Archdeacon: RedHawks not just perfect this basketball season, they’re ‘Precious’

Miami''s Precious Ayah is even more impressive in the classroom at Miami University. He already has an undergrad degree  in psychology and a master’s degree in business administration. He’s working on a second master’s degree in sports leadership and management. He’s a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.   (Contributed Photo)
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Miami''s Precious Ayah is even more impressive in the classroom at Miami University. He already has an undergrad degree in psychology and a master’s degree in business administration. He’s working on a second master’s degree in sports leadership and management. He’s a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. (Contributed Photo)

OXFORD – These days he’s truly living up to his name.

“I might not look precious … but I am,” Precious Ayah said quietly the other day with a bit of a smile.

The full name of the Miami RedHawks’ 6-foot-6, 240-pound forward who grew up in Yenagoa, Nigeria, is Otonworio Precious Ayah. But he’s always been known as Precious.

“I know it’s a unique name here and it stands me out a little more on campus,” he admitted.

The attention he gets at Miami, though, is about more than just a name, said Miami basketball coach Jack Owens:

“With Precious, you’re seeing a guy who has embraced his college opportunity, a guy who has taken full advantage of it and maxed it out on the basketball court and away from it.”

Because an ACL injury and its corrective surgery sidelined him his first year in college – and the NCAA then gave all athletes an added season because of last year’s COVID-condensed campaign – Ayah is in his sixth season at Miami.

And he’s a prime reason the RedHawks are off to their first 4-0 start to a season in 23 years.

With Saturday’s 90-45 victory over Heidelberg at Millett Hall, Ayah – who had 10 points against the Student Princes and scored a career-high 18 against Stetson on Wednesday – is averaging 11.3 points per game. A physical presence inside, he’s second on the team in rebounds and first in steals and field goal percentage (82.6 percent).

More importantly, he’s the leader in the locker room.

“He’s an extension of our staff,” Owens said. “He polices the locker room and shows the young guys the right way to do things.”

The 24-year-old Ayah is even better in the classroom. He’s already gotten his undergrad degree – a B.A. in psychology – and has a master’s in business administration. He’s now working on his second master’s in sports leadership and management.

Education has been his primary concern since coming to the United States as a wide-eyed 14-year-old sponsored by the foundation set up by Ejike Ugboaja, the Nigerian basketball star chosen in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The first player drafted straight out of Africa into the league, he was a stalwart of the Nigerian national team, was an Olympian and had a 14-year pro career overseas.

Ugboaja ran a basketball camp in Nigeria and that’s where missionaries from Greenforest Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., first spotted Ayah and brought him and a few other Nigerian players to the Greenforest-McCalep Christian Academy.

Although he had only two years of basketball experience, Ayah had full understanding of the importance of education.

“The foundation that brought us here emphasized how important it was for kids like us to be good in education,” he said. “That was our priority. Coming from a different place like we did, we understood education was a privilege. To be able to go to school was a blessing.”

Precious Ayah drives for the basket in an exhibition game this season against Capital University (Miami University photo)
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Precious Ayah drives for the basket in an exhibition game this season against Capital University (Miami University photo)

Credit: scott kissell

Credit: scott kissell

He took that directive to heart said his former Greenforest basketball coach David Jones, a colorful, legendary coach in the Georgia who won six state titles at three different schools in his 42 years as a head coach:

“I remember when Precious was a freshman, he was in a health class and the lady teaching it was trying to write something on the board up front. But every time she turned her back to the class, this little kid in the class started acting a fool and would throw paper wads.

“She kept turning around, saying; ‘Alright, whoever’s doing that just cut it out and quit acting silly.’ But as soon as she’d turn her back again, the kid did it again. Finally, she’d had enough and said, ‘Alright I’m sick of this! Who is doing it?’

“Nobody said anything, so finally Precious pointed out the kid and said, ‘He’s interrupting my opportunity to get an education.’

“Well, Precious was a big kid and he looked overgrown to that little trouble-making (kid)!

