The Cinderella-est story of the schoolboy hoops season in the Washington, D.C., area came to an end over the weekend. It turns out the year’s most fantastical feel-good tale really was a fantasy after all.
The Rockville Rams, a Montgomery County, Md., public school squad that went 2-22 last season, won its district this year. The Rams blew a second-half lead to Governor Thomas Johnson High on Saturday, losing out on a trip to the Final Four of the Maryland state championships.
Still, it was an amazing turnaround for the Rams, one due almost entirely to the play of Jimmy Sorunke, a recent arrival from Nigeria who was billed as a 16-year-old, 6-foot-10 freshman center.
After the loss to Thomas Johnson, Rams coach Todd Dembrowski told me that when he first spotted Sorunke in the Rockville High hallways at the beginning of the school year, he felt like he’d been given a gift from the basketball gods. Dembrowski said he was told that a Rockville High alumnus was Sorunke’s legal guardian and had enrolled him at the school.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Dembrowski said. “I just knew we had a new student who was a big kid, and I was just excited to have a big kid who could go out for the basketball team.”
Sorunke was a godsend once basketball season came around, too: According to the stats database Maxpreps, Sorunke led the state of Maryland in both rebounds and blocked shots this year. He became a big man on campus right away, getting a long write-up in the school newspaper and coming out during a pep rally so the whole student body could see a freshman dunk over a senior. Somebody set up a fan site for Sorunke, full of videos of the towering man-child throwing down slams and swatting smaller upperclassmen’s shots into the next hemisphere. (Here’s a particularly brutal slo-mo clip called “Sorunke annihilates this Wootton player’s hopes and dreams of scoring.”)
While Dembroski was saddened by the Thomas Johnson loss and the end of a wholly unexpected playoff run, he seemed quite happy with the way things turned out on the season, and excited about another three years of play from his unexpected arrival.
“He had a good season,” Dembroski said. “He’s a difference-maker on the court. But he’s raw, and he has some areas that needs to improve, [such as] his footwork. But he’s young.”
Alas, maybe not that young.
In February 2016, a short and lighthearted story appeared on MAPGIST, the personal blog of a self-described entertainment promoter in Nigeria. It was a profile of Olujimi Sorunke Abayomi, a 6-foot-11 then-18-year-old student at Moshood Abiola Polytechnic (MAPOLY). MAPOLY is what is known in Nigeria’s education hierarchy as a tertiary learning institute. “It is the same thing as college here,” says a staffer at the Nigerian embassy in D.C., adding that typical students enroll at MAPOLY or other tertiary institutions around age 18, after finishing secondary education or high school. The MAPGIST post about Olujimi Sorunke Abayomi lists him as a mass communications student, says his favorite pastime is “basketball,” and his “mentor” is “SHAQ O’NEIL.” The bio in the post also lists Olujimi Sorunke Abayomi’s birthday as “11th of June 1997.”
The photo accompanying the MAPGIST post about alleged college student Olujimi Sorunke Abayomi features a guy in a Peyton Manning jersey who sure looks like 2018 high school freshman Jimmy Sorunke.
There’s oodles of other circumstantial evidence that the alleged college student and the high school freshman are indeed one and the same. Olujimi Sorunke, for example, was the name Sorunke went by in early 2017 when he first came to the U.S. and attempted unsuccessfully to play for Huntington Prep. That school is a basketball factory in West Virginia and a serial contender for the prep hoops national championship, but is perhaps best known for outsourcing the education of its players, to the extent that it didn’t employ a single academic teacher. The Rockville High newspaper, The Rampage, reported that Huntington Prep revoked Sorunke’s invitation because they were expecting him to be 7-feet tall and were disappointed when he came in a couple inches short.
Sorunke has created several Facebook posts over the years, under the name Jimmy Abayomi, mentioning that his birthday is June 11, and has also tweeted about having a June 11 birthday. The 2016 MAPGIST profile says the mammoth MAPOLY student’s Twitter handle was “baby shaq38”; Sorunke’s snapchat account these days is “baby shaq38.” Sorunke also posted a link to the MAPGIST blog on his Facebook page the day before the profile of Olujimi Sorunke Abayomi appeared. He also posted photos on Facebook in March of 2016 from MAPOLY.
If the information in the MAPGIST post is accurate, Sorunke will be 21 years old before his freshman year at Rockville High is finished.
