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Five Hour Commutes And 19th Century Literature: Tobe Awaka Is The SEC’s Most Intriguing Man

Photo by Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

To media and fans, Tennessee sophomore Tobe Awaka is soft spoken, thoughtful and bordering on shy. The first thing Awaka’s teammates say about him is that he’s funny. The second is that he’s smart.

Awaka is a different beast on the court, using every bit of his 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame to attack the glass with staggering fervor.

“It’s like an alter ego,” Tennessee assistant coach Rod Clark said.

“His intensity and his effort is not chill at all,” Tennessee Fellowship of Christian Athletes chaplain Chris Walker said. “In an instant he can turn it on and become this animal that you didn’t think was in there and that’s what you can love about him also, he can turn it off and be mellow when he goes to the bench and the game is over.”

There’s a drastic dichotomy between Awaka’s passions, but a striking similarity in how he attacks each. The split in Awaka’s demeanor on-and-off the court only scratches the surface of his intrigue.

Awaka The Renaissance Man

Basketball is not Tobe Awaka’s identity. It’s something he does, even loves, but it doesn’t define him.

“As far as we are concerned and he’s concerned, he has a lot to offer, right?” Tobe’s father Sunny told RTI. “So basketball just happens to be one of those because basketball is not even his best attribute. I think his best attribute is humanity, his intelligence in terms of academics and his determination to be the best of whatever he gets into.”

Sunny and Henrietta Awaka are Nigerian emigrants, moving to the United States a few years before Tobe’s birth.

Academics is the priority in the Awaka household. Sunny credits their heritage for the high academic standards. What the Awakas see as normal academic standards “might be seen as extra” in the United States. 

“They were always hard on the books, having good grades,” Tobe said of his parents. “If I didn’t have good grades I couldn’t play basketball.”

That was no problem for Tobe who readily embraced school and learning as a child. The oldest of four children, Tobe has always been mature.

“Because he had that natural instinct already he wasn’t really much of a problem,” Sunny said.

Tobe has always loved sports but reading has been one of his favorite hobbies since third grade.

“It’s like his passion,” Henrietta said. “He loves to read.”

For Tobe, books have been a common Christmas present his entire life. When he was younger, Tobe read a myriad of sports and motivational books with his repertoire and interests growing over time.

On Tennessee’s trip to Italy this August, Awaka read The Brothers Karamazov, a 19th century Russian novel which explores free will and morality.

The book choice says much about Awaka’s personality and interest. Tobe loves to learn and to constantly challenge and sharpen his brain. He laments his current hiatus from chess which he picked up during the pandemic and quickly realized he enjoyed because of the strategy aspect.

“I just try to find different avenues outside of basketball where I can kind of explore things of that nature,” Awaka said.

Awaka is majoring in Business Administration and minoring in Psychology. The sophomore is studying business for the practicality and long term advantages, but psychology is his true passion.

“Personally, I’ve always had an interest in reading, learning different perspectives,” Awaka said. “Learning different ideologies, theologies. Whatever you want to call it. I don’t know. I feel like if I don’t do that I’m being stagnant as a person and who I am. … I think trying to broaden your horizons as much as you can— I think that’s very important.” 

Religion has always captivated Awaka. He grew up going to John 3:16 Christian Center every Sunday and has been a Christian his entire life. Henrietta led Bible studies for her children growing up and remembers Tobe frequently asking questions and wanting to know more about his faith.

“I know that when he would ask me certain questions about God and fate, I would tell him to read it in the Bible,” Henrietta said. “I said that, when you read the Bible you can make certain judgments for yourself because you can read directly from the word of God. As he got older, he’s the type that thinks deeper.”

From the moment they met, Tennessee’s FCS Chaplain Chris Walker knew Awaka was different.

“From the first word he spoke. It was just like the conversation that we were having was not like he was a freshman,” Walker said. “It’s an old soul as well. You feel like you’re talking to someone that’s like me, 34, or older.”