“Afterward, the lady told me, ‘Coach, I had the best damned math class I ever had in my life. It was so quiet you could have heard a rat (urinating) on cotton.’”

Ayah and his team would win two state championships at Greenforest and also finish as state runner-up.

He also was the salutatorian of his graduating class.

At Miami, he was named to the All-Mid-American Conference Academic Team last season and won the Darrell Hedric Award that’s given annually to a Miami athlete who excels in academics, athletics and in the community.

He’s a member of Omega Psi Phi, the storied black fraternity whose national brotherhood has included, among many other notables, Langston Hughes, Benjamin Hooks, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, Martin Luther King Sr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Count Basie.

“I think it’s important for black men to have a brotherhood, especially in a place like the United Sates,” Ayah said.

He was one of the fraternity’s step show performers at Homecoming and Owens brought the whole team to see him on a stage far beyond the court.

Precious Ayah is active in the community as well, especially with Omega Psi Phi fraternity. (Contributed Photo)
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Precious Ayah is active in the community as well, especially with Omega Psi Phi fraternity. (Contributed Photo)

And as the coach watched, he now knew he had the answer to that question Ayah posed to him five years ago.

Owens had replaced John Cooper as the RedHawks coach and three of the six foreign players Cooper had recruited left the program.

Ayah, who was still recovering from his ACL surgery and had never played for Miami, approached the new coach.

“He said, ‘Coach, what do you think about me?’” Owens recalled.

“I said, ‘It’s not a fair assessment because you have been injured. I don’t know you.’”

But he does now:

“I can’t say enough good about him,” Owens said. “He’s a good student, a good teammate and just a good guy. A great guy really.”

‘Second home’ in Oxford

Since coming to America in 2012, Ayah has only seen his mother and father once and that was just briefly on a trip home in 2019.

“I spent two days with my mother in the last nine years,” he said. “My dad couldn’t make it home while I was in Nigeria and I saw him on my way back – in the airport – for about 10 or 15 minutes.”

He said his parents have never been to one of his basketball games at any level: “They’ve never seen me play, unless maybe my brother showed my mom some video highlights once.”

They have no idea how he’s developed on the court.

“The first time I ever touched a basketball was maybe fifth or sixth grade in P.E. class,” he said. “I was one of the better ones, but after that I never touched another basketball until 2010.”

He started playing for his junior high team and was being considered for the age-group national program when he got the opportunity to come to the United States.

Miami's Precious Ayah with the Nigerian flag.  He grew up in Yenogoa, Nigeria and came to the United States when he was 14 thanks to the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation started by the famed Nigerian basketball player who was drafted by the Cleveland Cavs in 2006 – the only NBA player drafted straight out of Africa—and had a long career with the national team and as a pro for 14 seasons overseas. (Contributed Photo)
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Miami's Precious Ayah with the Nigerian flag. He grew up in Yenogoa, Nigeria and came to the United States when he was 14 thanks to the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation started by the famed Nigerian basketball player who was drafted by the Cleveland Cavs in 2006 – the only NBA player drafted straight out of Africa—and had a long career with the national team and as a pro for 14 seasons overseas. (Contributed Photo)

“The only things I knew about America came from movies I’d seen,” he said and mentioned, Coach Carter, Stomp the Yard, Set It Off, Pretty Woman and The Terminator.

He said he also listened to American music and today his tastes run from Lil Wayne to Sam Cooke.

Greenforest, he said, was a mostly all-black school, but his coach (David Jones) was white and became one of his mentors. So did assistant coach Ed Ravenel, who said “Precious is like a son to me.”

Jones, who’s now 80, said Greenforest was his first experience coaching “foreign exchange students.”

“If I’m ever reincarnated, I’d start over coaching Nigerian kids,” he said.

“I never had to worry about them academically or acting a fool in class,” he said. “With them you never had to worry about some math teacher from the other end of the building coming down toward you with a scowl on her face and those heels clicking and you wondering which one of my (knuckleheads) was acting up in her class.