Sorunke’s basketball career back in Nigeria also has elements that call his billing as a 16-year-old into question. In November 2016, Sorunke played on a team called the Royal Boiz that won a 3x3 tournament in Ikeja, a section of Lagos. The tournament was run under the auspices of FIBA, the international basketball sanctioning body, and the rules specified it be open to players “between the ages of 18 and 35.” Sorunke tweeted about playing in the event, and an Instagram user named Davies Daniel tagged Sorunke in the Royal Boiz team photo. Sorunke regularly comments on Daniel’s Instagram posts, but his own account is private. Here’s a Facebook post from the 3x3 tournament organizers about the Royal Boiz’ win that shows Sorunke and his teammates. Here’s a tweet from a Lagos television channel with some video of the Boiz’ performance. Along with scads of other giveaways, the shoes of the big guy in the middle of the video match the shoes worn by the guy that Davies Daniel identified as Sorunke in this team Instagram shot from the 2016 event which, again, was reserved for players at least 18 years old.
So how did Sorunke end up in Rockville, Md., presenting as a 16-year-old freshman? Last summer, a YouTube video was posted under Sorunke’s name that featured him and a middle-aged man who identifies himself in the clip as Joe Boncore. The video, which was apparently shot inside a YMCA in St. Augustine, Fla. (there’s an advertisement on the gymnasium wall for Bozard Ford, a St. Augustine dealership), shows Boncore putting the player through some workouts, then seemingly inviting high school coaches everywhere to enter the sweepstakes for Sorunke’s hoops services.
“We haven’t decided where we’re going to send him to high school,” Boncore says to the camera. “He’s gonna be a freshman in high school, and then we’ll see if he’s gonna reclassify… [Tell us] if you like what you see and we’ll get back to you.” (“Reclassify” is normally used in high school sports as a polite term for “redshirting,” or holding back athletes a grade, though perhaps Boncore meant that Sorunke, listed as 16, would skip a grade.)
Boncore told me that Sorunke “could have gone to any school he wanted to go to” anywhere in the country, and he “worked out for every private school” in the D.C. area. “I don’t think any of them didn’t want him,” he said.
That claim was refuted by Mike Jones, head coach of DeMatha, the most prominent member of the WCAC, D.C.’s prestigious confederation for Catholic hoops powerhouses. Upon hearing Boncore’s contention that every private school had a workout with Sorunke and that the player had his pick of schools, Jones said that he didn’t work him out and he never made any attempt to get him enrolled at DeMatha.
In any case, Boncore says that because of “academic reasons” and social considerations, he ultimately decided to place Sorunke at Rockville High School, his old school (Class of ‘84). “He needed a family around him,” Boncore said.
He says Sorunke now lives with Boncore’s mother in the same house near Rockville that Boncore grew up in. “He has a job and pays rent” to his mother, Boncore says.
Dembroski says he didn’t ask any questions about Sorunke’s past or how the big guy ended up in Rockville. He says he doesn’t recruit players and never recruited Sorunke. Dembroski says he did also not know who Boncore was until after the player was enrolled in Rockville High, at which time the coach was told that Boncore was Sorunke’s legal guardian. Billie-Jean Benson, the principal of Rockville High, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
While Dembroski, who just completed his second year as a high-school head coach, was unaware of Boncore, there was a time when Boncore was notorious on the D.C. hoops recruiting scene, mostly for his peddling of foreign big men to high schools in the area and colleges across the country.
In late 2009, he began trumpeting the services of Moses Ayegba, a 6’9" forward from Kano, Nigeria, who moved to the U.S. as a high-school senior just before Thanksgiving and immediately created a recruiting frenzy at the prep and college levels. Boncore announced himself as the player’s landlord and adviser. He placed Ayegba at the Progressive Christian Academy (PCA), a now-closed basketball factory posing as a godly school in Temple Hills, Md., and began serving as Ayegba’s spokesman throughout one of the most publicized battles in the country for Class of 2010 recruits. Ayegba averaged a triple-double (15 points, 16 rebounds and 12 blocks per game) in his one season at the shady prep school.
The fight over Ayegba (who later changed his name to “Moses Abraham”) eventually came down to Indiana and Georgetown, and Boncore got in the middle of the tussling between Indiana’s Tom Crean and Georgetown’s father/son duo, John Thompson II and John Thompson III. When Ayegba ultimately chose Georgetown, Crean huffed that Boncore had told him Indiana was a lock, and insinuated that Boncore had made some sort of dirty deal with the Thompsons.
