Ajayi’s large personality sets tone for Matadors

Behind+a+consistent+effort+and+strong+rebounding%2C+senior+center+Olalekan+Ayaji+is+on+pace+to+shatter+his+production+at+Eastern+Michigan+this+season.+Photo+credit%3A+Juan+Pardo
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Ajayi’s large personality sets tone for Matadors

Behind a consistent effort and strong rebounding, senior center Olalekan Ayaji is on pace to shatter his production at Eastern Michigan this season. Photo credit: Juan Pardo

Behind a consistent effort and strong rebounding, senior center Olalekan Ayaji is on pace to shatter his production at Eastern Michigan this season. Photo credit: Juan Pardo

Behind a consistent effort and strong rebounding, senior center Olalekan Ayaji is on pace to shatter his production at Eastern Michigan this season. Photo credit: Juan Pardo

Behind a consistent effort and strong rebounding, senior center Olalekan Ayaji is on pace to shatter his production at Eastern Michigan this season. Photo credit: Juan Pardo

Julius Lasin

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In a recent victory against Vanguard University, the CSUN men’s basketball team built a sizable double figure lead when senior center Olalekan “Lekan” Ajayi dove on the floor and nearly crashed into the media table trying to save the ball from going out of bounds.

For the senior center, who is a graduate transfer from Eastern Michigan, sacrifice, energy, and enthusiasm have been his calling cards since he stepped foot onto CSUN.

“Seeing somebody work that hard, constantly [with] that kind of motor, it affects the whole team,” said senior Landon Drew. “It makes us feel like we should be the same way.”

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Ajayi’s production has already seen a considerable spike since arriving at CSUN, including a 17-point, 10-rebound performance on Nov. 18 against Vanguard University.

Despite only being at CSUN since early October, Ajayi has already left his imprint on the program, not only on the court, but off, where he is a vocal and jovial figure on the team.

“He smiles a lot. He works hard. He’s the guy that I wish I had for four years,” said CSUN men’s basketball head coach Reggie Theus. “I think he would really shock some people with his abilities. He has great tools, but his energy is infectious.”

Despite his ability to express himself and intents on the court, Ajayi wasn’t even supposed to be a basketball player.

“I used to play soccer all my life,” Ajayi said. “I started playing basketball when I was 17, going to be 18. I didn’t even watch the game of basketball; I didn’t even like basketball.”

Ajay intended to become a professional soccer player—although six-foot-eleven strikers don’t grow on trees—but after he was invited to and strived in an NBA-sponsored basketball camp called Basketball Without Borders, he was invited to come to the United States to play on scholarship.

From there, Ajayi attended high school at Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem, NC, where he excelled in and out of the classroom.

He garnered interest from universities such as the University of Tennessee, North Carolina State University, Oklahoma University and Wake Forest to attend those institutions and play basketball there.

As a result of his exposure and time playing basketball, he has grown to love the sport.

“Now I love [basketball], but I still love soccer too,” Ajayi said with a grin.

He eventually opted to play at a junior college in Texas—Collin College—before making his way to Eastern Michigan University for two years.

Although he finally made it to the Division I level, Ajayi’s experience in Michigan didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped.

“I thought going being a big fish in a little pond would be better,” Ajayi said, reflecting on his decision to go to a mid major school. “But it was a mistake. it was the worst mistake of my entire life.”

He scored only 59 points over the course of two seasons there, with his career-high being six points.

“I wasted two years of my life that I can’t get back,” Ajayi said.

After a disappointing stint at Eastern Michigan, Ajayi wanted to be close to his extended family again, with his heart set on enrolling at North Carolina A&T.

However, Chris Pompey, an assistant coach at CSUN reached out to him, to see if he wanted to join the Matadors.

At first Ajayi was apprehensive, not knowing much about Theus or Northridge. But following a conversation with his godfather and NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, he decided to take a visit to CSUN.

And after meeting Theus, he pivoted and decided Northridge was the right place to be.

“He was more than what I thought he was,” Ajayi said of Theus. “He was a good person. He shoots it straight. He doesn’t sugar coat.”

And over the course of a few months, Ajayi has formed a special bond with his head coach, especially being far away from his home country.

“When I see him, I see him just like he is my father,” he said.

It is integral for CSUN that Ajayi produce and provide leadership, as he is only one of three seniors on the team this season. (Juan Pardo/The Sundial)

It is integral for CSUN that Ajayi produce and provide leadership, as he is only one of three seniors on the team this season. (Juan Pardo/The Sundial)

Ajayi sees Theus as somebody who has given him another opportunity to succeed on and off the court, after an arduous time at Eastern Michigan.

“This is somebody I will have a relationship with until I die,” he said.

The fresh start to Ajayi’s career not only benefits himself, as his teammates are the beneficiaries of his personality, especially during trying times.

“It brings us closer together,” said sophomore forward Tavrion Dawson. “We work hard a lot—guys can have attitudes or something—but he’ll have a funny joke or something, and it’ll brighten up the day.”

Granted, it’s easy to see Ajayi as a joker because of his three-point contests at practice or permanent smile, there is an underlying seriousness once the ball is tipped. That seriousness isn’t more evident than when Ajayi is giving up his body and darting across the court for rebounds.

Even though that energy and intensity is eye-opening for those around Ajayi, it’s something that is second nature to him. It’s “god-given” to him.

“You can’t teach somebody how to play hard. It’s something they are more comfortable doing,” he said. “It’s something natural.”

Talent notwithstanding, Ajayi’s steadfast commitment and passion may stem from his upbringing and having to grow up quickly once he arrived in the United States.

“Everything I have achieved in America is what I worked for,” Ajayi said, who has already earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Eastern Michigan, and was the valedictorian of his senior class in high school. “Nobody has ever given me anything. That’s how I was brought up.”

That sentiment will not be truer than during this season, when the Matadors—who will trot out seven combined freshmen and sophomores—look to Ajayi to provide leadership and defensive presence.

For Ajayi to do that, he knows it is imperative that he utilizes his signature empathy and zeal over the course of the season.

“My teammates—they’re young, and I’m a grad student,” he said. “I have to make them feel comfortable, and let them know that ‘I have your back, let’s go to war.’”