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.’