Basketball star finally finds home away from home at Paradise Honors


Jerry Iliya probably had no idea where Arizona was at this time three years ago, much less envisioned it as the first place he could truly call home in four years.

But after a bewildering journey from Nigeria to two schools in New York, a scuttled plan to play in Texas and the false promise of a local prep school plan, he found a most unlikely sense of community at Paradise Honors High School.

Now a senior, the 6-6 forward is in his second year of playing with the Panthers, the first time he’s played two straight years in the same place since loosely organized games back in Kaduna. And he’s starting to put the most difficult stretch of those years adrift behind him.

“At one point in my life I couldn’t feel like anywhere in particular I was living at was a home. I felt like after the next meal I was going to leave. The group home changed my life a lot. In Nigeria my parents were really poor but at least I had a home. The whole thing of coming to America to use my basketball ability to go to school for free changed because I was being treated like a commodity — like a goose you give something, they take something from you. Finally I can call this a home. I’m still in the process but I promise you it feels better now than before,” Iliya said.

Jerry played soccer growing up in Nigeria. He was born in Lagos but spent his formative years n the northwest Nigerian city of Kaduna.

Taller than his age group, his height was seen as a disadvantage by fellow young soccer players. Jerry decided to give basketball a try around 2012 and felt welcomed by other basketball players.

“People think Africa is one country and there’s lions walking on the streets. We have McDonalds in Nigeria and other African countries,” Iliya said. “The thing that is different here from where I’m from is opportunities that kids my age have here that they don’t in Nigeria. If you look at it, most African countries are really corrupt. Here you can go to school for free because of your talent. My country is not like that.”

Opportunity came knocking. A scout visited Nigeria and saw Iliya playing in 2016.

He believed Iliya could be a star and hold his own against the elite American prep players.

“He asked if I wanted to go to school for free in America. I went and talked to my parents. My parents never supported me playing basketball and had not seen me play. My dad didn’t agree with the offer but my mom said, ‘If he can do it, let him do it,’” Iliya said.

The connection was with Redemption Christian Academy near Albany, New York and Iliya quickly found that school was not what he thought it would be. He finished that first year at Our Savior Lutheran School in the Bronx.

Then a host family in Texas reached out. Jerry was sick of the cold in New York and decided to make the move. Our Savior held up his transfer, negating a move to Texas for the 2017-18 season.

“Then I heard about CGM Prep in Arizona. They said, ‘Oh Jerry, if you come to Arizona we’re gong to build this prep team around you. It’s a good opportunity for you.’

I didn’t really want to go to Arizona but they convinced me and I came. It wasn’t the way I thought it would be. It was shady and full of graffiti and stuff like that,” Iliya said. “One day I was in class and some people came in saying, ‘Jerry, I’m sorry can you come with us.’ The next thing I know, I’m in a group home because I was 16 then. We were a prep team and lived in an apartment. The ones that were 18 left before CPS came. Me, Roy (Eze) and Matur (Dhal) we ended up in a group home. I didn’t play for a whole year.”

It is easy to understand why Iliya does not have much to say about his time in a group home.

The trio lived in this group home in the Surprise area for nearly seven months, still traveling to Phoenix for school but not playing a game. A foster family in the area took them in.

Paradise Honors entered the picture with its emerging basketball program and, more importantly, a chance to provide a more permanent school environment

“The school was going to be stability for them. Jerry was looking at his fourth school in three years, Roy and Matur at the time had something similar,” Paradise Honors coach Zach Hettel said. “Jerry wanted that consistency. It’s hard when you’re dealing with NCAA Division I schools the more schools you have on your transcript and trying to get all that stuff.”

The coach quickly realized he had some unexpected connections to Iliya’s home through the program.

“Luckily we have a few Nigerian kids on our team. Those families have been great for Jerry. He gets homesick for the food and some of the moms will make him that food. In some ways it helped with being away from the country he lived in for so long,” Hettel said.

Dhal, Eze and Iliya quickly felt at home on the Panthers’ court. Iliya led the 2018-19 team in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per game, while the 6-10 sophomore Dhal was second at 11.1. Eze fit in at power forward.

“Early on it was a struggle, probably even more for Jerry than Roy and Matur. Roy and Matur hadn’t been though what Jerry was through before. It took Jerry a little time to trust me and see I wasn’t using him or see I didn’t see him as a stepping stone. A lot of preps are trying to grow their prep name. Whereas here, I’m here whether Jerry is or not. My future doesn’t depend on Jerry. Sometimes you find people that are using kids to advance themselves. Jerry was a little cautious of that,” Hettel said.

New to 3A, Paradise Honors developed a rivalry with Chandler Valley Christian. The teams split their regular season matchups and the Panthers won the region tournament title game 60-54.

Iliya could only watch these teams’ fourth showdown in the state semifinals. He was declared ineligible before the playoffs and Valley Christian won 67-52 en route to the 3A title.

Yet during the offseason, Iliya decided to stay at the school while Dhal and Eze moved to the new PHH Prep team in Phoenix — a squad formed by plucking players out of Valley high schools.

“All the schools I’ve been with, this is the least known for basketball. I didn’t want to come at first. But some things happen for a reason and God knows why I’m here today. I wouldn’t be who I am somewhere else,” Iliya said. “As time goes by I realize (Coach Hettel) means well. I sit down and compare him to the past coaches and schools — it’s a really good academic school — and I said I’m just going to stay here play basketball and go to school. Whatever comes out of it is what’s best for me.”

He said the school is like a family now and he embraces that. Iliya often works on his academics after school, and has found the staff and curriculum at Paradise Honors prepares him for college, rather than just focusing on him staying eligible.

Hettel said he has remained willing to support Iliya even if it meant him leaving Paradise Honors. He is not the only one on campus and that built a foundation of trust with a young man who had ample reasons to be distrustful.

“The same thing with the people at the school, who have tried to help Jerry for no other reason than to help Jerry,” Hettel said.

This season, Iliya has a very different role on a very different Panthers roster. 6-10 sophomore Logan Pohl is the only true post player seeing regular minutes, so at times Iliya is a de facto center while in other lineups he is an attacking wing.

On this team he defers more, and was third in scoring behind junior wing Wyatt Bell and junior point guard Jalen Scott before missing a couple games with a minor injury. Iliya has played big in the absence of his former teammates, leading the Panthers with 8.4 rebounds and two blocks per contest.

“He’s playing multiple spots. When we get a chance he plays on the wing but when we need him to, he plays inside. If anything it’s showing off his versatility,” Hettel said.

Iliya said he hopes his story can inspire people who have faced similar struggles.

He plans to wait until after the season to choose a college program. Houston Baptist, Montana State. Central Arkansas, Northern Colorado and Idaho have shown interest.

But first, Iliya wants to bring something back to his new home.

“Being the first captain of the team to win a state championship would be something I would never forget,” Iliya said.