In the Florida State basketball media guide sophomore center Solomon Alabi lists George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 as his favorite book. Never much of an avid reader, the book was assigned summer reading for the 7-footer, leading up to his senior year at Montverde Academy in Florida. The book tells of a futuristic world where a governing body known as Big Brother looms over and controls nearly every semblance of respectable society. After a freshman season in which Alabi loomed over opposing ACC squads and emerged as an All-ACC Defensive Team selection as well an honorable mention Freshman All-American pick, it’s a safe bet that opponents will be keeping an eye out for the force that governs the lane in Tallahassee this season.
Much like his favorite literary work, Alabi’s story is a twisting page turner that seems almost as unlikely as the world that Orwell crafts in his masterpiece of science fiction. A native of Kaduna, Nigeria, Alabi grew up in a city torn apart by religious strife between Muslim and Christian sects that have divided the region through acts of rioting and violence. Like so many other youngsters in his native country, he grew up playing a wide range of sports but focused primarily on soccer where he excelled as an attacker. It would ultimately be soccer that steered the gifted youngster towards basketball and forever change the course of his life.
One afternoon when he was 15, Alabi found himself wandering the streets looking for others to join him in a pickup soccer game. Unable to find anyone, he eventually wandered towards the one basketball hoop in his town where he found an older individual shooting alone. At the time, Alabi had never played basketball in his life, but started to rebound for the man as a courtesy, passing the ball back after every shot. After a while, the man who Alabi had never met grew tired of playing and left him alone with the ball in his hands and a newfound sense of intrigue settling over the already towering teenager.
“I started bouncing the ball and trying to put it in the basket; I liked the game right away,” Alabi says.
As he continued to experiment with the new game, word began to spread of the immensely tall youngster who showed a tremendous amount of potential if he had the right guidance. Once a focus of attention due to his massive size – an issue of great annoyance to him – Alabi suddenly found that people were talking about him for another reason.
“There was this basketball camp in Nigeria for young players, but I didn’t know about it,” he says. “Someone started talking about me to the people that ran the camp, saying there was this tall kid who could be good at basketball if he learned how to play; so I was invited to the camp. There were all of these high school and college coaches there to see us play. The instructors at the camp told us about how big basketball was in America and how if I kept working I could go to school there on a scholarship. That really motivated me to play at that point and I started to take basketball seriously.”
So it was that Alabi came to the US in 2005 looking for the opportunity to grow as a basketball player and earn a scholarship to an American university. It didn’t take long for schools to pay the budding youngster attention, despite the modest averages of eight points and seven rebounds in his first (junior) season of high school. Florida State was one of the first schools to heavily recruit the center, with head coach Leonard Hamilton envisioning the physically gifted, but raw recruit developing into a star at the college level.
Alabi chose the Seminoles over the likes of Arizona, Virginia and Saint Joseph’s, citing the coaching staff, location and the presence of another Nigerian-born player – Uche Echefu – as the reasons behind his decision. After taking a medical redshirt during his true freshman year due to surgery on his right leg, the tallest player on the Florida State roster exploded onto the scene in his first full season of action.
The word exploded is used not in the sense of raw numbers – Alabi averaged eight points and just under six rebounds – but in regards to the limitless potential that was shown by the freshman, who kept more than a few offensive minded heads on a swivel thanks to his defensive prowess. While the emergence of Alabi on a national level may have surprised more than a few after the freshman had been playing the game for just a few years, coach Leonard Hamilton says that the high learning curve of the still relative newcomer to the game is going to allow him to emerge as a star.
“I think he will take an even higher step this year,” Hamilton says. “He is a talent, he’s eager to learn, he’s coachable, all you have to do is tell him what to do and he will respond. He is a joy to be around and as a coach you love to have players like this come along who are eager to do what it takes to be successful.”
