Mention the name Ekene Ibekwe to any die-hard Toronto Raptors fan and they'll recount how he was taken off the court at Cox Pavilion on a stretcher and rushed to UMC Medical Center during the Las Vegas Summer League in 2009.
Ibekwe was injured trying to make a game-saving block against then Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic who drove the lane in the final seconds. Ibekwe blocked the shot and crashed to the floor over Dragic, nailing his chin on the hardwood.
The Raptors got the 74-73 win that day.
The former Maryland Terrapins' power forward survived the fall and suffered two sprained wrists and six stitches to his chin.
Three years later, Ekene Ibekwe remains strong at heart in full survival mode overseas playing everywhere from Israel, France, Turkey, Iran and today in Germany where he roams the low blocks for BBC Bayreuth in Germany's premiere Beko BBL.
After graduating from Carson High School in Carson, CA., where he was a second team Parade High School All-American, Ibekwe went on to a strong four-year collegiate career at Maryland and led the team in rebounds and blocked shots during the 2006-07 season. He also became the fourth player in school history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 200 blocks. But after going undrafted in 2007, the 6-foot-9 Ibekwe made the jump overseas like so many other pro basketball hopefuls.
"The whole process from walking the stage at graduation in College Park to landing in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel went by so fast. I went through the draft process with the workouts and couple of tournaments, but after I wasn't selected the next best thing was to go overseas and play in Israel," Ibekwe told Ridiculous Upside, about playing in the Israeli Super League with Hapoel Galil Elyon and Hapoel Gilboa/Afula.
"What I remember the most about the time is Israel was the food and the tourist spots -- it's all about culture and tradition. I went to Jerusalem to see the temple and all the places where Jesus Christ once walked the earth. That was a place that I always wanted to visit."
As stops playing in France and Iran followed, Ibekwe left his mark on the Turkish Basketball League both with Kepez Belediyesi in Turkey's TBL -- where he was named Power Forward of the Year in 2008-09 -- and also Genc Banvitliler of Turkey's second league. Jammed between the travels and seasons abroad, summer league stints with the Phoenix Suns ('08), Raptors ('09), and Portland Trail Blazers ('10) kept the versatile big man's name circulating around the league as an NBA fringe player deserving of a look thanks to his 7-foot wing span.
"My experience being around the NBA has shown me that when it comes to making a team, a lot of it is timing. Then taking that opportunity and making the best out of it is the second part," explained Ibekwe.
"I know I have what it takes. I think I just need to keep improving and getting more polished as a basketball player. Somebody will notice."
Portland took notice of Ibekwe, but before he knew it a guaranteed deal arrived from Germany's Artland Dragons and Ibekwe felt he couldn't pass up a sure thing. Yet part of him still wonders if he had stuck around with the Blazers that summer, would his impact have been felt enough to finally secure that elusive NBA contract he's been chasing.
"With them I was in a situation where I was either to wait to get called for training camp or take a good deal overseas. I had to make a business decision and take the deal. Factors like the pending lockout and my financial situation played into the decision too. But crazy things happen, because two or three weeks after being overseas, the Blazers had a spot open in camp for me. The even crazier thing was that the guy that I played behind was waived from the team."
That "guy" was actually Jeff Pendergraph whom the Blazers waived in late October, 2010 after he suffered a torn ACL. And as Pendergraph went on to rehab in full and eventually sign a two-year deal this season with the Indiana Pacers, Ibekwe moved from Artland to Bayreuth where he is the team's second leading scorer this season.
The 26-year old Ibekwe is averaging 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds in 18 games for Bayreuth. He also leads the league in blocked shots with 2 per game.
"I think the BBL is definitely underrated. I think there is a lot of talent in this league from the bottom team to the top. The league this year has gotten much better from last year," said Ibekwe, with the BBL boasting a number of former NBA and D-League players including Casey Jacobsen, Bobby Brown, Brandon Hunter, Tony Gaffney, P.J. Tucker and Kyle Weaver among others.
Surviving overseas and scrapping for a training camp invite out of summer league are equally parts of Ibekwe's story. But at the heart of the tale rests a love for his Nigerian heritage that has extended to the highest honor in basketball -- representing his national colors for the Nigerian National Team in 2006.
Highlighted by a 22-point performance against Dirk Nowitzki and the German National Team, Ibekwe participated in the 2006 FIBA World Championships held in Japan.
"Every night you played against some of the top players in the NBA and Europe as well -- Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Nowitzki just to name a few. This was the highest level I've played basketball and I held my own," he said about a Nigerian National Team also featuring former NBA veteran Ime Udoka.
"Representing my Nigerian heritage playing basketball is a great thing for me. I'm using what I love to do to represent my family and the people that I stand for. I always try to play to the best of my ability and make them proud.
"It feels good when I go back to the village and visit my people and they tell me that they like what I've done. It's a great feeling."
Regardless where Ibekwe goes after this season in Germany, he can take such pride with him -- along with his knack for swatting shots -- wherever he may land next.
Ibekwe can only hope this time is a safe landing.