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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Onobun a fighter for life

    Things don’t always happen according to plan, but you’ve got to fight on.

    Nobody knows this better than Fendi Onobun, who never thought he’d struggle in college with the game he loved so much in high school.

    After all, in his early days at Alief Taylor High School in Houston, some recruiting experts pegged him as the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2005. He joined the Arizona basketball program as a four-star recruit and the No. 27 player nationally in his class.

    Then again, with just one game left to be played in McKale Center, the senior thought he’d have a more productive Division I career.

    “”Everyone struggles, everyone has a story, everyone has problems,”” Onobun said, “”but you’ve got to fight through it. You can’t go on without a fight.””

    This is the way James Onobun taught his son to view life on and off the court. You’ve got to fight on and know that everything happens for a reason.

    Like when James and Jolene decided to get a divorce when Fendi was in grade school.

    “”That was pretty devastating,”” Fendi said. “”I wasn’t going to have a mom anymore. I was 6 or 7 years old and I see my parents and then bam, she’s gone.””

    The separation ate at Onobun constantly. He’d see his friends with both of their parents together and think about the split between his.

    But even as a child, Fendi knew he had to press on in life.

    “”There’s always a great plan,”” he said. “”There’s always a reason why something happens. That’s the way (my dad) raised me. He also raised me never to be a quitter.””

    The latter stayed engrained on his mind throughout college.

    Onobun came to Arizona as a product of the Houston Hoops program, which was run by Hal Pastner, the father of former UA assistant coach and player Josh Pastner. When Onobun became a Wildcat, the game suddenly became quicker. But he was open to learning and he gave his best all the time.

    After missing 16 games his freshman season, Onobun selfishly came out of his redshirt to play against Stanford in January 2006. Jesus Verdejo transfered to South Florida, Jawann McClellan was out for the season with a wrist injury and Chris Rodgers had been dismissed from the team. The Wildcats needed him.

    Onobun came in for 13 minutes and contributed 6 points on 3-for-4 shooting to go with a pair of rebounds. It was one of the best games of his career.

    “”It was crazy. It came from nowhere,”” he said. “”From redshirt, you’re not playing this year, to getting thrown in the heat. … That’s the one that I won’t forget.””

    Things didn’t get better, though. In his first three seasons with the Wildcats, he played in just 51 of 98 games because of injuries and close competition within the team.

    He was voted the most improved player on the team after his freshman year, but with such a stacked team his sophomore year, he played 60 total minutes.

    “”It was almost like I had a permanent seat on that bench,”” the 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward said. “”That’s when I started questioning, like, should I be here?””

    Once again, James Onobun’s words were the ones that trickled into Fendi’s ears and massaged his brain. He told his son this was the decision he made and he didn’t want him to quit. He wanted him to keep fighting.

    Junior year came and Lute Olson left. Onobun still struggled with an internal transfer battle, but he wasn’t alone.

    “”There were a lot of guys that wanted to take off,”” he said. “”And there were guys that could have taken off, but they didn’t because of Coach O. A lot of guys come here because Coach O puts guys in the (NBA) league or gives their best opportunity. With him leaving and then coming back and then leaving again, that was hard for a lot of guys.

    “”But that’s life,”” he added, “”and you’ve got to fight through it.””

    About a week after Russ Pennell was named the team’s interim head coach following Olson’s retirement in October, Onobun visited his third coach in four years in his office. The two hit it off instantly.

    Pennell helped Onobun realize his role as a senior leader.

    “”The team leader doesn’t always have to be the guy who scores the most points or the guy who gets all the attention,”” Onobun said. “”A team leader can also be a glue guy who keeps the team together, who is there for the first person all the way down to the last person, no matter who you are.””

    Added junior Nic Wise: “”He’s been a great morale guy. He plays hard everyday in practice. He makes sure we know what we’re supposed to be doing. He’s our senior leader.””

    In turn, Onobun was a source of encouragement for Pennell, a coach fresh out of the AAU circuit. Throughout the season they were able to console each other and have sacred conversations.

    Religion was the most significant topic in Onobun’s eyes. Pennell is the one Onobun got the OK from to change his jersey number to 1, as he decided to play for an audience of one – God.

    “”He’s somebody you can cling onto, somebody you can have something in common with about your faith,”” Onobun said of Pennell. “”There have been some rough times as a senior where I’ve been able to go into his office and we’d have a conversation and it wouldn’t even be about basketball.””

    It was almost like Onobun had his father in Tucson to give him advice about pushing forward through rough times.

    “”Fendi sees the big picture in life, and that’s the way I try to look at things,”” Pennell said. “”There are reasons things happen, and sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad, but they usually all work out for the best.””

    After Onobun graduates in May with an interdisciplinary studies major – emphasizing business, marketing, communications and African-American studies – he’ll be faced with the task of finding a job. Maybe his internship with the Phoenix Suns from last summer will help land him a job in the NBA with basketball operations or the corporate world. Maybe he’ll play ball overseas.

    Maybe, with his newly developed passion for young people, he’ll become a motivational speaker, letting them know they can do anything they set their mind to.

    “”Look at our president,”” Onobun said. “”I think having Barack Obama as our president just elevated many young African-American kids in our country and letting them know, ‘Hey, you can be whatever you want to be.'””

    Whichever path Onobun decides to go down after he graduates, he won’t leave any regrets about the past.

    “”That’s just my nature, that’s the way my father raised me,”” he said. “”That’s why I don’t have one disappointment in my career here, because I know I gave this program my all.””

    The true words of a fighter.

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