‘Quitting is not an option’ for Ogemuno-Johnson
By Hannah Newman
Nine years and nearly 5,500 miles away from home and one passion steering the wheel toward success.
From being a two-year varsity starter and captain at Monsignor Bonner in Pennsylvania, to a five-year contributor who became Rider’s program leader in games played, graduate student forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson has made the court more than just a reason to play basketball, but a reason to score a new beginning.
“At the end I know what my goal is so quitting is not an option. At some point you’ve got to find your own path and I think that’s very important, finding what’s important to you,” said Ogemuno-Johnson.
Making the dream a reality
Ogemuno-Johnson, a native of Delta State, Nigeria, began his basketball journey in the eighth grade. A child that came from a family background without any athletic history, the 6-foot-8-inch Ogemuno-Johnson grew up unaware of the impact the game would have on his life.
As his days of middle school turned into high school, Ogemuno-Johnson knew that his heart fell into the hoop the more he would shoot the ball.
“Nobody in my family played sports so it’s kind of like a coincidence type event that happened in my middle school years,” said Ogemuno-Johnson. “It was something that I never really thought about at first, it just happened. I just fell in love with the game and knew it’s what I wanted to do.”
The abrupt devotion made Ogemuno-Johnson an addition to the AAU Circuit, a travel sports organization geared toward preparing athletes for the next level. Joining the league brought Ogemuno-Johnson to the United States, where he came as an independent teen yearning for more opportunities to play basketball and a broader future to lock his eyes on.
In 2014, Ogemuno-Johnson was recruited to play basketball for a high school in Florida. Johnson then had to learn how to navigate through three new worlds: basketball, America, and independence.
Complications during his time in Florida pushed Ogemuno-Johnson to transfer to Monsignor Bonner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His move did not go as smoothly as planned. Due to his late transfer, his transcripts were not received in time. His next best option was playing basketball in Connecticut for his sophomore year season.
Beaten down by the multiple detours along the way, Ogemuno-Johnson refused to give up his vision of playing basketball at Monsignor Bonner and transferred back his junior year. Ogemuno-Johnson stayed with a host family after his move back to Monsignor Bonner until he graduated, mentioning that he still stays in contact with them today.
“The biggest thing for me was learning that trusting is not easy,” Ogemuno-Johnson said. “A lot of people will sell you lies but there are good people in the world and being open to understanding who has your best interest at heart. My journey has been so successful from meeting the right people.”
Ogemuno-Johnson remained active in summer leagues in between his years of high school refusing to trip over adversity in the process of building himself and his future.
“I stayed true to myself, I knew what I wanted to do and if I met somebody whose idea of what they wanted me to do did not match my idea of what I want to be, then I kind of distance myself or change my environment,” said Ogemuno-Johnson.
Following his years at Monsignor Bonner, Ogemuno-Johnson was recruited to Rider.
As a freshman, Ogemuno-Johnson played in 25 games, including three-straight starts. The following year he was one of six Broncs to play in all 30 games, every one off the bench.
In the 2020-21 season he averaged 7.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, while shooting a team-best 60.6% from the floor and during his senior year he averaged 7.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, while shooting a team-best 60.6 percent from the floor.
This past year, Ogemuno-Johnson started all 31 games played, averaging 8.6 points and 7.0 rebounds
which brought him to seventh in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) play.
“When I came in, I was a part of the group that won 10 years in a row so just being a part of the community itself has been great for me,” said Ogemuno-Johnson.
With an undergraduate degree in psychology, Ogemuno-Johnson’s graduate studies consisted of leadership with a concentration in counseling. His academics have paralleled his success as an athlete as he pursues a career in counseling with a hope to work on improving the mental health of student athletes.
“I’ve been through it in a sense so that kind of sparked that in me to want to be an uplift for athletes when I get done playing basketball and provide social services for them from a person who has been through it, someone who has their perspective of it,” said Ogemuno-Johnson.
Adversity into an achievement
Ogemuno-Johnson recalled the battle he fought with his mental health upon arriving in America toward the end of 2014, although with time and determination, he became more at ease. The experience inspired him to pursue a career that consists of finding a better mental state for others he can see sitting where he was at one point in his life.
“I’ve grown so much coming here to the U.S. and being alone for so long. I had to adjust many parts of my life so I understand the struggles and that’s what really built me to want to help in that [mental health] area,” said Ogemuno-Johnson.
Ogemuno-Johnson is currently enrolled in an organizational research course where he focuses on the approaches athletic administrators had to take in order to recreate the program’s protocols that have never had to be manipulated in such a way before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Donald Heilman, who teaches the course, was pleased with Ogemuno-Johnson’s dedication to his future career goals and his persistent balance of being a student-athlete.
“His proposal for research, essentially, focuses on how difficult it was for athletes, when the pandemic struck and athletic programs were suspended,” said Heilman. “His viewpoint of his research is to find out what athletic administrators had to go through to build that out because there was no existing model.”
Ogemuno-Johnson’s research will consist of a series of surveys that outline the path in which the athletic department had to take in order to mold the programs to their original shape and success they held.
“That’s what a lot of my students want to write about, COVID-19 had this huge impact on their lives and Ajiri is the first one though, to frame it,” said Heilman.
As Ogemuno-Johnson approaches his master’s degree, the athletic department has acknowledged the influence he has made on his community as an figure whose goal is to help others while in the process of helping himself.
“It’s been clear working with Ajiri over the past five years that he not only views the opportunities he’s had at Rider and in the United States differently, but exhibits a unique appreciation of them,” said Assistant Administrator for Sports Communication Gregory Ott. “It’s been truly refreshing to follow Ajiri’s journey to this point and I know he’ll be successful in whatever his future holds.”
No matter the distance, no matter the challenge and no matter who or what attempts to interfere, Ogemuno-Johnson’s tunnel vision on success and his future has canceled any negative weight that has been thrown on his shoulders during the building process of his future.
“For me it’s about the success of it,” said Ogemuno-Johnson. “I can go home at any time that I want but that’s not what I want to do, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything so the accomplishment that what I want to achieve in my life is more important than going home for a few weeks.”
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