Adam Seiko’s life changing trip to AfroBasket 2021

Credit: Twitter @AfroBasket

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Credit: Twitter @AfroBasket

Eva Saira Ariko came to the US in 1997 pregnant with her first son. She settled in Boston, where a vibrant remnant from her homeland of Uganda had taken root in the 1960s. The so-called “Kennedy Airlift” had brought thousands of East Africans to the United States to study, among them Barack Obama Sr. After attending Harvard and other universities in the area, many students settled into Waltman, a Boston suburb.

Three decades later, when Ariko arrived, Waltman–aptly named “Little Kampala” after the Ugandan capital– had a thriving Ugandan community. She came to the US when she was 22 and lived with her mother, Rose Serumaga, who had emigrated four years earlier.

“It was tough for her to have me and just be a single mom,” Ariko’s son, Adam Seiko, told the East Village Times in an exclusive interview. “It was good to have the help of my grandma. I had other mentors that were around me and took care of me. It is what it is, but it was tough.”

Ariko lived with the tension of making a living for Seiko and living life with him. As much as she could, she kept her schedule free between the hours he came home from school and went to sleep, which meant working well into the night when she had two jobs. Other times, she chose to get by on the minimum rather than sacrifice any time with her son. It was a tension not fully resolved until she married and could share the responsibility and joy of raising her family.

Seiko lived in Boston for the first decade of his life. There, he was immersed in Ugandan culture. Nearly every weekend, he was at church or watching his mother dance at Ugandan cultural festivals. To this day, Ugandan foods like samosas, matooke, plantains, and posho are part of his diet. He calls them “power foods” and can even make chapati, a Ugandan staple, by hand.

This past month, Ariko returned to Uganda for the first time since leaving 24 years ago. It is doubtful the trip would have happened if not for a fateful text message. In 2019, Mike Schmitz, an NBA draft analyst for ESPN, sent a text out of the blue asking Seiko if he would be interested in playing for the Ugandan National Team.

Schmitz joined the Silverbacks as an assistant coach when his former roommate and close friend George Galanopoulos took over as head coach. After working as an analyst, scout, and television personality, he missed coaching, and the chance to team up with Galanopoulos was the perfect opportunity.

“It’s my favorite thing that I do in life from a professional standpoint,” Schmitz told EVT. “It’s more fun than going on tv and talking about Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson or Ja Morant. I get so much joy out of being around this group.”

Schmitz learned of Seiko’s Ugandan heritage randomly. Wearing both of his hats as a Ugandan coach and NBA draft guru, he was scouting high school basketball player Arthur Kaluma at an event in Texas. He sat behind Kaluma’s mother and, through a subsequent chat, learned that Kaluma had a brother who played basketball at San Diego State.

This conversation was the genesis of a frustrating next couple of years for Seiko as he tried to get a US passport to travel to Africa and join the team. Covid had just reared its ugly head, and Seiko could not get an appointment at the passport office. He missed tournaments and a trip to see the Pyramids and his chance to play in AfroBasket 2021 nearly slipped away. But, at the eleventh hour, his paperwork went through. A short time later he was on a plane headed for Kigali, Rwanda.

Credit: Go Aztecs

The trip was long with a lot of ups and downs, but when he landed and began playing basketball, he thrived. Right away, Seiko acclimated himself well to his new team. A vocal leader at SDSU, Seiko naturally took that role with the Silverbacks, but as one of the younger players, he had to learn how to communicate even better.

On the practice court, he was just as successful, seamlessly acclimating to the nuances of the Silverbacks’ system. Galanopoulos is the head coach of the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ G League affiliate. He runs the Ugandan National Team like an NBA club. Nothing phased Seiko, which is no surprise given his reputation as one of the hardest workers in SDSU history.

“He is a guy who is a gym rat,” SDSU assistant coach David Velasquez said this week. “You want to talk about a guy who lives in the gym. Adam Seiko, when he leaves here, there are going to be legends and stories about how often he was in the gym. Any of our former players will tell you that, and any of our current players will tell you that. Adam Seiko is always in the gym.”

Due to the excellent coaching he received with the Aztecs and his basketball acumen, Seiko knew all of the defensive nuances. He understood the spirit of the offensive sets and made everyone around him better.

“For his first time, to come into AfroBasket like that, without that much preparation, and step in and pick things up the way he did at that level – at a level that is a higher level than college basketball – I was blown away just the way that he adjusted,” Schmitz said.

At this stage in their development as a program, Uganda does not have many players who can match Seiko’s experience in big tournaments. He has played in pressure situations in the NCAA Tournament, conference tournaments, and even in non-conference tournaments like the Maui Invitational. The Silverbacks needed Seiko to draw from that history to lead them in the AfroBasket tournament. He did not disappoint.

On the defensive end, he showed the same instincts, tenacity, and physicality that have made him one of the better defenders in the nation at SDSU. One of Schmitz’s roles with the team is to assign who each player guards. He always put Seiko on the opposing team’s best player, whether that was a shifty point guard or a bigger wing. Seiko took on all challenges and more than held his own.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Offensively, he ran off ball screens and played with the ball in his hands. He scored off the bounce at every level and created opportunities for his teammates as well. In the five games, he averaged 13 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. He led the Silverbacks in scoring twice, including a 20 point barrage in an upset win over Cameroon.

