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Caleb Agada's Sliding Doors Moment

Written for nbl.com.au by Tom Hersz

 Does everything happen for a reason? It depends who you ask, but it would certainly appear that way for Caleb Agada.

The newest Melbourne United import, who arrived in Melbourne last week, almost never pursued basketball. Growing up in Canada, Agada played several sports; soccer, hockey, football and basketball, but football was his passion.

After getting 68 per cent on a science test in high school, Agada’s mother, who valued education above everything else, made a deal with him. Maintain your studies and don’t get less than 70 per cent on any test, or you’ll have to choose just one sport to play going forward.

**

Born in Nigeria in 1994, Agada’s father passed away when he was just three weeks old. He and his older sister were raised by their mum. However, she sought a better life for her young family and made a huge sacrifice to pursue that goal.

In 1998, Agada’s mother left him and his sister behind in Nigeria with family, while she went to Canada to find a job and establish a life there. In 2000, she came back for her children and moved them over.

“My Mum did an amazing job providing for me and my sister,” Agada told NBL Media.

“Being a single parent, a single immigrant coming from Nigeria and raising us, she did the best job that she could. And I think everything that I have and everything that I have accomplished is a reflection of how she raised me and everything she did to make me become the success that I am. So, everything in my childhood, I appreciate.”

His mother immersed Caleb into everything Canadian life could offer a young boy and that included a number of sports programs at the local YMCA.

“That’s when I learned about sports,” he recalled.

“I was playing basketball, soccer, football, hockey. Everything I could do, I was in there doing and it was a really good outlet for me. It kept me out of trouble. After I fell in love with sports, I just never stopped playing.”

But Agada’s mother valued education much more than sports.

“Growing up, especially as immigrants coming from a third world country, one of the things we don’t have in those third world countries is access to education and access to the types of resources that we have in these western societies,” explained Agada.

“So, when immigrant parents come, it’s like ‘we have to take advantage of the things we didn’t have’, which is education. And that’s how my Mum was.

“When I was playing basketball, my mum liked it because it kept me out of trouble, but at the same time, she hated it because it took away from my schooling and my grades kind of suffered a little bit.

“She would never let it slide though. I remember growing up, I would always have to either miss practices, quit teams or this and that because I was slacking in school or not doing what I had to do.”

And that takes us back to that science test and the ultimatum Agada’s mother gave him.

After telling him he needed to get at least 70 per cent on his tests going forward, Agada got another 68 per cent on a test in the middle of the football season. His mum naturally told him ‘Ok, you’ve got to make that choice now. Pick a sport and then focus on school.’

“I used to love football a lot, but it was coming to the end [of the season] and basketball season hadn’t started yet,” Agada said.

“So, because I loved being active so much, I was like ‘let me put this football aside. I’ll get to play a full basketball season and then maybe next year I’ll come back and figure it out, get my grades up.’

“So, I ended up quitting the football team, just working on my grades until basketball started and then just playing basketball. And then after that, it was just basketball and school and that was basically what drove me and pushed me directly into basketball.”

If not for that test and having to pick just one sport, plus the timing of the sporting seasons when that choice had to be made, Agada may never have pursued basketball seriously.

It’s quite the sliding doors moment and football’s loss became basketball’s – and now Melbourne United’s – gain.

“What that did for me, it taught me how to work for this game and work hard, because as much as I’d be working in school to try and be able to play because of my mum, I’d also take that passion and that work ethic into basketball to make sure that I’m not just doing this for no reason,” reflected Agada.

“Because if it can be taken away at any point, I want to give it my all and be the best that I can be. It was definitely tough at the time, but I’m so grateful for it now because it did teach me a lot of lessons that I still have today and definitely have influenced where I am today.”

Where he is today is a highly successful professional basketball player. After completing a successful college career at Ottawa University, where his mum finally accepted that basketball had been worth pursuing, Agada turned pro. He’s since spent time in Canada, Spain and Israel before signing with Melbourne United.

And before he arrived in Melbourne, Agada had a busy off-season. First, he represented Nigeria at the Tokyo Olympics, where he faced new teammates Chris Goulding and Matthew Dellavedova.

From Tokyo, he travelled to Las Vegas where he suited up for the Denver Nuggets at the NBA Summer League. Agada had a strong showing there, averaging 11.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.2 steals, while hitting 44.4 per cent from long range in just under 20 minutes per game.

“Summer League was good,” Agada said.

“For me, it was a little bit difficult navigating though it being an older guy, a more established professional playing with younger guys who are trying to climb the ranks in the NBA. One thing that I definitely took away is just to stay consistent in my work ethic. Just keep going, keep moving at the pace that I’m moving.

“I’ve definitely come a long way, but I’ve got to keep going because there are so many other people who are passionate and love this game too. I’m not the only one working, so I have to respect the game, the same way everybody else has respected it and appreciate what it’s done for me and just continue being loyal to it, being consistent and keep putting in the same work.”

As exciting an opportunity as that was, the Olympics is something he will always cherish.  

“That meant the world to me,” he acknowledged.

“That was an amazing experience. Especially just with where I come from and the journey and everywhere it’s taken me, to really represent it and have it go back to my family in Nigeria, having people call my Mum to tell her your son is representing us. That was big.

“Even now, it’s one of those things I hold really dear to my heart because it’s been such a crazy journey and I know my Mum is proud. She never really thought this [basketball] was the thing for me and I’ve taken it so far to the point where our whole family has recognition in Nigeria because of it. It’s something that I’m so proud of.”

