PORTLAND – “Champ” Oguchi stood side-by-side with the woman of his dreams last summer. Serena Williams posed with him for a photo at the Olympic Village.
He asked for a date with one of the world’s great tennis players. She declined.
“I had to ask,” said Oguchi, an American member of the Nigerian basketball team at the London Olympics. “It was my opportunity. I couldn’t pass it up. I was being a little goofy but if you don’t take a chance, you’ll never know.”
Which spoke to why Oguchi was in the Portland Expo on Tuesday. Training camp for the Maine Red Claws has started and Tuesday was media day. Oguchi made the roster two years ago. Now he was one of the 15 hopefuls chasing the opportunity to play professional basketball.
Raheem “Radio” Singleton was on the court warming up. He played for the University of Maine the past two seasons at point guard. A Boston kid who was one of the stars of the documentary “Push: Madison vs. Madison” that told the story of 2006-07 basketball team at Madison Park High in inner Boston.
Singleton and team’s other star came from two different neighborhoods and couldn’t put aside their rivalries completely. It all came apart when Madison Park lost to Braintree early in the postseason playoffs. “Push” was screened at four film festivals to acclaim. But life didn’t imitate art in Orono and it won’t this week.
“Everybody here is talented. Everybody can score. I want to do all the intangibles better. I want to be the first one diving after the loose balls. I want to work hard and show toughness.”
His nickname? From the Radio Radio character in Spike Lee’s 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing.”
DaQuan Brooks was a shooting guard at Western Connecticut State last year, a Little East Conference school and rival to the University of Southern Maine. That’s Division III basketball. Brooks scored 2,269 points in his college career, which is impressive at any level.
“This is going to be a lot different. I know that. I have to play smart, listen to what the coaches tell me.”
Brooks got court time this summer with Kemba Walker and A.J. Price among other top players. Walker, now with Charlotte in the NBA and Price, with the Washington Wizards, both played at the University of Connecticut.
Brooks keeps good company. His buddy growing up in Atlanta is Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots’ tight end.
Then there’s Brian Cusworth, a 7-foot Harvard teammate of Jeremy Lin even if it was just for a semester. The son of physicians and a biology major, he’s played five years in Europe. He was the Player of the Year in Estonia, which brings a small grin to his face. Don’t confuse pro ball in Estonia with Lithuanian or even Latvian basketball, he said. In the Baltic basketball world, Estonia comes in third.
“I wasn’t that interested in geography. I had to do a little research when my agent told me about Estonia. I had nothing but pleasant surprises. Everyone under 30 speaks English and Estonian. Everyone over 30 speaks Russian and Estonian. I had to learn a little Estonian so I could tell the difference between pork and turkey when I bought groceries.”
Once the season begins, the players who make the opening-day roster are judged by their ability to mesh as teammates, play defense, make the right pass, hit the right shot. For 60 minutes Tuesday they were individuals, each with a story.
Take Chamberlain Oguchi, who was given the name Champ by a high school coach in Houston. “Chamberlain was too long to say,” said Oguchi. “I had to have a shorter name.”
His parents, native Nigerians, expected a third daughter before he was born. The doctor told them so. “In the Nigerian culture it is important to have a son,” said Oguchi. His father was so happy when his son was born, he thought of a quote believed to be said by the former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain: “I owe the world nothing more.”
That, says Oguchi, is how he came to be named Chamberlain.
In a way, Oguchi believes he’s been blessed over the past 12 months. He joined Panteras de Miranda of the Ligo Profesional de Baloncesto in Venezuela last March.
Early in the season he scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to set an LPB record. A barrage of 3-point shots, a couple of drives to the basket and several trips to the foul line. He didn’t miss.
Oguchi finished with 43 points in the 93-88 come-from-behind win. My high school Spanish couldn’t keep up with the excited play-by-play announcer and his color man on the YouTube clip. But the cries of “Chamberlain incredible, incredible” mean the same in Spanish as they do in English.
“I didn’t miss. I was hot and I was thankful my teammates kept feeding me the ball,” Oguchi said Tuesday.
The crowd in the half-full arena in Caracas roared with every shot. It might have been England, the day he scored 35 points for Nigeria in its loss to France. It might have been the Philippines or Lebanon, where he also played last year. It could be the Portland Expo this season.
“The sound of cheering is the same,” said Oguchi. “It doesn’t matter where you hear it.”
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org