“His shooting and playing alongside other guards and being someone who can space the floor off the catch, we knew he’d be able to do that,” Schmitz said. “But I thought he showed glimpses of somebody who can create with the ball in his hands. A lot of that is because of his ability to shoot it off the dribble and the fact that he can think the game. He’s a very underrated passer.”

Most importantly, for the first time in their history, Uganda was winning. During AfroBasket 2021, the Silverbacks doubled their all-time win total in the FIBA Africa Championships. They reached the quarterfinals of the tournament for the first time and captured the imagination of the entire nation.

In Uganda, these are the big basketball tournaments the whole country looks forward to. The players on the national team are the Michael Jordan’s of Uganda. Seiko had legions of people reach out to him on social media looking to buy his #2 jersey.

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Credit: Twitter:@AfroBasket

Since the end of last season with the Aztecs, Seiko has been working on everything he showed in Rwanda. More than anything on the court, AfroBasket allowed Seiko to see the fruit of his hard work sooner. As Seiko returns to San Diego State for his final season on the Mesa, the confidence of playing well against better competition in a new environment halfway around the world has changed everything for him.

“(Confidence) shows up in many different ways, “Seiko said. “Having the ball in my hands, playing off ball screens, or shooting more shots I should take, but in the past, I passed up. Being more vocal, you could definitely see how vocal I am on the court. You can see how hard I play, which is something that leads by example—just taking the next step of my game, really. Every year I try to get better at something, and this year I was trying to get better at most of the things. I know what’s at stake, and I know what it takes to be successful and win a championship again. So I’m sure a lot of people will see this year the mindset that I have, the confidence that I have. They’ll see it.”

As successful as he was in the tournament, to fully understand what this trip meant to Seiko, Schmitz, and those that accompanied them, you have to look past what happened on the court. Basketball was a vehicle for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent a nation and to develop a bond with a group of extraordinary people.  For Seiko, living this experience with his younger brother and mother was chief among them. 

AfroBasket 2021 was played in a Covid bubble. It was trips to the gym and back to the hotel, and that was it. Ariko was in the bubble with her sons under the same restrictions, but this allowed her to ride on the team bus and stay at the team’s hotel, savoring each moment along the way. Her sons, representing the country of her birth in the neighboring country of Rwanda, filled her with pride and joy.

“While we were at AfroBasket, her energy was like she was the happiest woman ever,” Seiko explained. “Being there with her sons, seeing them play at the highest levels. She’s courtside watching the game. She has all her family supporting her.  We had ‘WhatsApp’ group chats. We got damn near a hundred different people that are Ugandans. They’re all messaging through group chat, ‘we’re so proud of you.’ They were so proud of my mom and all the things she’s done. It’s a huge lift. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, for sure. I know that 100%. She got to see it all come to fruition.”

Following Uganda’s exit from the tournament and no longer under travel restrictions, the team visited different parts of Kigali to see what life was like for the people living there. They also took an emotional trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Under the landscaped gardens of the memorial, 250,000 Rwandans rest in a mass grave, a grizzly reminder to the world of what humanity is capable of. Seeing the pictures of the victims, hearing their stories, and learning how the world turned a blind eye to the atrocities was harrowing to the team, but a personal connection to the genocide brought the message home.

Credit: Twitter @AfroBasket

After the trip to the museum, their bus driver for the entire trip revealed he was a survivor of the genocide. Beaten, tortured, and left for dead, he waited for days until someone finally came to rescue him. Over the course of the tournament, Seiko and the team bonded with their driver, never imagining what nightmares he had lived through.  He was one of the happiest, kindest, and most grateful people on the trip.

“We come to find out our bus driver for the whole trip at AfroBasket was a part of the genocide as well,” Seiko said. “And when I heard that, it really took my mind to a different place…for him to be happy and smiling around everything. It made my life better. To come back to SDSU again to the opportunities that we have over here. That was one of the things that really hit me hard on the trip.”

When the team disbanded and went their separate ways, Ariko traveled to Uganda for the first time since she left in 1997. Unfortunately, Seiko was unable to join her. He returned to San Diego to fulfill his school commitments and to begin preparing for the 2021-2022 season. He brings back a new perspective on life.

Seiko’s trip to Rwanda will reverberate throughout the program for years. When a team leader has a deeper appreciation and gratitude for all the advantages afforded him as an Aztec, it becomes contagious. It spreads into every drill, every practice, and every game. At a time when SDSU is bringing in six new players, Seiko has seen firsthand how strangers can come together in a short time and become family.

“The closer we are, the closer we are to a championship,” Seiko said. “I learned that for sure. Everyone on this team (SDSU) is a leader to me, but I try to be the guy that the (other) guys look at, and they know that he’s going to do the right thing. He’s going to make sure that we’re all on our horses, ready to go. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve taken from playing internationally.”

Eva Saira Ariko’s journey finally came full circle this month when she accompanied her sons to AfroBasket 2021. For Adam Seiko, his journey is just beginning. With the support of two nations – Aztec and Uganda – the path ahead promises to be as special as he is. 

“Adam’s a guy that’s everything you want,” Velazquez explained. “He waited his turn, really believed in the coaches, played all different types of roles, and has always been about the right things. It was fun to watch him (in AfroBasket). I think it really helped him. … What a great lifetime memory he created with his family! It was an outstanding experience for him, and he came back with a new perspective.”

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