Ayegba’s college career was briefly upended before it even begun; the NCAA suspended him for the first nine games of his freshman season for recruiting violations. The infraction? He’d taken “improper benefits” from Boncore, who told the NCAA he had paid for Ayegba’s airline ticket from Nigeria to the States. “If I had it to do again, what I did, I thought was fine,” Boncore told The Washington Post when Ayegba’s suspension was announced. “So if it’s a crime for me to buy a kid a plane ticket and I can’t do that from now on, then whatever. At least the kid is going to have an education.” The NCAA suspended Ayegba again in 2014 for one game, for reasons that were never specified but that ESPN reported were related to Boncore funding him.
Boncore made waves of the same sort in 2010 by giving high-school and college recruiters the hard sell on a mysterious 6’7” player from Kaduna, Nigeria, pitching him as the “Nigerian Xavier Henry.” This was high praise at the time, as Henry was then a blue-chip freshman forward at Kansas and a projected lottery pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. He was ultimately taken by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 12th overall pick and is now out of the league. In a blog post on Sportsnet New York, recruiting observer Adam Zagoria called Boncore out for ID’ing the kid by two different names—“Daddy Ugbede” and “Daddy Echebo”—during his campaigning to place the player first in high school, and then college.
From Zagoria’s piece:
“The frontrunners are Rutgers and Kentucky,” said Joe Boncore, Ugbede’s American trainer and also the mentor for 6-9 Georgetown commit Moses Abraham. Boncore said he would try and get Ugbede to Rutgers on a visit sometime in July. In previous blogs, Boncore referred to the young man as Daddy Echebo, but says his passport lists his name as Daddy Ugbede.
Though Boncore tried landing Daddy Echebo/Ugbede at St. John’s College High School, a member of WCAC, the player ultimately ended up across the country at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, Calif. After sitting out a varsity season because of paperwork problems, Daddy led the school to a California state sectional title. He ultimately settled on “Daddy Ugbede” and played two seasons at Drake, then transferred and finished his NCAA career in 2016 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
One longtime D.C.-area schoolboy coach recalled being in the administrative offices at DeMatha, a Hyattsville, Md., parochial school and WCAC member with a perennially top-flight hoops program, around the time of the Moses Abraham brouhaha. He watched with a combination of awe and incredulity as Boncore showed up at the school with some young talent to pitch. “Here he was, a stereotypical Italian-looking guy, dressed in a velour sweatsuit, driving a [big car],” said the ex-coach, who requested anonymity. “He pulls the [big car] right up to the front of the school, in the fire circle where he wasn’t supposed to park, and I see a short guy get out with a huge, 6’7” African kid, and just leaves the car there. I remember that scene, the sweatsuit, and thinking that the optics weren’t good.” According to the coach, DeMatha told Boncore it couldn’t discuss recruiting that player because he’d brought no paperwork showing the kid’s academic history or age.
Boncore says he has never taken any money from any school, player, or family for his work placing imported basketball talent. “[What I have asked for] is that they do it for another kid when they are older,” Boncore says. “Or I will kick their ass. I am no saint. But that is the truth. They are the good in my life.”
Boncore’s own sports resume has some questionable passages. “He received his bachelor’s degree from Jacksonville University where he played basketball on scholarship,” reads his bio on the website of Prime Seafood LLC, a food distributor serving the D.C. area that lists him as its director of operations.
According to a story about Sorunke in the school newspaper, Boncore graduated from Rockville High in 1984; Boncore does appear in the 1984 Rockville High yearbook in the varsity basketball team photo. But his name is nowhere to be found on Jacksonville University basketball’s rosters in 1984-1985, 1985-1986, 1986-1987, or 1987-1988. Nobody in the JU athletic department is aware of anybody named Boncore playing for the school. The school’s media guide indicates no player named “Boncore” was ever on a Jacksonville University team. (Just in case, I also checked in with the athletic department at Jacksonville State University, a school that frequently gets confused with Jacksonville U. Tyler Brown, the sports information director for men’s basketball at Jacksonville State, told me no player named Boncore appears on the JSU’s all-time list of basketball players, either.)
