Listen carefully as Micheal Anumba speaks and you can hear the different cultures that have shaped him, layered over top of each other.
He speaks quickly in a deep voice with a British accent that barely shrouds 15 years of speaking Italian. Anumba can be difficult to understand at times. When the freshman’s Winthrop basketball teammates first met him, some joked that he sounded like a secret agent.
Five years ago, Anumba didn’t speak English. Now he’s a Division I college basketball player in America.
He grew up in Italy with Nigerian parents, who moved the family to England in 2015. He’s a melting pot of influences, but none have been greater than his parents, Simon and Georgia.
“You look at the Anumba household and it’s two phenomenal parents that love their child like they love to breathe,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
To understand why Winthrop coaches have such high hopes for Anumba as a person and basketball player, get to know his parents. Their story is about migration, struggle, sacrifice, isolation and togetherness, doubt and strength.
Simon and Georgia met in Nigeria in the 1980s, but spent the next 10 years apart after Georgia moved to Italy as a 15-year old. She and Simon kept in contact, as much as was possible in the early 1990s. Before a Winthrop game in January, Simon opened his wallet and pulled out a plastic pouch that contained a carefully folded, tattered and yellowed piece of paper. It was a letter from Georgia to Simon, one of the many they sent to each other during their 10 years apart.
Simon quickly dissipated the emotion of the moment with a joke.
“It was an application,” he explained. “I had so many girls coming after me that she used to write applications.”
“Stop!” Georgia shouted, smacking Simon’s arm as he giggled.
Simon and Georgia were finally reunited in Italy in 1997 and wed soon after. Like any parents, Simon and Georgia have special relationships with each of their three children, Simon Jr., Luce and Micheal. The connection with Micheal, the youngest, almost didn’t happen at all. His Nigerian middle name, Chukwudelu, means “destiny’s child.”
“When she was pregnant, to eat used to be a problem,” Simon said. “And I would say to her to terminate the pregnancy. We nearly separated. And she said no.”
They were living in a single room in Italy, with no toilet, no kitchen, the two older kids and the two parents. Simon didn’t see how they could afford to have a third baby.
“And really, I was wrong,” Simon said. “She was right.”
There was struggle for the Anumbas, plenty of it. But they worked hard to create a life in Italy for their three children.
“I say thank God for giving us the energy and the strength,” said Simon, “and for really sustaining us. Without God we cannot achieve anything.”
A P.E. teacher contacted Simon to ask if his son, Simon Jr., could play on the teacher’s basketball team. Five-year old Micheal later followed his big brother into a love affair with the game. Their father wanted them to play soccer, but “Ball is life” was written on the wall of their room as children. Ball, as in basketball.
The parents did whatever was necessary for their kids. Georgia worked as an assistant nurse but the family needed someone to squire the three athletic kids around Italy. Georgia quit her job, eventually opening a fashion boutique so that she had schedule flexibility.
“They did an amazing job making sure our lives would be better than theirs, better than what they had in Nigeria,” Anumba said. “My childhood growing up in Italy, it was amazing. Even if they were struggling they did a good job of kind of hiding it, to make me enjoy my childhood.”
Micheal and Simon continued to improve as basketball prospects and their parents decided to move to England. They wanted their kids to learn English and go to college in America. That wouldn’t be as easy in the Italian set-up, which geared all youth sports development toward turning professional. Coaches in Italy didn’t focus on helping their teenaged prospects become NCAA eligible.
Micheal, Simon Jr. and their sister, Luce, didn’t speak English while living in Italy. Their parents practiced English with them at home when they were children but a teacher asked them to stop because the children were confusing languages at school. So when they moved to England in 2015 they had to relearn English.
The sudden change was intense and Anumba was depressed and mopey. He eventually realized how much his parents had done for him, the sacrifices they had made leaving behind a comfortable life in Italy. Just for him and his siblings.
“After that I was like, let me live in the present,” he said. “I just started focusing on my basketball and off the court. I lived in Italy for 15 years, I lived in England for three years and I loved my England life more than my Italian life.”
While Anumba became the top prospect in England for his age group, his Manchester Magic club coaches helped him get sorted out school-wise with the NCAA and become a college basketball recruit over the next few years.
“If I didn’t move to England, I would not be here right now,” he said.
