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Freshman Phenom Jimmy Sorunke, Who Became A Senior Overnight, Is Done With High School Basketball

Jimmy Sorunke, far left, poses with the Ogun Pacers of the NBBF, a Nigerian professional league, before a national tournament in 2016.
Photo: Facebook

The bizarre high school basketball career of Jimmy Sorunke, who went from an overhyped freshman to an ignored senior in just one year, appears to now be over.

Sorunke left Rockville (Maryland) High last week and has enrolled in Indiana Elite Preparatory Academy, a hoops-first organization in Richmond, Indiana. Indiana Elite Prep, which also calls itself Indiana Elite Basketball Academy, has no academic teachers or non-basketball curriculum, and does not show up on the list of accredited schools in the database of the Indiana Department of Education. According to its website, the basketball training program is run out of a local YMCA. The main telephone number for Indiana Elite Prep is also the number for Elite Lawn Mowing, a landscaping company in Richmond.

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The academy’s mission statement tells players its primary purpose is to help “market your abilities and talents to prep programs or college programs.” Tony Cole, founder and head coach of Indiana Elite Prep, says he sees Sorunke as having “SEC or Big 12” talent, but that no NCAA school worthy of Sorunke’s abilities is currently courting him. Cole says Sorunke left Rockville, a move first reported via Twitter by Stacey Davis of Rivals.com, in hopes of getting in better physical shape and having “everything cleared” academically with the NCAA in time to find a suitable college for this fall.

Considering the cannonball-esque splash Sorunke made upon entering the D.C.-area basketball scene a year ago, surviving a county investigation into his age while dropping a hailstorm of monster dunks and swatted shots, the quick and stealthy end to Sorunke’s run at Rockville comes as a shocker. The timing of the move—he took off for Indiana Elite Prep, an organization that seems best suited for post-grad basketball players, less than two months before Rockville’s graduation—only adds more mystery to Sorunke’s already wacky tale.

Sorunke came to the U.S. from Nigeria in early 2017, a massive and muscular 6-foot-10-inch center, and told AAU and prep coaches that he was 15 years old. The age/height/talent combo got people dreaming.

“Just remember the name,” tweeted Anthony Garcia, a writer who covers AAU basketball, upon first seeing Sorunke playing in a youth tournament in Ohio shortly after Sorunke’s U.S. arrival.

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“I remember thinking, ‘If he’s a freshman, he’s gonna be a national recruit!’” Garcia said. “He had stuff you can’t teach. I thought I found a hidden gem.”

To help folks remember the name, Sorunke also had a promotional website, BigJimmySorunke.com—which billed him as “One of THE TOP High School Freshman Basketball Players in the USA (Class of 2021)“ and “Top NBA Prospect 2021”—plus Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts billed as fan sites, as well as a YouTube channel, which began promoting the legend of “Big Jimmy” before youth basketball sharpies in the U.S. even knew who he was.

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Sorunke’s play as a freshman warranted notice: Sorunke joined a Rockville team that had gone 2-22 a season earlier, and led the squad all the way to the quarterfinals of the 2018 state playoffs. Stats database Maxpreps shows Sorunke leading the state of Maryland in both rebounds and blocked shots in his freshman season.

But something changed when Sorunke returned to Rockville High for what should have been his sophomore year. He had spent the summer traveling around the country playing with Team Melo 16U, an AAU squad sponsored by Carmelo Anthony for players 16 and under. Yet when Rockville posted its roster for the 2018-2019 season, Sorunke had been promoted from a freshman to a senior. The 9th-to-12th-grade leap wasn’t explained or even acknowledged on Sorunke’s many promotional websites.

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Given the 2001 birthdate on the birth certificate Sorunke carried around, he would still be age-eligible to play sports in Montgomery County through at least the next school year. Todd Dembrowski, Rockville’s coach, did not respond to requests for comment. According to a Rockville high school employee, the school staff was directed by county officials not to discuss Sorunke’s situation with the media.

Even before the inexplicable jump in grades, there was plenty about Sorunke’s biography to be suspicious of. In March 2018, Deadspin reported on discrepancies between the age Sorunke claimed in Maryland and the age he was listed at in his native Nigeria. In Rockville, he was a 16-year-old 9th grader who’d never played organized basketball before enrolling in the local high school; back home, he’d spent time playing in a national pro hoops league and was once written up as a college student with a birthday that made him almost 21 years old.

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Photographs and videos from fall 2016 show Sorunke had played on the winning squad of a 3x3 tournament in Lagos that limited entry to competitors 18 to 35 years old. Sorunke’s team was called the Royal Boiz, a nod to the Royal Basketball Academy, a hoops haven located north of Lagos that he played for.

