Nigerian international student’s one shot at success

Senior Michael Tertsea recounts his struggles in Nigeria leading up to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play basketball in America

Senior Michael Tertsea prepares to shoot a free throw following his normal routine. Tertsea went from struggling to have food daily in Nigeria to now committing to play Division I basketball on a scholarship at Rhode island University.

Kishan Patel

Senior Michael Tertsea prepares to shoot a free throw following his normal routine. Tertsea went from struggling to have food daily in Nigeria to now committing to play Division I basketball on a scholarship at Rhode island University.


Barefoot, walking home after a pick-up soccer match played on a dirt street, the nine-year-old

Michael Tertsea notices the electricity is out once again in his village. Later that night at dinner, he watches his mother sacrifice her dinner for him so that he would not have to go to sleep on an empty stomach.

“Just everyday survival was hard. Seeing my mom go hungry for a day to feed me was a big struggle,” Tertsea said.

That is the cold hard truth of the now 6-foot-10-inch, Division 1 basketball commit to Rhode Island University. Growing up without a father, all the burden was put on Tertsea’s mother, his role-model and motivation. “My mom worked very hard for me, but getting money was hard,” Tertsea said.

Throughout his life, especially before coming to America, poverty has had a major impact on Tertsea. His home village of Benue, Nigeria, periodically went through times of no running water or electricity.

Coming from a family that barely got by, Tertsea’s mother placed a central emphasis on his education. “We didn’t really have money to spend, so the only way my mom bought something for me was if I really needed it for my education,” Tertsea said.

While working at the passport services, Tertsea’s mother met a basketball coach and arranged for the coach to meet her currently 6-foot-7-inch, 11-year-old son who boasted a 7-foot-5-inch wingspan. Impressed, the coach brought Tertsea out to watch a practice.

“I had no clue what [the basketball players] were doing. All my life I was used to soccer and using my feet,” Tertsea said. Handball was the closest sport he knew to basketball.

However, Tertsea saw this sport as an opportunity and started practicing at a local court, which required him to walk about the distance from JC to Fallston, according to Tertsea.

Five years later, he progressed and eventually, one day, received a call saying that he had earned a scholarship to play basketball in America.

That night, Tertsea was in tears. His mother told him that they didn’t have the funds necessary for Tertsea to get a visa. “She told me if I wanted to go to America, I would have to find the money myself,” Tertsea said. He tried asking his relatives, but no one had any extra money available.

Eventually, his mother gathered enough money. According to Tertsea, she told him this was the last of her money and if he didn’t take advantage of this opportunity now, she wouldn’t be able to save that much money again.

“It was hard. It reminds me to stay humble and always remember where I came from,” Tertsea said. “It’s taught me to never take anything for granted and be grateful.”



Looking over a crowd of a couple hundred students, Tertsea’s first thought was “Wow, so many white people.”

After a 28-hour flight, including a layover in Qatar, Tertsea entered a world he had never seen before. That plane ride would be his last from Nigeria, his home, and the last time he would see his mother for the remainder of high school.

Life was changing quickly for Tertsea. No longer could he speak in Tiv, his native language; no longer was taking notes with pen and paper the norm; and no longer was food the same meals he was used to at home. He had entered an entirely new and different life: the life of an American.

Tertsea came to high school not knowing anyone. He had never even met his coach, Tony Martin, until he came to America.

“The first time I saw Mike I said, ‘wow he’s tall,’” varsity basketball head coach Martin said.

Tertsea was in line for a major adjustment in life. Everyone noticed the new “gentle giant,” as Martin refers to him. “My first day was crazy. I had no idea schools had cafeterias. It was shocking to me,” Tertsea said.

However, the cafeteria wasn’t the only thing he had to adjust to. When Tertsea entered his first class, he couldn’t take a seat. He didn’t know how to sit in the western style desks. “I wasn’t accustomed to these types of desks. It was just different,” Tertsea said.

Additionally, he had never really used a computer before, unless it was to play simple games when he had the opportunity to play. According to him, typing was never a priority because he thought he would never need it. This made for a tough transition from a country that rarely had electricity for 24 consecutive hours to a school that prides itself on its use of technology in classrooms.

“[Mike] was always capable academically,” Martin said. “It was just a matter of getting used to the academic rigour of JC.”

Tertsea admits adjusting to the new lifestyle was hard. “My journey has taught me to take nothing for granted and no matter what you’ve been through in life, there’s someone up there watching, God,” Tertsea said.



Flying in the air, catching the ball, and slamming it into the net, Tertsea calmly rushes down to the other end of the court. A whole crowd yells and chants for him, every student goes crazy, all the parents are clapping, but Tertsea hears and sees nothing but what’s on the court.

“When I’m playing, all I’m focused on is winning,” Tertsea said.

However, making the highlight reel dunks didn’t come easy for Tertsea. Freshman year became a learning curve for him. Originally, he thought he’d come in as a freshman scoring 15 points a game.

Jumping into the air while being fouled, Tertsea attempts a lay up. Besides basketball, Tertsea has a passion for dancing, singing, and art.
Jumping into the air while being fouled, Tertsea attempts a lay up. Besides basketball, Tertsea has a passion for dancing, singing, and art.

Reality hit hard. “The first time coach [Martin] yelled at me I got into a shell. I was trying to play not to do anything wrong and wasn’t confident,” Tertsea said.

Eventually, he progressed into a more mature player. According to Martin, Tertsea has grown both on and off the court.

“He’s developed into a mature young man, who has grown from boy to man that is ready to take next step,” Martin said.

According to Tertsea, during game days it’s all business. He remembers his past and to take advantage of the opportunity he has. Although game days are serious, Tertsea has a fun, chill side to him as well.

“I don’t know how many people know these three things about Mike, but he is a talented dancer, has a beautiful singing voice, and has a passion for art,” Martin said.

Tertsea views dancing as a hobby, and if he didn’t have basketball he would pursue a dancing career. He models his dancing after the likes of Michael Jackson, Billy Jean, and his favorite style is robotic.

When he came to America, though, his priorities were clear: academics and basketball. It’s been four years since Tertsea has seen his mom and left Nigeria, but he hasn’t visited once. He hasn’t visited during the summers because he focuses on improving his basketball skills and plays AAU ball all summer.

He hopes to make it to the NBA one day and bring his mother over to America. “I make sure to talk to her at least once a week to tell her I’m okay, but I want to make it to the NBA and bring her here with me,” Tertsea said.

His work ethic combined with his natural talent led to him earning an offer and eventually committing to the Division I University of Rhode Island basketball program.

“I’m grateful for everything, and I’ll never forget where I came from and the struggles I grew up with,” Tertsea said. “JC and the basketball program here has done so much for me and I’m thankful.”

Kishan Patel is the Online Editor in Chief for The Patriot and