From Nigeria to Australia to Sacramento - How Chima Moneke ended up at the Kings

Chima Moneke woke up on the morning of May 8 with a missed call that would change his career, which had been littered with near-misses and maybe-next-times from coaches all around the world.

The call, which he promptly returned, was from Nigeria, and now Sacramento Kings, head coach Mike Brown, calling to say that he wanted Moneke on his Kings team. This despite Brown leaving Moneke off the Nigerian Olympic roster last year.

Moneke, used to being promised one thing and then delivered another, was shocked. Burned by the omission from the Tokyo team, he didn't quite believe Brown when he said he'd like to secure Moneke's services.

"[Brown] always told me that our paths would cross again and that if there was anything that I needed, that I should let him know. This was when I got cut for the final [Nigeria] selection," Moneke told ESPN.

"At the time, I was upset because I got cut, so I didn't really believe that he liked me that much, to be honest, but as the season progressed, I woke up to a missed call from him the day of our Champions League final [with Baxi Manresa in Spain] on May 8.

"He told me that he was going to get the job with the Kings, officially but unofficially, and my name was the first he thought of. So yeah, it's just been crazy."

Born in Abuja, Nigeria, the 26-year-old has lived all over the world: "My parents were diplomats, so we ended up travelling to Australia -- I was almost three years old -- then back to Nigeria, then to Turkey, then to Switzerland, then back to Australia, which is where I started playing basketball at 13. Then, I moved to America when I got a scholarship at 17."

But it was Down Under, in Australia's capital city of Canberra, what he first learned about rejection, and the harsh lessons top coaches are wont to teach. Having come so late to the game, the tall but green youngster was not ready for his dreams, according to his coach.

Moneke explained: "I was supposed to make an U18 ACT [Australian Capital Territory] team to play in the national tournament that year. I was the last person to get cut and the coach had some words for me that I knew were wrong.

"He told me that I'm athletic, but I couldn't think about the game at that level at that moment and that I relied too much on my athleticism -- but on that team, my athleticism was needed -- and when I got cut, every single person that was on the team expected me to make the team.

"I thank him from a distance because he helped me in ways that he probably never even imagined. It hurt and it just motivated me to be better and make sure I'm undeniable going forward."

Before catching the basketball bug his freshman year of high school, Moneke was your typical Nigerian kid. That is, he loved football... soccer. His only experience of basketball was watching LeBron James on TV.

His friends, noting his 6ft1in height, told him to try hoops: "Before that, it was all soccer -- I'm Nigerian. Basketball wasn't really a thing. You had Hakeem Olajuwon and a few others that made it, but it wasn't really realistic, so soccer was what we watched.

"I just knew from a young age that I wanted to be an athlete and my parents were always saying [I must be a] doctor, lawyer or engineer -- like typical Nigerians say. For me, in my head, it was just [dreams of becoming an] athlete.

"When I started playing basketball, I loved it, but I just wasn't good at it. I just kept slowly getting better."

Despite the snub at U18 ACT level and rejection after rejection from various US colleges, Moneke finally caught a lucky break.

In late 2012, his Lake Ginninderra College took on Caulfield Grammar. Most in attendance were there to watch Danté Exum, Moneke's best friend and teammate and one of the hottest prospects in Australia. Exum would go on to play in the NBA for the Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers and recently signed for EuroLeague side Partizan Belgrade.

However, Trevor Burnette, who had recently left his role as an assistant coach at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, and moved to Australia, was watching and Moneke caught his eye.

Burnette told ESPN: "He was super athletic. Every chance that he had, he tried to dunk, he tried to block shots. He was the most athletic kid on the floor - even Danté; he was more athletic than Danté. He was just thin at the time. He just needed some muscles."

Caulfield won the game in overtime despite Moneke's efforts, leaving him devastated, but Burnette approached him nevertheless.

Moneke recalled: "He came up to me and was like: 'Yo, are you trying to go to America? Who's helping you?' I was like: 'Nobody's helping me.'

Burnette ended up securing a full-ride scholarship to Northeast Community College in Nebraska for Moneke, who said: "I remember crying, because [it was a] full-ride scholarship to play basketball in America. My dream [had] begun."

But that coach in Canberra, the one who said the kid was not yet ready to play on a major team, turned out to be a little bit more right than Moneke would like to admit.