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There was also a profile of a basketball-loving college student named Sorunke Abayomi Olujimi published in February 2016 on MAPGIST, a blog for students of Moshood Abiola Polytechnic (MAPOLY)—a tertiary school, or university, located about 60 miles north of Lagos. The story described Sorunke Abayomi Olujimi as “the tallest student” in the MAPOLY mass communications department and listed his birthday as June 11, 1997. Anybody born on that date would be nearly 22 years old now, or well past high school age.

Jimmy Sorunke had personally hailed his love for the college, and specifically for the MAPOLY MassCom department, on his own social media accounts. Here’s a 2016 post from his Twitter account, which he made private after publication of the Deadspin story:

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Sorunke had given school officials in Maryland paperwork that listed his legal name as Sorunke Abayomi Olujimi, but with birthday of June 11, 2001. That means the 2018 Rockville high school freshman had the same birthday as the 2016 MAPOLY college student, but exactly four years younger.

Joe Boncore, who identified himself as Sorunke’s legal guardian, initially said that the person profiled in the MAPGIST blog was not Sorunke, and that any similarities between the Nigerian college student from 2016 and the Rockville high school freshman in 2018 were coincidental.

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But Boncore, who’d attempted to get Sorunke placed at multiple prestigious private prep basketball programs and produced an unseemly video marketing Sorunke before enrolling him at Rockville, eventually admitted that the Sorunke playing in Rockville was the indeed the same guy.

Boncore then claimed that the MAPGIST profile showing a 1997 birthday and presenting Sorunke as a college student was part of an elaborate effort by MAPOLY to recruit Sorunke for the college’s basketball program. Boncore insisted that Sorunke had never attended MAPOLY or any other university. His revised story was that Sorunke’s birthday was intentionally altered in the MAPGIST profile by basketball recruiters so that Sorunke would appear old enough to play college ball.

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“They just wanted a big to play on their team,” Boncore said.

Among the problems with Boncore’s account: According to Hassan Abdulsalam Babatunde, who covered sports for the MAPOLY school paper, MAPOLY Press, the university did not have a basketball team in 2016.

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Scads of photos of Jimmy Sorunke on the MAPOLY with MassCom students are available online, dating back to 2015 and 2016, the same era when then-18-year-old MAPOLY MassCom student Sorunke Abayomi Olujimi was profiled.

Below, for example, is Sorunke in March 2016 with Akporero Oghenefegor Harmony, a MAPOLY mass communications student who was profiled on the very same college blog, MAPGIST, that wrote up Sorunke in 2016. Harmony calls Sorunke “the tallest guy in my department.” By Boncore’s account, Sorunke would have been in middle school when the MAPGIST profile was published.

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Boncore has for years been a controversial importer of African basketball talent to U.S. high schools and colleges. (His own résumé, meanwhile, contained a bogus claim that he had played basketball on scholarship at Jacksonville University. When asked about that claim by Deadspin after Jacksonville’s athletic department said it had no record of him, Boncore admitted he didn’t play college ball.) Interviewed by Deadspin last year, Boncore insisted that the paperwork Sorunke presented to Montgomery County, which showed a 2001 birthday, was legitimate.

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In response to the Deadspin story, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) announced they would investigate Sorunke’s age. By then, Sorunke had removed many photos of himself in Nigeria from his personal Twitter and Instagram and deleted his Facebook account, on which he posted under the name Jimmy Abayomi. The images included shots of him on the MAPOLY campus as early as 2015, as well as photos of him playing in the adult 3x3 tournament.

Boncore and Sorunke also went on a media blitz in the D.C. area, refuting any suggestion that Sorunke was born in 1997 or had ever been in college or had even played organized basketball before coming to America.

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While holding a document he identified as a birth certificate that showed a 2001 birthday and appeared to be issued in Nigeria in 2017, Sorunke told WRC-4, “I was just a normal kid who plays pickup in Nigeria.”

In a story about the age controversy in the Washington Post, Boncore asked, “If he were 20, where is all the film of him playing from the last four years? If he had been playing all this time, or enrolled in college, wouldn’t there be some record of him playing?”

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“If you spend five minutes with him, he has more in common with elementary school kids than college kids,” Boncore told WRC-4, the local NBC affiliate.

Boncore, who threatened to sue Deadspin before and after publication of the Sorunke story but did not file a suit, told the Washington Post that the 3x3 tournament organizers allowed Sorunke to play in the men’s event despite knowing he was underage because they wanted him to “attract fans to the event.”

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Sorunke showed a reporter for an NBC affiliate a copy of a birth certificate issued in Nigeria on Feb. 24, 2017 and showing a 2001 birth date.
Photo: Screencap from Facebook

The Washington Post’s report on the county’s eligibility investigation said the process was expected to take about a week. But four months later, county officials announced that their investigation determined there was “insufficient evidence that Sorunke’s listed birthday of June 11, 2001, was inaccurate,” and therefore Sorunke was cleared to continue playing at Rockville.