“And on the court, when I took them out of the game, they never sat on the bench with their feet out, looking (mad) at the world, thinking, ‘Why take me out? I’m a hero.’ “The Nigerian kids just wanted to know what they did wrong and how they could get better. And then they worked at it.”

And no one worked harder than Ayah.

But it wasn’t always easy for him.

“Coming to America, the toughest thing was learning cultural cues like looking people in the eye,” he said. “Back home, looking in the eyes is a sign of disrespect to your elders.

“But here I went through battles with my coach a couple of times. He’d be yelling at us and I had my head down and he’d be like, ‘Dude! When I’m talking to you look me in the eye!’”

As the coaches looked back at Precious, they watched a skinny kid fill into his frame and become a team leader.

“When we would go places, he was always telling the other guys to make sure to stick their shirts in their pants, be respectful and not curse,” said Ravenel, who is black.

“We had a team mainly of black kids and I remember we went down to Macon once to play and went into a restaurant where there was a group of older white ladies. The wrote back to the school how respectful and enjoyable our group was. That means a lot, especially here in the South.”

While he coached over 1,000 games in his career and had hundreds and hundreds of players on his teams, Jones especially remembers Ayah:

“I love him. My wife and two step kids love Precious, too. I don’t know if you could ever be blessed with a more trustworthy kid than him. You don’t get any better person than Precious Ayah.”

Although he had an Ivy League offer to play at Brown University, Ayah was convinced to visit Miami University by a professor and liked what he saw.

“When I left Georgia, I wanted to experience something different and Miami was different for me,” he said. “I knew to be successful in America you’re going to have to be able to experience every point and learn to be comfortable every place. And after everything, I’d been through, I knew it would be easy to adapt to Miami.

“And now Miami is like my second home. I feel comfortable here.”

Precious Ayah who is in his sixth season at Miami University has, in the words of RedHawks head coach Jack Owens, ‘taken full advantage of his college experience.” After missing his first year with an ACL injury, the 6-foot-6 small forward from Nigeria  has now played in 97 games for the RedHawks and his become a team leader both off the court and on, where he he’s fourth in scoring this season, second in rebounds, and leads the team in field goal percentage and steals. He has already gotten his undergrad degree and one masters degree and is now working on his second masters. J’s also in Omega Psi Phi  fraternity.    (Photo by Tom Archdeacon)
Caption
Precious Ayah who is in his sixth season at Miami University has, in the words of RedHawks head coach Jack Owens, ‘taken full advantage of his college experience.” After missing his first year with an ACL injury, the 6-foot-6 small forward from Nigeria has now played in 97 games for the RedHawks and his become a team leader both off the court and on, where he he’s fourth in scoring this season, second in rebounds, and leads the team in field goal percentage and steals. He has already gotten his undergrad degree and one masters degree and is now working on his second masters. J’s also in Omega Psi Phi fraternity. (Photo by Tom Archdeacon)

One more season with ‘family’

With his undergrad and master’s degrees completed, Ayah could have moved on from Miami last spring.

But he said he and several teammates – the RedHawks have four fifth-year players and guard Isaiah Coleman-Lands has graduated already, too – vowed to return this season to finish what they started last year.

The RedHawks won their final four games of the regular season and finished 12-11 for their first winning season in 12 years.

“I wanted to come back to be with people who meant a lot to me,” Ayah said. “Being so far from home, I consider my teammates and my coaches to be my family.”

“And before the year started, we all talked and decided if we came back, this could be special.”

“I felt we were so close last season. And I felt I had more to give the team. I want to see Miami’s program going in the right direction. It would be a disservice to the program if I didn’t do all I could to help make that happen,

“I owe that to the school and the game.

“Basketball has been my savior in so many ways. It’s given me more than I ever believed could happen.

“When I left home, I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I was just a kid. But I knew I wanted a better life for myself. I knew I wanted to be something special.”

And that’s just what has happened.

More than ever, he’s Precious.

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