Awaka has a nuanced knowledge of Christianity. He grew up in a Pentecostal church and went to a Catholic high school for all four years. The Hyde Park, New York native is intellectual and inquisitive in how he approaches his faith. He’s extremely focused on understanding concepts and theories, and how they connect to other religions fascinates him.

“I don’t think the application is hard for him,” Walker said. “It’s like wrapping his mind around the legitimacy of it and once he gets that figured out it’s like cool, I get it. And then he just moves on.”

“I would say Jesus is definitely a model that’s always interested me,” Awaka said. “I feel like he’s sort of popped up in all sorts of different religions: Islam, Buddhism, things of that nature. His name definitely rings a bell in all circles. Sort of looking at who he was. What he preached and what he believed in. That’s definitely something that’s caught my eye.”

Tennessee’s basketball program is great for Awaka in that way. Awaka leans on Walker for knowledge and understanding— the two have plans to discuss C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which Awaka’s recently read— and he’s found community in a program with numerous believers and through FCA.

“I think a lot of the time when it comes to practicing your faith and things like that, you feel like you’re alone,” Awaka said. “You don’t have anyone that relates to you when it comes to your struggles and things of that nature but I think that being able to have people to go talk to when it comes to that, sort of build a community when it comes to that definitely helps.”

Awaka’s interests and cerebral nature make him one of the SEC’s most intriguing characters. But that doesn’t minimize his taxing and captivating basketball journey.

Photo by Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Awaka’s Meticulous And Daunting Path To The Present

Listen to Awaka talk about his interests outside of basketball long enough and you might underestimate his commitment and ambition in the game.

That would be ill-advised. Awaka’s basketball journey to Knoxville is one full of sacrifice and persistence. 

“He’s a hard working kid,” Henrietta said. “He’s very focused and he knows what he wants, what he doesn’t want.”

What Tobe wanted was to play big time college basketball.

Hyde Park isn’t a basketball hotbed and going to school there limited his opportunity for college exposure. So Awaka set his sights 85 miles south on New York City. He enrolled at Cardinal Hayes High School for Boys in the Bronx and committed to making the treacherous trek every day.

Awaka’s days started at 4 a.m.. He’d leave his Hyde Park home by 4:45 and make the 20 minute drive to Poughkeepsie in time to take the 5:10 train to Croton Harmon. There he’d catch a connecting train to Yankee-East 153rd Street in the Bronx. After a 10 minute walk from the 153rd Street station to Cardinal Hayes, Awaka’s daily two and a half hour commute to school was complete.

After school was basketball practice, weights and extra shooting before hopefully catching the 6:30 p.m. train to begin the journey back home. Awaka spent his four-plus hours on trains every day doing school work and making sure he was living up to his and his parents’ academic standards.

Awaka would arrive back home at 9:30 p.m. and was in bed by 10:30 p.m. on good days. Game days were worse with the high schooler not returning home until after midnight because the two trains home ran less frequently as the day waned. 

“Sometimes I’d get home at 2 a.m.,” Awaka said. “Then repeat (it again the next day).”

Sleep was negotiable for high school Awaka. Hard work was not. But college interest didn’t arrive early or often. COVID-19 shut down the world, including basketball, in the spring of Tobe’s sophomore year and limited Awaka’s college exposure.

“Everything was rushed,” Sunny said. “So I think that’s part of the reason why he wasn’t really well known.”

As the months of daily five hour commutes and six hour nights turned into years without significant college interest, Sunny questioned whether they were “doing the right thing” for their son.

But Tobe never wavered on the plan, plowing forward the same way he attacks a basketball bouncing off the rim: with conviction and decisiveness.

I felt like it was kind of something where if I quit I didn’t think I’d be able to live with myself just mentally, internally. Just that I knew I was going through something hard and I didn’t have the guts to stick it out,” Awaka said. “I also wanted to be a good example for my siblings. Show them that if you put in the work, you put in the time then anything is possible through any kind of adversity.”