Agada arrived in Melbourne last week and got straight to work with his new teammates at Hoop City where United now practices. Seeing Goulding and Dellavedova, who were part of a Boomers team that defeated the Nigerian D’Tigers in Tokyo, Agada had nothing but love for his new teammates. He’s had a lot of time to let the disappointment of Nigeria’s winless campaign dissipate and he was happy to see them and get started with Melbourne.

His opportunity with United had nothing to do with playing against Goulding and Dellavedova in Tokyo though. There was no recruitment speech from CG43 as Agada wasn’t even on their radar pre Tokyo.

“It was coincidental,” Agada admitted.

“My agent – I actually had to switch agents after my year in Israel – he got me into the whole NBA scene and the Olympics, and my name grew a little bit. And then he was able to connect with Melbourne. He told me that they were interested, that they liked me, that they wanted me. Then Dean reached out and I had a good conversation with him and I felt very comfortable and I just felt like it was the best fit for me.”

Agada did get some advice from one of his Nigerian teammates though. Chima Moneke, who was in the Nigerian squad in Las Vegas before Tokyo, grew up in Australia and was set to play for the South East Melbourne Phoenix in their inaugural season in NBL20, but could not secure Australian citizenship in time, so was not able to sign as a local.

He’s been playing in Europe since then, but Moneke knows a lot about Australian basketball and the NBL, so naturally Agada reached out when the opportunity with Melbourne arose.

“Yeah, Chima’s my guy,” Agada explained.

“Before I signed, I hit him up and told him that I was interested and he told me nothing but good things about Australia. He told me I was going to love it here, he told me they’re super professional, he told me it’s somewhere he’s trying to be in the future.

“He was nothing but supportive, he was super helpful, he gave me his family member’s number who is still here so I can contact them, and he just made me as comfortable as possible in coming here. So that’s my guy, Chima man.”

Agada heeded Moneke’s advice and signed on with Melbourne United for NBL22 and he’s excited about it. He knows it’s a tough league. He knows it’s not a cupcake league, but that’s a big part of the appeal for him.

Agada is a strong wing player who strives by getting into the paint, creating for others or himself, getting on the boards and pushing in transition. But where he really prides himself and where he thinks he can make the biggest impact, is on the defensive end of the court. And that is why he believes he’s such a good fit with United who have been one of the best defensive teams in the league under Dean Vickerman.

“I think my game fits well,” Agada said of both Melbourne and the NBL.

“From what Dean and the club has told me, they want me to defend and then offensively just do what I do. And I feel like that’s the perfect role for me. Growing up through my whole basketball journey, where I find myself most comfortable is defensively being on the ball, making plays, getting steals. I feel like that’s the main thing in my game. Everything else has developed over the years, but the defence has been my anchor.

“And I know Melbourne is all about defence. When I came here, my first practice, seeing that, I’m not going to lie, I got caught a little bit off guard because they were so good defensively. And usually that’s something that doesn’t happen to me.

“But it was extremely exciting seeing that; it’s not like that in most places, especially overseas, so coming in and kind of being caught off guard defensively, it really motivated me and got me excited to get better, and strive and grow with the team in that aspect.

“But, in terms of the league, I feel like I can fit well in the league and do what I need to do. I feel like I can help Melbourne chase that championship this year.”

When asked about how he can best help this United team in terms of how they play, Agada expanded further on where he expects to make an impact.

“The No.1 thing which is the best thing, I feel like, is defensively,” he added.

“That’s what everybody’s come and told me. We need to defend, we need to defend. For me, that’s music to my ears, that’s what I like to do.

“And then they just told me ‘you have the freedom to do your thing.’ They know that my game, there’s a lot transition, catch and go, get into the paint, kick, make plays. Just kind of play my type of game. They give me the freedom to do that, make those type of plays and then trust in my decision making, which I appreciate a lot.

“So, the defence is first and to lock in and be completely 100% locked in with the team defensively, and then just be that type of player who can make plays down the stretch, and get the offence going if we’re stuck or anything.”

Agada has only been in Melbourne for just over a week, but already feels part of the club and what they’re about. He’s well aware that as the reigning champs, the only focus for this group is to defend that title.

And while the roster may look different, with the likes of Jock Landale, Mitch McCarron and Scotty Hopson gone, this group that has added Dellavedova, Brad Newley, Agada and will get Jack White back at some point, is about being championship quality and trying to repeat.

Agada had a taste of NBA Summer League this year, but he’s not here to use the NBL as a springboard to an NBA contract. He’s here because he felt it was the best fit for him right now and because he wants to win.

“One thing I’ve learned is not to focus on too many things at the same time,” explained Agada.

“I’ve gone through my career just coming into the situation I’m in, dealing with the situation and then moving forward to see what the next situation may be. So right now, the talk about this team in the locker room and in the organisation is back-to-back, and that’s all I’m for right now. That’s the only thing I’m locked into.

“I want to be the best player that I can be for myself and for the organisation, and win a championship. I haven’t won a championship out here. I don’t want to be one of those guys that plays his whole career without any kind of hardware; any kind of championship. So, I know that this is the club for it.

“The energy, the coaches, the players, the whole atmosphere – everything is championship calibre. Just walking in, it’s so different from any other team I’ve played with. It’s amazing and I’m so happy to be here and I’m so excited to grow and start this journey with this group of guys.”

For someone who almost never had a basketball journey at all, Agada is certainly making the most of his. After all, everything happens for a reason, right?

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