When I asked Boncore about the discrepancy between his version of his history as a scholarship basketball player for Jacksonville University and the school’s records, he backed off the claim in his bio. Via text, he told me he intended to play there but “couldn’t go due to dad’s death.”
The D.C. schoolboy hoops scene is used to scandals with apparently over-age talent. In 2013, Bishop O’Connell High won the prestigious WCAC league championship and was the top-ranked team in the city. The squad was led by Junior Etou, a 6’8” center from the Republic of Congo, who had played for D.C. Assault, a top AAU squad. Rumors about his age preceded his enrollment at O’Connell; lots of folks who saw O’Connell play that season noticed that Etou appeared both much older than everybody else on the court and much more mature than an average high-school student. “It was like watching Chris Webber play a bunch of high school kids,” an O’Connell alum told me after seeing Etou dominate an early-season game.
Throughout O’Connell’s season, officials and coaches at the school told all questioners that their new star had plenty of paperwork showing that he was born in June 1994, which would put him within eligibility requirements. The problem was, Etou had played in several international tournaments with the Congolese national team under his real name, Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou. Those events were overseen by FIBA, and Etou had registered a birth certificate with the association that showed he was actually born in June 1992, creating an extensive paper trail indicating he was almost 21 years old when he led O’Connell to the greatest on-court glories in school history. Despite gobs of evidence to the contrary, O’Connell and Etou never budged in their insistence that everybody else was wrong.
Etou is now playing at Tulsa, and his official sports bio there curiously makes no mention of his international experience. The school instead lists a June 1994 birthday and says he “began playing basketball at age 15.” That seems a logistical miracle, given that FIBA records show that by August of 2009, Etou was already a defensive star and leading shot blocker for Congo’s senior national team in AfroBasket 2009, the continent’s championship tournament held in Tripoli and Benghazi. Etou also played on Congo’s 2010 U18 national team, which was thrown out of the continental championships and banned by FIBA from competing in international age-group events because of rampant birth-certificate fraud (although Etou was not one of the players cited at the time of the punishment).
FIBA officials told me that after my reports on Etou, he told the organization he wanted to play for the Congo team again, and attempted to register a new birth certificate that took two years off his original FIBA-certified basketball age. FIBA officials told me that after their investigation they declined to recognize Etou’s second birth certificate, which had a 1994 birth date, and he has yet to return to the national squad. Tulsa’s athletic department did not respond to multiple requests for its source for the 1994 birth date or other dubious information in Etou’s bio on the school’s web site. Etou’s name still comes up quite a bit on the D.C. basketball prep hoops scene, where there is still considerable anger that O’Connell got away with something.
Maryland public schools do not permit students “who have reached the age of 19 years old or older as of August 31” to play high-school sports; rules also forbid “high school graduates” from competing. If the Nigerian blog’s two-year-old profile of him as a college student holds, Sorunke was 20 years old before beginning his freshman year at Rockville High.
I told Boncore about the post describing Olujimi Sorunke Abayomi as a 6'11" MAPOLY student with a June 11, 1997, birthday and asked about its information. “It’s another kid,” he said. “There’s other kids that have this name. Not the same kid.” Yet after I told him I’d seen Facebook posts from Sorunke with photos at MAPOLY—and emailed him a photo of a guy who appears to be Sorunke on campus—Boncore asked for some time to talk to Sorunke about it, saying he would get back to me after their discussion. Hours later, he sent several texts about their talk, and offered a different explanation for that post’s existence: According to Boncore, the profile indicating that Sorunke was a college student was part of an effort to recruit Sorunke to play basketball for MAPOLY. “They just wanted a big to play on their team,” Boncore texted.
As for playing on a team that won a 2016 FIBA 3x3 tournament that was restricted to players 18 years old and above, Boncore said all members of Sorunke’s team were “14 and 15” years old, despite the listed rules requiring them to be over 18.
Boncore also said he remains convinced of the legitimacy of the paperwork he’s seen, which tells him that he’s the guardian of a 16-year-old kid. “His passport and birth certificate are one thousand percent right,” Boncore texted. “No doubt. His relatives and friends all agree.”
Unsolicited, he also provided his theory on Sorunke’s motivation to get from there to here by any means necessary. “Go to where he is from and see the ghetto in Lagos,” Boncore wrote, “and ask if you would want to play in anything that gave you an escape.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Daddy Ugbede played for the Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif. He actually played for the Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, Calif.