As a post-COVID-19 upperclassman, Awaka’s basketball career further blossomed. He won New York Gatorade Player of the Year honors while leading Cardinal Hayes to New York State Catholic High School Association championships in both his junior and senior seasons.

Awaka was well known in New York basketball circles and college interest eventually arrived. It started with Ivy League schools, seemingly a perfect fit for an intellectual person from an academics-first family. 

“He wasn’t interested in going to Ivy League school,” Henrietta said.

“I was certainly blessed to get those caliber schools,” Tobe said. “Knowing how credible they are academically. Even sports wise. Those schools are no joke. I just felt like for me to sort of pursue my dreams in collegiate sports and professionally at the highest level— I felt like going to a bigger conference school would have done me a little bit more and got me ready for professional life. … I was always grateful for those offers that those schools gave me but internally I just wanted more for myself.”

Awaka’s basketball aspirations were bigger than the Ivy League and so was his belief in himself. That was important because the wait for big time college offers wasn’t over. The 6-foot-8 power forward played his last career game for Cardinal Hayes before those would come.

“He was kind of frustrated at the point he wasn’t getting the school that he wanted to go (to),” Henrietta said. “But being the type of person he is, he refused to accept anything less. He kept on working hard, he remained focused, and we kept on encouraging him.”

Playing for the same New Heights Lightning AAU team that Zakai Zeigler played on, Awaka’s performance at a NIKE EYBL tournament in Indianapolis finally earned him big time interest in the spring following his senior season.

Tennessee came calling first and Maryland, Pittsburgh and St. John’s joined the Vols as the only big six schools to offer 247sports’ 294th best prospect in the 2022 recruiting cycle. Awaka visited Tennessee and made up his mind soon after.

Awaka committed to play at Tennessee with his former AAU teammate and friend Zeigler in May and enrolled in July. It wasn’t too long before Tennessee realized they struck gold in The Empire State for the second straight year.

As a freshman, Awaka played just 10.3 minutes per game in a crowded front court. Like most big men, Awaka was raw with much to learn in his inaugural college season. One thing, however, was immediately apparent: Awaka is an elite rebounder.

Awaka is one of six freshmen since 2007 to post an OREB% greater than 18% and a DREB% greater than 20%. The rest of the list includes a Naismith Player of the Year and another All-American. Every player who returned to school for their second season at least earned First Team All-Conference honors in their career.

Entering his sophomore year, Awaka’s opportunities are more bountiful. Uros Plavsic moved on to professional basketball and Olivier Nkamhoua transferred this offseason, leaving Awaka and junior Jonas Aidoo as Tennessee’s primary post options.

Expectations are rising along with the opportunities. Awaka shined for Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer, averaging 11.6 points and 10.6 rebounds in seven games.

“His growth has been … it’s daunting in a great way,” Clark said. “He’s been really good.”

But there’s plenty more growing to do. Awaka rarely played the five-spot, particularly on the defensive end, as a freshman. With Tennessee playing more small-ball lineups this season, Awaka will almost exclusively play that spot.

The good news: Awaka has the perfect personality and mindset to take the lumps and constantly improve.

“As an athlete, you always have to be learning,” Walker, a former UT defensive lineman, said. “You’re always learning about the people that you’re playing or the position that you’re playing.”

In the short term, Awaka is integral to Tennessee’s success. But his intelligence and approach make Tennessee confident he’ll maximize his potential. If Awaka’s basketball journey to date is any indication— he will.

“I have no doubt he’s going to max out at what he has,” associate head coach Justin Gainey said. “Where does that mean he’ll end up? I don’t know. But I know that he will max out because he has the discipline. He’s a smart guy. He has a high IQ. All of that stuff, it matters. That’s stuff we evaluate as coaches as we go through this recruiting process. You talk about fit. That fits us.”

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