Jefferson P. Nolan
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It was a moment of awe.
In the Cal Poly basketball team’s home opener against Nevada, David Nwaba introduced himself to Cal Poly with his first slam dunk in Mott Athletics Center.
The sophomore found a hole in the defense, and weaving through the defenders, he drove to the basket.
Launching himself in the air, the 6-foot-4 winger took flight as he slammed the basketball through the rim and brought the crowd to its feet.
The jam helped spawn Nwaba’s new nickname — Sav, short for “savage.”
“It was Maliik (Love) who came up with the name,” Nwaba said. “It was after my second or third dunk … I guess it was a really good one, and he gave me the nickname.”
After Cal Poly’s loss against Fresno State early this season, Love, a junior guard, gathered the team together in the locker room.
“I remember him going up to dunk on someone, and he had this vengeance about him,” Love said. “The way he went up and dunked the ball that night … After that game, I announced to the team that his name was now ‘Sav.’ Even people we’ve played have come up to him at the end of the game and said, ‘Hey, you’re a savage, man.’”
Nwaba has been throwing dunks down since the first game of the season against Arizona, now the No. 2 team in the nation.
The Mustangs lost the 73-62 decision against the Wildcats, but in that game, the team caught a glimpse of his dexterity on the court.
With six minutes left before halftime, Nwaba single-handedly cut Cal Poly’s seven-point deficit to one after making four consecutive free throws, forcing a turnover and slamming an emphatic dunk through the rim.
“When the lights come on, he turns into a beast,” assistant coach Sam Kirby said. “He’s a different person. When it’s game time, he goes to work. It doesn’t matter who’s in the lane. He’s going to get to the basket.”
In that first game of the season, a savage was born.
Theodore Nwaba, David’s dad, stands at 5-foot-7. Blessing Nwaba, his mom, is 5-foot-6. Even now, the 6-foot-4, 200 pound wing has no idea where he got his height.
His aptitude for the game of basketball came out of nowhere.
Growing up, Theodore played tennis and soccer; Blessing used to run track.
“I really don’t know where I got the height,” Nwaba said. “I don’t know how I started (playing basketball). Just growing up playing a bunch of sports, you eventually fall in love with one.”
As Nwaba has experienced, love is a journey, and sometimes that journey can be rocky.
Nwaba’s odyssey to the Central Coast began at University High School in Southern California.
In West Los Angeles, Nwaba was named a two-time All-Western League Most Valuable Player honoree and was honored as an all-league, first team selection.
But while Nwaba had offers from a number of Big West schools, the basketball star’s grades began to slack during his senior year, and his options became limited.
Seeing an opportunity to snag top-tier talent, Division II Hawaii-Pacific University decided to give Nwaba a shot. And for him, there was no turning down a scholarship to play the game he loved.
Nwaba made the move to Honolulu as a freshman, but the experience proved to be vastly different from what he anticipated.
“(At Hawaii-Pacific) it was lower-level basketball, and it didn’t really fit me,” Nwaba said. “It was terrible there. I thought I wanted to get away from home, but it was really far. My parents didn’t like that decision I made. In general, it just wasn’t a good fit for me.”
Nwaba moved back home to Los Angeles and enrolled in Santa Monica Junior College. The goal remained the same: to make it to Division I basketball.
“Seeing all my friends playing at that level … I thought, ‘I can hang with them,'” Nwaba said.
At Santa Monica, Nwaba averaged 20.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per-game. He was named the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year and to the All-California Community College Athletic Association state first team.
But more importantly, the athlete started to make the grade in the classroom.
That’s when Nwaba received the first of many phone calls from Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero.
A second family
After each recruit has committed to the team, Callero always asks his athletes a question: “What was the deciding factor for you in making your decision to come to play at Cal Poly?”
“They say, ‘Coach, you were really important. When you drove down to see me or when you called, it really meant a lot.’ But at the end of the day … I think that the most important aspect of recruitment is our current players,” Callero said. “At the end of the day, this is a family. I know it sounds corny, but we spent Thanksgiving together … we spend the holidays, our birthdays and our Sundays together. We really do become a family.”
With three years of eligibility remaining, Nwaba would have been a catch for every team in the Big West Conference.
But when he made an official visit to Cal Poly and met his fellow athletes, Nwaba had made his decision.
“I went out here for an official visit … They just showed more love here for me,” Nwaba said. “I felt wanted, so I made the decision to come here.”
Nwaba now lives with three of his teammates on the basketball team. On Jan. 14, the sophomore ventured downtown to the bars of San Luis Obispo with his friends and teammates to celebrate his 21st birthday.
“The bartenders here really aren’t that nice to those who are turning 21,” senior forward Chris Eversley said, laughing. “We had practice the day after, so we couldn’t go too hard. Definitely one of the more entertaining 21sts I’ve been a part of. It was just a matter of him having to pay his dues.”
But these are dues Nwaba doesn’t mind paying.
“I feel like I’m building chemistry with my teammates, and they’re making me feel at home,” Nwaba said. “I’m really close with (my roommates), but I love them all.”
The dunk master
This past week — when a Mustang News camera crew set up to shoot video of Nwaba’s infamous dunks — he tried to put on a show for the small crowd.
First, the passes he received were too low, then too high. The sophomore transfer slammed the first few off the rim.
Nwaba never dunks in practice, and it took at least five attempts for him to throw one down.
“He needs a little bit of excitement,” Kirby explained. “Something has got to get him going for his legs to get involved. It’s the crowd; it’s the mentality.”
Nwaba now plays in front of a Division I crowd in one of the smallest, yet most raucous, venues in NCAA basketball.
“The energy we get from everyone in the gym is amazing, and it helps with the legs,” Eversley explained. “The legs you don’t have in practice, you’re going to have on game day.”
Though he may not rehearse dunk drills in practice, come game time Nwaba has had no trouble getting those legs going.
Known for a focus on keeping opponent possessions down, Callero’s addition of Nwaba has brought an athleticism to the the fifth-year head coach’s team he hasn’t seen in years.
“(Callero) knew about my athleticism … He wanted to bring that to the team,” Nwaba said. “I feel like that’s what I’m good at doing, so I like to bring excitement to the crowd.”
The aggression in the wing position allows Nwaba to drive to the hoop at any time, making it extremely difficult for opponents to defend.
But dunks aside, it is the “coachablity” of the young talent that makes him such a current threat and a weapon for the future, according to Callero.
“(His jump shot) is something he’s developed in just the last two months,” Callero said. “That’s a credit to his coachablility. I think he’s a kid who has yet to even scratch the surface of how great he can be down the road. I think his improvement will be continuous and he has a great chance to make money as a professional someday.”
An admirer of the NBA’s Kevin Durant, there is little doubt that Nwaba envisions a similar future for his own career.
Revered for his raw shooting ability, Durant has been dubbed the “Slim Reaper.”
But while the college athlete tries to emulate the professional’s style of play, a noticeable dissimilarity differentiates the two athletes: Durant is not a fan of his nickname, but Nwaba has embraced his alter-ego.