This is what Bright Akhuetie will tell you if you ask him if he had any idea about the Philippines before coming here.
“I didn’t know a thing about the Philippines. But I thought I should give it a try," says the UP Fighting Maroons’ lone foreign student-athlete for college basketball for UAAP Season 81. "I came over and that’s it. I just decided to take that risk to come in and see what’s up.”
The Philippines’ collegiate basketball scene has been home to some of the most skilled and powerful foreign student-athletes in the past decade or so, particularly those coming from Africa.
Beginning with Sam Ekwe of the San Beda Red Lions in 2006, who led his school to a ‘three-peat’ in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, there has been an influx of foreign student-athletes coming over to the country to play basketball while earning a quality education at the same time.
Pipo Noundou, Emmanuel Mbe, Alfred Aroga, Karim Abdul, and Prince Orizu come to mind.
These are just some of the men who have become household names by virtue of playing basketball in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines, the country’s premier collegiate league.
Asked how he found this current life of being almost halfway around the world, Bright recalls that a friend asked him if he wanted to try basketball in the Philippines. Same friend had hopes, too, of coming here and playing the sport while earning a college degree. But Bright's friend couldn't grasp the thought of leaving home and building a basketball career away from his family, so when the opportunity opened up to play basketball here, he suggested Bright take his place.
Bright didn’t love basketball in the beginning. He was a football guy, and his dad was a football player. It was but natural that he followed in his father’s footsteps.
Born on September 12, 1996 in Kaduna, Nigeria to Christopher and Roseline Akhuetie, Bright Osagie Akhuetie is one of four boys in a brood of five. Their dad made sure all of them grew up playing the sport he loved.
Akhuetie recalls starting out as a striker before eventually becoming a defender on the pitch.
“I had to play as a defender because our defender wasn’t around and we had to play a game... That’s when I realized I was better off playing defense,” adds the 6-foot-8 center for the Fighting Maroons.
In Africa, just like the inter-barangay leagues in the Philippines, Bright and his neighbors would organize tournaments amongst themselves in the streets just for the right to call themselves champions. No money and fame involved. Just bragging rights.
One day, the team's goalkeeper didn't show up, and Bright had no choice but to play goalie.
A coach saw him and asked, “If you can jump this high, why not come help me get a rebound?”
Bright couldn’t answer. He had no idea what a rebound was.
He invited Bright to join their team, complete with transportation allowance, gear and shoes. And Bright simply said "Why not?"
That’s how his basketball journey began.
“All I could do back then was jump and get the ball. And not move. They even made me play a game where all I had to do was, one, get the ball; two, hold the ball; three, wait for your point guard to get it. I may have traveled a couple times but they were happy with the outcome. That’s how it all started. I just fell in love with it then. Before I knew it, there I was, living a life playing basketball,” Bright says.
Road To Manila and NCAA Stint
After his short stint with Comprehensive College back in his home of Nigeria, Bright eventually found his way to the country and the University of Perpetual Help System Dalta, one of the ten schools in the NCAA.
He would go on to have a stellar NCAA career, even getting a chance to team up in 2015 with future Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and Gilas Pilipinas guard Scottie Thompson and eventual NCAA Season 94 MVP Prince Eze. Despite not making the playoffs in his first year, he would be named to the Mythical Team as one of the top five players that season.
Come his second year, he would earn another Mythical Team award, and this time a playoff appearance was in the offing against the San Beda Red Lions. After forcing a do-or-die match against the powerhouse from Mendiola, Perpetual came up just short of an upset and booking a Finals seat.
He also played for the Philippine National Team twice, both in the 2015 and 2016 FIBA 3x3 All Stars in Doha, Qatar—where he teamed up with Filipino stars such as Kiefer Ravena, Jeron Teng and fellow foreign student-athlete from San Beda, Ola Adeogun.
In late 2016, however, Bright left the University of Perpetual Help.
“I wasn’t happy where I was at the time. Going to another place where I wouldn’t be happy would be another problem for me. I just wanted to enjoy while I do what I do,” he says.
Move to the Big League
With his talent and size, teams from all over jumped at the chance to recruit him. His approximate averages of 17 points and 12 rebounds in the NCAA were more than a testament to what he can do. Any team would flourish with him at the helm, anchoring their defense—especially in a league such as the UAAP.
“The first school that talked to me—ironically—was Ateneo. The day after I told the owner of Perpetual I was leaving, Kiefer Ravena called me first. So I had this meeting with them, their team manager and everything. I also had one with La Salle. I actually practiced with them before that Finals (UAAP Season 79),” says the 22-year-old Nigerian.