For Alabi’s part, he is staying humble in the wake of a first full season that saw him flooded with post season accolades, awards that the center was “honored” to receive. Even more of the spotlight is focusing on the youngster as the summer months melt away towards the season though, almost as much for the departure of star guard Toney Douglas as for his upside. Douglas departed for the NBA after a season that saw him emerge as one of the elite players in the ACC and at points, singlehandedly carry his team to the NCAA Tournament. While there is no doubt it will be a tough act to replace the seniors 21.5 ppg, many pundits are placing that responsibility on the broad shoulders of Alabi, who is more than up for the challenge.
“I don’t really want to think about it as pressure,” he says. “I just want to go out there, give it all I have and try to be a leader to help the team win. If the team wants me to step up, I’m going to do that.”
Hamilton is quick to reflect the glare away from Alabi though, saying the void left behind by Douglas isn’t the responsibility for one individual to fill.
“I don’t know where that expectation is coming from because we don’t put that on any particular player. We believe our strength will be in our ability to go very deep and have a lot of players step up their game another notch. We aren’t going to try and put Toney Douglas’s burden on one or two players, we need the whole team to step it up. That isn’t going on Solomon; it’s going to be evenly distributed.”
The challenge of meeting expectations – whether fair or not – won’t be the only difficult task Alabi faces this year, as he still continues to adjust to life in a foreign country. His English is impeccably good, having adopted more than his share of youthful jargon to his vocabulary. While he dearly misses the cooking from his native country (“I love Nigerian food,” he states) he lists pizza as one of his favorite foods. Perhaps most enjoyable of all for Alabi has been the manner in which his size has been embraced here in the U.S. While his immense frame would often result in passerby’s staring or gawking in his hometown, the “importance” of his size, he says, has been embraced on the FSU campus.
Still, as seemingly easy as his transition has been at times, it has always been made more difficult by one detail: Alabi has done all of this without the support of his family close by. One of six children (four boys, two girls) raised by loving parents, Alabi has only been back to Kaduna twice since coming to the U.S. in 2005, something that no matter how accustomed to his new surroundings he gets, will never become easy.
“It’s tough for me; I wish I could go home every summer to see my family,” he says. “My parents have never seen me play and I really want them to see me play someday. I miss my family but when I think about them it just motivates me to work hard in basketball and in the classroom.”
That determination could spell major trouble for opposing frontcourt defenders. Alabi has been hard at work this summer, along with his teammates, to improve his game and his body going into a season that is filled with expectations after last year’s NCAA Tournament berth and a run to the ACC Championship game.
Standing at 7-1 with a frame that will absolutely support more than his listed 240 pounds, Alabi is a tantalizing combination of size, length and athleticism. He already shows a knack on the defensive end of swatting shots (more than 2 bpg last year) thanks to his instincts. With the return of fellow sophomore and former McDonald’s All-American Chris Singleton in the frontcourt, the Seminoles have the potential to feature one of the biggest and most athletic interior duos in the nation. Factor in the arrival of incoming All-American Michael Snaer in the backcourt, and Florida State will be loaded with superior athletes all over the floor. While defense has certainly been the staple of his game until now, Alabi has been focusing on further developing his offensive skills, with the intent of being able to finish his baby hook shot with either hand in the paint this season.
Hamilton, who has seen the development of Alabi over the last two years, says his center’s learning curve is still so steep at this point, there’s no telling how good he could become at the college level.
“There’s no question his best basketball is way ahead of him,” Hamilton says. “He hasn’t even come close to tapping his potential; there’s no doubt the sky is the limit for him. He has touch, he can run, he’s a good athlete and he’s competitive. There’s no telling how good he could be.”
This of course brings us back to Alabi’s favorite literary work, 1984. Having never been fond of sitting in one spot long enough to meticulously sit still and read an entire book, the then high school senior begrudgingly stepped into what he assumed would be a paperback prison. Not long thereafter, Alabi found himself enthralled in the sci-fi classic, completing the book in expedited fashion. Once he had experience some enjoyment out of reading the novel, he showed his advanced learning curve in speeding through the pages to a happy conclusion. Alabi has already shown his passion for basketball and while he is just beginning his page turner on the court, there is no doubt he is speeding towards an even better ending with the game he loves.