Heading to Harvard: Chris Egi a success story both on and off the court

The second in a five-part series looking at some of Canada's top up-and-coming basketball talent.

The intense showdowns, as Chris Egi refers to them, started when he and his brother William were young.

Their family kept a Little Tikes basketball net in the basement and the Egi boys used it for games of one-on-one until they were old enough to start playing outside on a full-size hoop.

William, three years older, often got the best of his brother in those driveway battles. If they were to play today, however, Chris would likely have the competitive advantage.

The younger Egi, now 6-foot-9, has built up an impressive basketball resume over the past few years that includes playing for Canada’s under-16, under-17 and under-19 national teams. The 17-year-old also spent the last year honing his game at Montverde Academy, a private school in Florida, where he won a national championship in April.

“It’s really been a character building experience,” Chris Egi, a power forward from Markham, Ont., said of his season at Montverde during a recent phone interview. “From a basketball perspective, I’m not the best player here. When I first got here I don’t think I played very well at all, but as time progressed and I kept working and working [it got] to the point where I started getting serious minutes and I was helping contribute and holding my own in practice.”

That work ethic, which he says comes from his father Tony, who graduated high school at 16 before moving from Nigeria to Toronto where he now works as a land developer, has not only helped him find success on the court, but in the classroom as well.

Much like his brother, a sophomore at Princeton University, Chris is a high achiever. His 96 percent average along with his basketball abilities drew plenty of interest from colleges in the United States including NCAA basketball powerhouses like the University of Florida and the University of Connecticut, the 2014 national champions.

But growing up in a family where education was the number one priority, Chris has always had dreams of attending an Ivy League school. So when an offer from Harvard came, he couldn’t refuse it.

“I was just ecstatic,” Egi said about his reaction to first getting an offer from his dream school. “It was really just a validation for the hard work I put in all those years.

“When I was making my decision I was looking at myself as a well-rounded person. I think there’s the basketball side of me and then there’s another part of me and I wanted to make sure that both parts were getting the full experience.”

For Egi, academic success has always come naturally. His parents never pushed for high marks, yet they never had to worry about whether homework was being done, either.

“They just knew they had to do it,” their mother Christiana said before, much like Chris did, pointing the finger at her husband Tony as the person who set the example from when her children were young.

Basketball on the other hand has been a work in progress since Chris started playing competitively at 13 years old.

In the seventh grade he was a bench player at St. Andrews College, a private school in Aurora, Ont., just north of Toronto, and a year later he was cut by Team Ontario after just one tryout.

“[After being cut] he said to me ‘mom, next year I’m going to be the captain of Team Ontario,’” Christiana said.

In 2011 he not only made the team, he led them to a 15U boys national championship and was named tournament MVP.

“He’s just a fierce competitor who’s got an incredible work ethic,” said Roy Rana, who coached Chris with Canada’s junior men’s national team in 2013. “If you want to talk about high-motor guys, that’s Chris Egi.

“I think he’s going to be an all-star in the Ivy League.”

While Egi admits to having dreams of a pro basketball career, he understands his route to the NBA, if he ever gets there, is going to be different than other Canadian players like Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis – all of whom played one season in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

He foresees his path as being more similar to that of Melvin Ejim, the Iowa State graduate who many have pegged as a mid-to-late second-round pick in the upcoming draft.

The 23-year-old Toronto native played four years in the NCAA and was named Big 12 player of the year for the 2013-2014 season, while also maintaining an impressive 3.7 GPA.

“He’s a great guy and kind of like an inspiration to me because he focuses on academics and basketball and he’s a great player,” Egi said of Ejim. “So if I could be able to do something like he has it would obviously be awesome.”

He also knows there’s more to life than just basketball and says he’d love the opportunity to help out his mom, who runs a home in Scarborough that helps people living with Alzheimer’s disease, or perhaps start his own business.

Coach Rana has other ideas, though.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s prime minister of Canada one day, he’s just that type of kid,” Rana said.

Egi’s response: “I think I have to learn French first.”