By John "Woods" Armwood III
The New Jersey native, Ezinne Kalu, is a name many should know, however, many don’t. She’s flown under the radar for a while due to her lack of exposure. Kalu grew up in Newark, New Jersey, to be specific. Growing up she rarely played any sports nor was she interested in them initially. However, while she was in second grade many of her friends began to become more active. Ultimately, this led Kalu to pick up a basketball, and the rest is history. While most players who start out playing usually have a role model or someone they look up to. However, at that time there were limited women playing basketball. She relied on her friends to purely be her motivation to play and be good at the sport. Later, she was introduced to the WNBA and became familiar with and then modeled her game after theirs.
Kalu gladly admits her favorite part of the game and the part that came the most naturally to her was the defensive side of the ball. The defensive side of the ball is more about will and heart than it is about skill. Understanding her background and where she came from, Kalu loves to embrace the challenge. She emphasizes how much pride she took in being the scrappy junkyard dog player.
“I understood defense wasn’t about talent more than it was about will, grit, and heart,” Kalu stated. “I loved that part of the game because it was the part of the game where I can be the most effective. Potentially force players to alter their game.”
Advanced Basketball Years of Ezinne Kalu
As the years continued, she naturally became better at the game of basketball. She began modeling her game after the likes of the late great Kobe Bryant and current players like Kemba Walker. She enjoyed following Cappie Pondexter. Their games helped elevate her offensive skills as she admitted she focused primarily on defense growing up. Her development as a player came from playing with younger boys in her neighborhood at the parks and local gym. It forced her to become more physical and hone her skills.
She attended high school in Newark, New Jersey, at Science Park High School. There she proceeded to score 2,000 points and have her jersey retired while still playing. While she never won a championship throughout her high school career, she proved to be one of the best talents in the state. Later, she was awarded a scholarship to Savannah State University in Atlanta, Georgia which shaped her to be the player she is today.
“I was shocked that I was the first woman to ever score 2,000 points,” Kalu explained. “My mentality was to go hard every game no matter what. There was no way I could describe what I was feeling, however, it was unforgettable and an amazing experience.”
Kalu’s “Sh3GotGame” Moment
Kalu’s self-proclaimed greatest moment of her career is receiving that offer from Savannah State University. She was able to see her body of work finally come full circle and help her mother in a time of hardship. Prior to committing, Kalu understood her parents were not going to be able to afford college for a year, let alone four. She understood that she would have to carry her weight if she wanted to further her education. Kalu secured the offer and committed not even 48 hours later, this stuck with her, and that hunger and motivation carry her even to this day!
“Because of where we were from, my mother couldn't pay for school,” Kalu emphasized. “I enjoyed my visit, in fact, I had the time of my life. I finally saw all my hard work pay off.”
How Savannah State University Shaped Kalu’s Life
Being from Newark, New Jersey, the adaption of Kalu was vital for her growth. She adapted from being in an urban city she grew up in to quickly transitioning to a much bigger city and faster-paced environment. However, a part of her adapting was understanding she was surrounded by people who look and talk similarly to her. Kalu explains the experience opened her eyes to so much and empowered her in ways that if she hadn’t been a part of Savannah State University, she wouldn’t be the woman she is today.
“It humbled me because I realized how great I was, but I had to become even greater by being surrounded by other great and talented individuals,” Kalu explains.
She went on to find immense success in Georgia as she did in high school. She not only won the school's only National Championship, but she also scored another 2,000 points. Outside of her receiving the scholarship, her biggest accomplishment is being able to bring a MEAC championship home back to Georgia. This was her first title ever, so it meant more to her and her teammates than anything else. Due to her success, she began getting opportunities overseas to help contribute to the winning.
She explained that the style of play overseas is much different than here in the States. Kalu explains in-depth how these players move much more methodically and there is limited wasted movement amongst these players.
“I came here to score the ball and score the ball only,” Kalu stated. “However, these European movements were so methodical and had very limited wasted motion. I had to learn how to adapt and play against these girls and more importantly adjust. Once this was established, my game elevated to another level.”
Why Do They Call Kalu the “Nigerian Queen”?
One may think the nickname originates from some cool national team story. However, it doesn’t. In fact, it originated in college. Many recognized her but she wanted to become more accessible to people. Her first name, Ezinne, was a bit tough to pronounce and was unorthodox to the unfamiliar ear. She thought to herself, “how can I become easier and more accessible to people?”
Later, she came up with the Nigerian Queen and never looked back. This led to into her joining the National team for Nigeria. She’s recognized as the “Nigerian Queen'' amongst her peers and fans. In 2019, she played against the USA in the first matchup of the tournament. While losing a hard fought game, she emphasized how much they respected them after the game was over. Many of the other teams take those games personally because they believe they should be playing alongside the USA girls.
Leaving a Legacy Behind
Kalu expresses how grateful she is for the game of basketball and blessed for how much it’s changed her life. While the aging star remains capable of several good years of basketball, she still understands how important it is to cement a legacy. Kalu wants to be remembered as a HOFer whether it’s the state of New Jersey or her Alma Mater. Ultimately, her goal is to help build a facility for the city of Newark. She wishes to have a facility that allows the kids to be themselves while also having access to resources they normally wouldn't have.
“I want to give back to Newark, New Jersey, somehow,” Kalu expressed. “I would love to build a building for after-school programs because I want to have an impact on these athletes' lives. I want to be remembered as a person who gave 100% back to the game of basketball.”
Kalu, currently preparing for her life after basketball, has taken a liking to modeling, writing, producing, and cosmetics. In conclusion, when asked if there was any, was there any advice she would like to offer to any young boys or girls who may look up to her or resonate with her journey, she responded:
“To my young girls and boys, go hard at whatever you want to do. If you have a dream, fight for it. Always stay true to yourself and never compare your success to others on social media.”