RICHMOND — When Toronto native Papa Oppong was growing up, he dabbled in several sports.
With both of his parents being natives of western Africa, he played soccer, naturally. He struggled with Canada’s main sport, ice hockey, because of his inability to skate.
Eventually, with exposure to the NBA, he found his way to basketball.
“Soccer is really popular in Africa, so my dad got me into soccer,” Oppong said. “Basketball is more of my love. I was sitting down and watching Michael Jordan and Kobe and all of those guys when I was younger and I had more of a passion for it.”
It’s been the same kind of roundabout journey that brought Oppong to Eastern Kentucky University. The 6-foot-4 guard started at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, but transferred after just a year to Panola Junior College in Carthage, Texas. Then, he was recruited to EKU, where he found his basketball family.
“From the first day, I was accepted, as soon as I stepped on campus,” he said. “I was here in the summertime and there were a few guys here who I knew and as soon as we came in August, I felt like I was part of the family.”
Last season was rough for Oppong. Just as he hit his stride, he separated his shoulder in mid-December at Cincinnati, after which he was sidelined for five games. Despite it being one of the highlights of the season — the Colonels forced overtime on the Big East school, which is now one of the top teams in the country, before losing by a slim 85-77 margin — Oppong wishes he could forget that game.
“Cincinnati was one of our best games, but for me, I really don’t like that game,” he said. “It was when I actually dislocated my shoulder. And it hurt — it really hurt. The process of coming back was so hard because it took so long. When I got back, it took me a minute to get back into the flow and get adjusted.”
He finished the season averaging nine points and five rebounds per game. So far this season, he has started all 11 games, has averaged 51 percent shooting and 11.5 points per game. His biggest impact has come against Ohio Valley Conference opponents. In two games — against Murray State and UT Martin, both on the road — Oppong averaged 18 points per contest and made 75 percent of his shots from three-point range.
“Papa is shooting the ball better from three much better than he did last year,” EKU coach Jeff Neubauer said. “Last year, he was scoring at the same rate as he was now after a 10-game period, but he certainly is shooting the ball from deep much better this year.”
In the offseason, Oppong began working on defense and conditioning, leading to Neubauer describing him as one of the most improved players on the team.
“I put it a lot of hard work over the summer and I’m more confident in my game and my abilities. That’s important and it’s helped a lot,” Oppong said.
Unfortunately, at the end of this season, Oppong will have exhausted all of his NCAA eligibility. His general studies major is set up so he can attend a teacher’s college for one year in Canada and get a teaching certificate, with which he would like to teach physical education and history.
But for now, he’ll enjoy the quiet that comes with college life. Oppong has a large family, including seven siblings, so there aren’t many dull moments around his house in Toronto. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I call my house the zoo because we have so many people living there,” he said with a laugh. “There’s always something to do. I’m a family-type guy so I miss them from time to time but I have to keep my head focused on what I’m doing out here. It’s a lot more quiet here. Privacy never happens in my house there. Somebody’s always home. It’s not just my immediate family, we always have people coming through our house. My house is very lively, I like it.”