Burnette said: "Even in junior college, his coach would call me and say: 'This kid is a head-case.' Chima got technical [fouls] for hanging on the rim, technicals for yelling at people.

"He just had to grow up. As his junior college went on into his sophomore year, he started to grow up."

After his stint in Norfolk (2013-2015), Moneke continued on a scholarship at The University of California, Davis (UC Davis). He red-shirted his first year, but said he was just happy to get out of the Nebraska cold.

He played for Davis till 2018, and in all this time he did not see his parents in person: "From 13 to 26 years old, I didn't see my dad in person. From 2009 to 2018, I didn't see my mom, and then she came out to America for a couple of months.

"It was different -- obviously, we spoke on the phone, but day to day, they weren't seeing how I was progressing. They just knew I was playing basketball. When they heard it at first, it was like: 'Ok, play basketball, but just make sure you get your degree,' but when I got a college scholarship, they were like: 'Oh, he's serious.'

"I saw my dad for the first time in 13 years last month, when I went home. Same as my mom -- last time I saw her [before visiting Nigeria] was 2018. When I went back, it was a good time. They're very proud of me and I've just got to keep giving them more reasons to be proud."

By the end of his time at Davis in 2018, Moneke could hold his own while working out with NBA stars such as Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid via renowned skills coach Drew Hanlen.

However, in Burnette's opinion, he was still not yet ready for the shocks of professional basketball. These, however, he would learn the hard way in France.

Moneke's first professional deal was with Rouen in the French LNB Pro B (second division). However, coach Alex Ménard released him after only three appearances.

The Nigerian said: "What makes that even more frustrating is that I was killing in pre-season. I was showing that I belonged. I think I was averaging about 17 [points] and 9 [rebounds] or 17 and 10. I was playing the way I play.

"In France, at the time, it was [limited to] five [international] passport players, and for some reason, we had two in my position -- me and the other guy. He was a great player, he was established in France and he was older."

Dropped unceremoniously, he moved to another French side, Denain, but ultimately returned to Australia to play for South East Melbourne Phoenix. Traumatised by the experience in Rouen, he relished the chance to be on familiar territory.

However, true to form, a seemingly simple homecoming became another bump in the road. A miscommunication between his agents and the team saw him signed as a local player, though he didn't actually have an Australian passport. Goodbye deal.

He said: "I was devastated, because I wanted to go back home, but it worked out so much better for me. I don't think I'd be in this place right now if I went to play in the NBL."

Moneke hoped to find a Pro A team upon his return to France, but instead had to settle for another season in the second tier with Quimper, then a season with Orleans in the first division, which eventually paved his way to Baxi in Spain.

But first, he had Tokyo in his sights for the 2021 Olympics, and this is how he met Mike Brown.

Moneke explained: "I got a call from my good friend, Gabe Vincent from the Miami Heat, and he told me that Mike Brown was trying to get my number. I was like: 'Why is Mike Brown trying to get my number?'

"Gabe was like: 'I think he wants to ask you to play on the national team.' This was September of 2020. The qualifying was in November that year. He asked me to play and I was super ecstatic and excited."

Obviously, as had been the pattern all through his career, disaster struck again: "Three days before the qualifiers, I dislocated my shoulder, so I was crying and upset because I couldn't go.

"Mike Brown was actually coaching those qualifiers, so it would have been good for him to meet me. It didn't happen that way and I ended up going in February and we won every game.

"I got invited to the camp and I was one of the last people to get cut before the Olympics, but obviously, it was a great experience, because it led to me being with the Kings now."

Moneke's season with Manresa was awe-inspiring, as the team made the final of the Basketball Champions League (BCL). Although they lost to Lenovo Tenerife in the final, Moneke was named as the season's MVP.

He knew, by then, that he was destined for the NBA, having received the call from Brown that same day -- not that he ever doubted it for a minute.

"I always believed I was an NBA player even when I was at my lowest," he said. "Sometimes, you start questioning these things and [thinking that] it's not going to happen. You start watching your old videos and things like that.

"The most important thing is: I always believed. I know I belong. I know I'm better than this level I'm playing at, so let me go prove it."

When asked if he expected yet another uphill battle of the kind he had faced so many times before in basketball, Moneke said: "I'm in the NBA. Everything is going to be an uphill battle.

"My whole career has been an uphill battle, so why would I expect it to be any different when I get to the highest level in my profession?"