Just the appetizer
Winthrop assistant coach Brian Kloman discovered Anumba on the final day of his 2017 European recruiting trip. He fell in love with a relatively unknown prospect that already possessed a great physique, a diverse set of skills and an assassin’s calm demeanor.
Mike Howland was the next Winthrop assistant to check on Anumba. His flight to England to watch Anumba play in person was canceled by a Boston snowstorm. Howland watched the game… on his computer in a hotel room. He eventually made it to England and saw Anumba perform.
“I saw a kid that was just different than any kid we’ve had here at Winthrop, in my tenure,” said Howland. “Big, physical wing, 6-5, high I.Q., just saw a different type of talent when I was watching him.”
Howland also met the Anumba family during the visit to England.
“They were unbelievable,” Howland said. “I was at their house for, like, four hours. His mom put 10 pounds on me. I thought we were done with dinner and we had just gotten done with the appetizer.
“Unbelievably great people.”
It was too late in the recruiting process for Simon to get NCAA eligible. He’s playing professional ball in Italy, but his dream was to play American college basketball. When Micheal signed with Winthrop, he felt like he was fulfilling his older brother’s dream too. He was also fulfilling his parents’ dream.
“I trust God in everything,” Georgia said in early February. “I don’t call myself religious, but I call myself spiritual. When you know who you are and what you want in life, you can work towards it.”
Only one Winthrop freshman basketball player has started every game in his rookie season, Hall of Fame point guard Chris Gaynor. He started all 33 games during the 2004-05 season, and actually never missed a single one of the 129 games he played in during his sparkling Winthrop career.
Anumba had started all 27 games this season, until Saturday when Winthrop’s five seniors started against Charleston Southern.
“He’s reliable, we trust him,” said Winthrop senior Jermaine Ukaegbu, who shares Nigerian heritage with Anumba. “We trust Mike on the court, regardless of his past, his age. We know he’s really smart and knows what to do.”
Anumba is a capable offensive creator and a strong rebounder already, but Kelsey thinks he can become one of Winthrop’s all-time great defenders. Former Eagle Mantoris Robinson, famous for shutting down Steph Curry during a 2008 game, is the gold standard, but Kelsey thinks Anumba, who was heavily recruited by Davidson College, could come close. Anumba has more than just the physical gifts to play great defense.
“It’s hard to find this out in recruiting because you just don’t know how kids are gonna adapt to how in-depth scouting reports are and the detail that we go into in teaching advanced basketball concepts,” said Kelsey, “and Mike is very, very advanced basketball thinker. He understands concepts from Day 1. He’s very perceptive, very good awareness. That alone is probably the biggest reason he’s started every game this year. Because I trusted him.”
Everyone interviewed in this story agreed that the missing part of Anumba’s game is a consistent outside shot. He’s shooting 26 percent from 3-point range but the closer he can nudge that percentage toward 35, the more complete player he becomes. Asked how many shots Anumba will shoot this offseason, Howland didn’t hesitate: “One million,” he said, laughing. “One million.”
A better Micheal
There is zero doubt from the Winthrop coaching staff that Anumba will put in the work to enhance his shooting and become a potential all-conference-level player for the Eagles.
“I just knew from meeting his family and hearing them talk about Mike and their older son, that his work ethic was gonna be there,” said Howland. “You have to be able to decipher in recruiting, ‘is he a gym guy? Is he a guy that’s gonna get here and want to get better?’ Because those are the guys that become great, the guys we want in our program.”
Anumba arrived in Rock Hill with the chiseled physique of an older player and he’s already packed on 15 new muscle pounds. He was mentally ready for the American transition, too.
“I knew I was going to feel the same way I felt moving from Italy,” said the finance major. “I just feel like this is all for me, for a better future, a better Micheal in the future.”
He comes from a family that’s used to big transitions, that will do what it takes to get better, to create opportunity. A family whose willingness to sacrifice is embodied by a fragile 30-year old “application” that Simon Anumba carries around in his wallet.
“It just shows how much they love each other,” Micheal Anumba said of his parents. “It also shows how they raised us, so much love in the family, so united. I’d do anything just to see my mom and dad smile. It just shows how much love they put into us.”
Micheal Anumba learned long before his own big move across the Atlantic Ocean to Winthrop that improvement often requires sacrifice. And that love and commitment make it easier.