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Gboyinde Onijala, a MCPS spokesperson, told Deadspin that the decision came after staffers “reviewed all documentation that was used to enroll in our schools.” Asked if the county’s investigation looked beyond Sorunke’s passport and birth certificate, and if there was any research into his time in Nigeria, where age fraud in youth sports has become a major issue, Onijala cited student privacy regulations and declined to respond.

After Montgomery County ruled there was “insufficient evidence” of age fraud, Sorunke briefly made his Twitter account public and retweeted a profile of himself published by Maryland247Sports.com. Among the claims in the story: “When Jimmy arrived in the US, he had never played any organized basketball.” That same fact has been advertised on Sorunke’s promotional websites from the start, and in interviews given by Sorunke and Boncore.

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Based on publicly available photos dating back to 2014, however, it’s clear that Sorunke played several years of organized basketball in men’s leagues in Nigeria. The screencap at the top of this story, one of dozens of Sorunke on adult hoops teams, shows Sorunke with the NBBF’s Ogun Pacers, a team in the Nigeria Basketball Federation’s (NBBF) Division 2, a national professional league. (Sorunke is all the way to the left, identified by his longtime coach at the Royal Basketball Academy as “Jimi aka baby shaq.”) The photo was posted online in the fall of 2016, or about a year before he enrolled as a high school freshman in Rockville.

Here are a few more photos showing Sorunke playing organized ball in Nigeria:

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Sorunke’s impressive shot-blocking and rebounding stats during his freshman season at Rockville did get the attention of college recruiters. Last summer, Sorunke announced (via a new Twitter account set up after the Deadspin story) that he had received scholarship offers from Long Beach State and Old Dominion University.

Sorunke followed his phenomenal freshman season with a senior slump. After leading the state of Maryland in rebounds and blocked shots in 2017-2018, he’s not listed among the top 50 in MaxPrep’s state rankings in either category for the 2018-2019 season. Sorunke watched his potential go-ahead lay-in rim out in the final seconds of Rockville’s loss to Westminster, knocking his squad out in just the second round of this year’s state playoffs.

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Sorunke’s grade-skipping, combined with the dropoff in on-court production, has caused interest in Sorunke to wane among college recruiters. Roger Kirk, a spokesman for Long Beach, says via email that the college “stopped recruiting him when he reclassified to Class of 2019.”

Grant Gardner, spokesman for ODU’s athletic department, declined to discuss Sorunke, citing a school policy prohibiting comment on potential recruits.

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Boncore filed papers with the Montgomery County courts on August 29, 2018 asking for “full custody” of Sorunke. Boncore had identified himself as Sorunke’s “guardian” last year to Deadspin and other media outlets, but when asked by the court if he was indeed Sorunke’s guardian, Boncore wrote that his relationship to the player was “family friend.” Boncore failed to respond to any of the court’s requests for information after his initial filing, and the custody case was dismissed on Feb. 4, 2019.

Boncore told the court that Sorunke was living at Boncore’s mother’s house in Rockville. However, when reached at that location two weeks ago, Boncore’s mother said Sorunke “hasn’t been here for a while” and that she said that she didn’t know where he was living. Days afterward, Sorunke was on a bus to Indiana. (Boncore did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

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Sorunke’s age won’t be an issue with Indiana Elite Prep, which caters to post-grad players and, unlike Rockville, plays teams loaded with 13th-grade athletes. But Cole of Indiana Elite Prep says he considered Sorunke’s controversies before taking him into his program, and says he now believes the documents Sorunke provided are legitimate.

“I know there are issues about his age. On my end, everything checks out,” he says. “[Montgomery] county cleared him, the paperwork clears him, and we got the paperwork, and everything checks out for him to legally be here. Either way, people can look at this how they want to: It adds up or it doesn’t add up. But from a legal standpoint you can’t prove that anything he’s got isn’t true. I’ve had these things before where you have everything check out, and it turns out to be wrong. But, I’ve looked into this.”

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The coach says he’s put together a plan to have Sorunke in physical and academic shape to play NCAA hoops by August, and that they’ll “get him off to college” in time for the next school year. According to Indiana Elite Prep’s website, tuition costs for those enrolled in the program cover basketball training but no classwork. The fees do pay for “college-preparatory counseling” in which staffers will “guide each family through the process and assist in every phase of getting the student athlete admitted to his institution of choice.” Cole says Sorunke is currently preparing for SATs by spending “four days a week” with a tutor from a local college.

Cole says there’s no NCAA destination lined up for Sorunke right now. If no college steps up, Cole says, “He’ll come back” to Indiana Elite Prep for another year of basketball training.

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Days after he left Rockville, the Big Jimmy Sorunke Facebook page went offline. But Cole is intent on continuing to build the legend: Immediately upon Sorunke’s arrival, Cole began uploading videos on his YouTube channel titled “Big Jimmy Soronke (sic): The Journey to Greatness.

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