“I told all of them I don’t want to make a decision yet. I wanted to go home, see my family, and come back here. That’s when I can choose."
But fate intervened by way of coach Bo Perasol.
Back in 2015, Bright played briefly for Mighty Sports in the Pilipinas Commercial Basketball League, a commercial amateur basketball tournament. Part of the coaching staff of that team was Perasol, who had just resumed his coaching career with his alma mater in the UP Fighting Maroons.
“Coach Bo and I, we started out really smooth. I really like him as a person because he is this kind of person who would talk to you about basketball, life after basketball, life outside, on and off the court. He talks about everything and just sees you as a person and tries to help out. So at the time, he called me up and we had a meeting. But it was really nothing about coming to UP. We simply just talked. Even though in my head I was like, ‘Okay, he’s gonna try to get me there.’ We had lunch in Alabang and that was it,” recalls Bright.
To him however, there was something different about Bo.
“He was the only one who kept calling, texting, asking ‘How are you? How’s this? How’s that?’ So I know he really needs it more,” says Bright.
He looked at the UP and its program and where they are on the map.
Like the time he came to the Philippines, he knew nothing about the school he's entering.
Putting it in Filipino, “Wala,” he says bluntly.
“Coach Bo and I had this conversation where he said something," Bright continues. "And that—that just hit the nail on the head. He reiterated that in UP, all I can get is a good education. Unlike the others, which is whatever it is a player could want. He stressed how making the Final Four alone is a big achievement already to the school, and that there’s no pressure with it. He was also very honest in saying that he’ll support me in whatever decision I make, and that I could take all the time in the world.”
Bright went home for the holidays shortly after, but he let coach Bo know that he’ll have a decision when he comes back.
It only took two days for Bright to make up his mind.
“I prayed about it. I told my mom. It just clicked inside of me. I called him and told him ‘Coach, I’m game. Let’s make something happen. Let’s make this work.’ That was that. I can still remember that day,” says Bright who now majors in Physical Education.
There’s been nowhere to go but up for the Diliman-based squad since taking in the young man from Nigeria.
After Bright’s transfer to the Maroons, they won the Araw ng Davao title, beating the defending UAAP champion, the De La Salle Green Archers, before bagging another one in the Republica Cup in Malolos against the UST Growling Tigers.
After sitting out his residency year in UAAP Season 80, he then led the university to its first Final Four appearance in 21 years, eventually ending a 32-year appearance in the championship round of the UAAP Men’s Basketball Tournament. He averaged 18.9 points, 14.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.1 steals and earned a spot in the Mythical Five. He then hit a game-winning shot in their first Final Four game against Adamson University, which propelled them to a knockout match which they also won courtesy of the heroics of Paul Desiderio.
Embodiment of Puso
But come Game 1 of the UAAP Season 81 Finals last December 1, fate would have other plans. After battling with Ateneo’s Angelo Kouame down low, he hyperextended his left knee and had to be stretchered out of the game.
UP fans became silent. The whole crowd was stunned.
But just as Coach Bo and his teammates never gave up on him, Bright would return the favor and muster all his strength to get back into the game, bad knee and all.
“I was still in pain when I went back to the court. But I didn’t want to sit back and let my teammates lose confidence and the fire that’s in them. Because I saw Gelo (Vito) guarding Kouame. He got the rebound and drew a foul on Gelo. I have to go help him out. That’s why I went back.”
MVP! MVP! MVP!
When he finally checked back in midway through the fourth quarter, chants of MVP rang through the sea of maroon inside the Mall of Asia Arena. Similar to the way his idol LeBron James gets those chants in Los Angeles these days.
He is after all, set to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player before Game 2 at the Araneta Coliseum. He would be the school’s first legitimate MVP in 49 years.
He admits he didn’t know he performed well during the league’s 81st season. He has struggled with injuries. Despite the setbacks, he still helped tow his team to the grandest stage of all, something it has not seen in over three decades.
“The MVP—that’s not what I’m about. Because I want something everybody will enjoy. At least now we made it to the Final Four and Finals. We see the crowd and the community is happy. That’s something we all benefitted from right? So it’s not just me. The whole university. Everybody from the UP Alumni and all, We bagged that MVP trophy together. We all did. Because that is just a takeaway on the side,” explains Bright.
He stands up, picks up his bag, and looks around the Epsilon Chi Center, the Maroons’ new home in Diliman.
“But we all got this far, so we would like to get farther. We will. Just one [game] at a time,” he says. “Now let’s get Wednesday.”
Photographs by Cleverlyn Mayuga except banner photograph from Bright's Facebook page.