By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—Felicia Aiyeotan stared down with sunken, sullen eyes. She was 12 then and clearly didn’t want to be there. This was as foreign to her as stepping on Pluto. It’s why she gingerly approached, toeing the basketball court sideline as if she were about to dip her foot in a pool of steaming water.
She wasn’t ready then to embrace her unique quality. Nor was she ready to throw her arms around a game she felt thrust into. She was scared, so afraid that it caused tears to fall.
Now fast forward to an early, frigid January night in the bandbox gym at Neumann-Goretti (Philadelphia). Aiyeotan wore that same glum expression sitting behind the Saints’ bench. Tears were about to come streaming down again, it seemed. Though this time, not because Felicia was being shoved into something she didn’t want to do.
To the contrary, Aiyeotan wanted to be on the court. She wanted to show her dominance.
That ascendance is yet to come, but all the moving parts and the framework are in place. Aiyeotan is athletic. She’s quick, coordinated and a fast learner. And she’s also a towering, legitimate 6-foot-9.
Aiyeotan is one of the world’s tallest teenage girls. What’s more, she is the sophomore center for the Neumann-Goretti Saints, the No. 9 team in the country that has blown by every team it has faced this season.
The 16-year-old from Lagos, Nigeria, has accepted her height. She gets stopped regularly everywhere she goes to take pictures and sign autographs. And everyone she meets has the same reaction: They can’t believe that she’s only 16 — and still just learning the game of basketball.
They think she’s in the WNBA or plays for a major college program. That may come.
For now, she’s light years from the girl who feared basketball when she was first exposed to it as a 6-5, 12-year-old in Africa. She’s blossomed into someone who yearns to play. She was forced to watch a handful of games from the Saints’ bench in January recovering from a knee injury — and missed being on the court with her team so much that it hurt.
Felicia, or “Fefe,” as her teammates call her, used to walk hunched over, to make herself appear shorter. She was once too afraid to extend her arms, so she could make herself smaller. Once at a birthday party in Lagos, a woman berated Felicia for stalking the 12-year-olds there.
The woman at the party thought Felicia was an adult. She couldn’t believe it when Felicia told her she was 10. Aiyeotan was also 6-foot and taller than everyone there.
Where she was mocked as a child, Aiyeotan is becoming a budding national celebrity in Nigeria.
“Felicia’s changed so much from the girl I first met to being almost a completely different person today,” said Mobolaji Akiode, who played for Fordham, came from Nigeria and discovered Aiyeotan. Akiode is the founder of Hope for Girls Africa, a nonprofit intended to aid underprivileged African girls find greater opportunities through sports.
It was at one of Akiode’s Nigerian camps that Felicia was first exposed to basketball. But she was too timid to step on the court. That changed by the second camp and continues to progress.
“Felicia was 6-5 when she was 12,” Akiode recalled. “There were girls there of every level and that was Felicia’s first time she was exposed to basketball. I had to push her onto the court. She was in tears. She was that scared. I told her she wasn’t going to be there for an entire week and not learn and participate. When I first met Felicia, she tried to make herself small. She wasn’t confident and she tried to shrink away from everything. Catching her so young, I think, really helped her.”
If Aiyeotan was going to get any chance to use basketball as an outlet, Akiode knew, she would have to do it in the United States. Akiode has a relationship with Philadelphia Belles AAU coach Mike Flynn, who recommended Neumann-Goretti.
The Saints are 18-0 overall — the best start in school history. Coach Letty Santarelli, formerly Letty Huntzman, was a Division II All-American at Immaculata University and 1982 Cardinal O’Hara grad. She has done a remarkable job in rebuilding the program.
Santarelli succeeded with players like Aiyeotan, but she also has perhaps the most talented player in the state in pint-sized 5-2 dynamo junior point guard Ciani Cryor, who reminds some in the Philadelphia area of all-time great and former U.S. Olympian Dawn Staley.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.