbury Christian High School & Cornell grad, has used basketball to change his life & his family’s forever. It is definitely worth the time to read his this interview.
OTR: When did you realize that you had to go pro in another profession?
I was a pretty good high school basketball player. I played on state championship basketball teams and was invited to play for the Houston Hoops (Nike EYBL affiliate) during the summer prior to my senior season. I addition, I was invited to the Nike All-America camp which is held each summer in Indianapolis. This camp that the highest concentration of high school talent that I had ever been exposed to. When you’re playing against people that are not only taller, quicker, faster and in general more athletic than you but are also more skilled that you, then you realize that the writing is on the wall. I am extremely competitive and I did hold my own during the camp, but when I realized that there are only a handful of spots available at the highest level, it became clear that the NBA was not going to be my career path.
OTR: When did you know that you wanted to be a surgeon?
I was always fascinated with the human body and human anatomy. At a young age, I was the kid in the science class that stayed late to do extra dissections on the frog and pigs. Growing up, I didn’t know any medical doctors and never really thought of a career in medicine. During one summer vacation while in college, I was at home driving along 59 and I saw a billboard with the picture of a black surgeon on it. That struck a chord in me. That day I went and researched what it took to become a surgeon and what type of people became surgeons. Everything I read highlighted the importance of being a highly motivated person, a leader, a people person, a love for science and the human body and a passion for helping others. These were all things that were important to me. So, when I went back to school in the fall, I talked with my mentors and counselors about it and decided to pursue medical school. The rest is history.
OTR: What type of student were you in HS and College?
Just like the 6’7” point-forward, who is blessed with natural ability athletic ability, I was blessed with natural academic talent. I made straight A’s throughout school without really trying. To be honest, I pretty much never studied in high school and I got by just fine. I formed a lot of bad habits. Since I made excellent grades and was a talented basketball player, I was offered to play for most of the schools in the Ivy league. Once it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to the league, I decided that going to a great school would give me the greatest shot to be successful in life. During my freshman year, my poor study habits nearly destroyed my dreams as I made C’s in Biology and Chemistry. As most pre-med students know, if you make anything less than a B in these classes, it’s pretty much impossible to go to medical school. As a competitor, I realized that I needed to work hard to make the grades that I wanted in college. So, that same devotion that I use as a basketball player, I used in the classroom and I went on to graduate from Cornell with Honors. It took a lot of early mornings and sleepless nights to get there, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t put in the work that I did.
OTR: What are some values that you learned in the game of basketball that you took in your professional career?
Pretty simple. The amount of work and preparation that you put in directly impacts the observed result. As an athlete I always motivated myself with the mantra that every moment you’re not in the gym getting better, someone else is. With that in mind, I spent countless hours in the gym, watching film in the weight room to give myself the best opportunity to compete at a high level. I use that same motivation as a surgeon. With every operation, I have the opportunity to make a significant impact in the life of a patient. So, I obsess about achieving perfection as a surgeon. Even as a fully trained expert in hip and knee replacement surgery, I am constantly looking for ways to improve my techniques in order to get the best possible outcomes for my patients. I was blessed to have the opportunity to train at the top medical institutions in the world and my expectation is to use that advanced training to be the best as a surgeon. Sort of like that “Mamba-mentality” but for surgery.
OTR: Did you ever feel pressure to continue your basketball career?
No, I was blessed to have a supportive network that understood that basketball was not the “end-all-be-all”. I had a lot of support throughout my training to become a doctor.
OTR: What does being from Houston and being a basketball player from Houston mean to you?
I was born and raised in Southwest Houston. I grew up in Alief on Spice lane, which is infamous in southwest Houston for all the wrong reasons. I was forced to learn a lot about life at a young age. My neighborhood was diverse, with lots of being from different cultures and different backgrounds and what we all had in common was mental toughness. We knew that nothing in life was going to be given to us and that we would need to hustle to get to where we wanted to get in life.
As a basketball player I had the opportunity to travel all over the country for various tournaments, camps and showcases. The kids from Houston are cut from a different cloth. We aren’t fake, we tell it like it is and we hustle, hard. There’s a large network of Houston based basketball players that went on to play D1 or in the league from our era. There’s a mutual admiration for what we were all able to accomplish, no envy, just admiration, because we all worked hard to get to where we are in life.
During my medical training, I had the opportunity to work with some of the top surgeons in the world in Houston, New York city and Geneva, Switzerland. I had a lot of job offers when it came to starting my practice. Ultimately, I chose to come back home to serve my city because Houston has and will always have a special place in my heart and I see it as an honor and a blessing to be able to take care of my city, the people in this city that gave me everything I have in life.
OTR: In making your decision to become a surgeon, what were some of the deciding factors?
I have always been good with my hand-eye coordination and I always had a love for anatomy. As a surgeon I merge both to improve people’s lives. When I decided to go to medical school, the decision to become a surgeon was easy.
OTR: What advice do you have for HS basketball players in the city?
At this point in life, you probably already know that the chances of making it to the league are slim and even if you do make it, more often than not it’s just for a few years. When I look back at my life, I feel deeply blessed that I wasn’t good enough to make it to the league. Would I take being a perennial all-star in the league over my life now? No question. Anything short of that, no I wouldn’t trade that with where I am now. I am 33 years old and have a talent/skill that is incredibly valuable, demands respect and is needed all over the world. My skill and talent as a surgeon will stay with me for the remainder of my life. Think about that for a second. When you’re in your 20’s you have the most freedom to learn, train and do everything you need to do to set up your career for the rest of your life. As a basketball player, you are given unique opportunities to set yourself up for life outside of the sport, you just have to seek those opportunities out and work hard at them. Go to the best college you can get in to. Yes, find a school that has a good team and all, but more importantly, find a school that is highly respected. In 10 years, literally no one cares that you made it to the NCAA tourney, or that you averaged 20 a game as a true freshman. They care about what school you went to. These sorts of things literally open and close doors in your career. Don’t miss out.
OTR: What advice do you have for parents as far as being realistic about your child’s ability and preparing them for life after basketball.
As parents, we have to inject a level of reality into the lives of our children. As adults, we know how difficult life is. We understand how society works; one minute you’re hot and the next you’re not. The advice that I would have is that we need to constantly remind our kids that unless you are on your second (really 3rd) contract in the league, you better have a backup plan for the remainder of your life. Yes, even people that have played in the league and were all-American basketball players have to find jobs after they retire. In a career outside of basketball, your ability to shoot, dribble or defend has absolutely no value. You are paid based on the value you contribute to the organization. Ask them what their value to society is outside of basketball. For me, I am an expert in hip and knee replacement surgery. That skill is valuable all around the world. Others are talented in financial markets, starting businesses, engineering, law, media, communications, politics etc. Have your child work on their value to society outside of basketball.
The last thing I would say is to push them to go to the best possible college that they can get into. Don’t go to a school because your favorite coach is there. Choose a university that fits your profile of what is important to you and one that also has a good reputation in society. 10 years after college when your child is retired and is at a job interview, they won’t care about how good the team was when he was there. You want the owner or CEO to look at them and say, wow, you were a college basketball player at THAT university? I have to hire you, because it means that not only did you work hard has a student-athlete, you were trained to be a leader in society and that’s what we need in the company or career path.