NEW CANAAN -- As Ami Lakoju sat in the center of the very basketball court that has allowed him to continue playing the game he loves at the next level, he couldn't help but reminisce about the unique journey he's taken to get there.
"(St. Luke's) was an hour and a half away from my house (in Harlem) and coach didn't think the commute would be necessary, so he set up the family for me to stay with which happened to be the captain of the basketball team, Sean Cullinane," Lakoju said. "There are a lot of social differences, honestly, but you've got to think about your future and that's what it comes down to."
Flanked by his parents, teammates, coaches, classmates and fans while sporting a Fairfield University cap, the Storm's center made it official, signing his Letter of Intent to play Division-I hoops Thursday afternoon at St. Luke's School.
"It's a blessing, honestly. I put in a lot of work over the summer and during last school year," Lakoju said. "There's been a lot of support regarding this program, and I'm really happy to be a part of this. It's not just me. I got a lot of help to get to where I am today and I'm happy."
After growing up in Harlem, NY, Lakoju moved to New Canaan where he lives with the family of basketball teammate Sean Cullinane, thus allowing him to be closer to the school he goes to and become acclimated with the New Canaan community.
"He had been in touch with admissions and coach K and they were looking for a family to host him for two years, so the coach called us and asked if we'd be interested," said Stephanie Cullinane, Lakoju's host parent who has also hosted foreign exchange students. "We had room to bring him in and we were interested in doing that."
Cullinane embraces the uniqueness of watching her son and Lakoju play basketball together.
"It's very fun watching them play. We could not be more thrilled for him. It's a great school for him, it's an incredible opportunity to be given a full ride," Lakoju said. "It's a great school and we're excited we'll be close enough to watch some of his games. We're thrilled for him and his family."
Lakoju admitted that he gave at least some consideration to other colleges, but Fairfield University was always his top choice, especially given its close distance to home and emphasis on academics as well as athletics.
"I had other schools. I don't really see the reason to list them now, but I had other schools and I just felt like the presence of Fairfield was strong," said Lakoju, who plans on majoring in business. "They talked about what an opportunity it would be for me to enter those doors and be part of that community and that community."
St. Luke's basketball coach Brian Kriftcher indicated that he was immediately impressed by Lakoju, not just in his basketball prowess, but by the way his star center carries himself both on and off the court as well as his positive influence on teammates.
"What really rang out to me was how good a kid he was and how positive of a young man he was," Kriftcher said. "I think coming into this year he's a tremendous influence. Today is a testament as to what happens with hard work. I think last year he wasn't where he is now."
While his impact as a freshman member of the Fairfield University Stags is yet to be seen, Lakoju plans to embrace whatever role he's given.
"Really I'm there to learn, but honestly I think I can keep rebounding, get a lot of blocked shots and be a height man and get a lot of defensive stops," Lakoju said. "If he gives me the chance to even score a couple buckets -- it all depends on what he wants me to do, but I'll see where I fit in."
First things first, however. Lakoju still has his senior basketball season as a key member of the St. Luke's Storm to look forward to. The Storm finished last season with a record of 5-11, but he believes they have the pieces in place to turn things around in 2013.
His scholarship to Fairfield University is hardly likely to change anything about the way Lakoju approaches his final year of high school hoops.
"I'm feeling really positive about this year. We have a good group of guys who are returning and a lot of guys who have worked on their skills over the summer," Lakoju said. "Our coach expects excellence, and we have a lot of chemistry. Our captain Sean Cullinane and junior captain Kevin Florio are going to lead us into victory, and I'm just going to do my part. I still got to come to practice and do what I have to do."
"(Fairfield University) is getting an incredible person, and I know they know they're getting an incredible person. The basketball will take care of itself for sure," Kriftcher said. "He rebounds tenaciously and is a very good passer for a man of his size. He defends the basket well, and he's gotten much better running the floor. I thought it was the perfect school for him."
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