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Updated Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 10:01 PM

Seattle U's Brenda Adhiambo embodies much that is right with college sports

By Steve Kelley
Times staff columnist

With all of the conference hop-scotching and all of the greedy money-grabbing and all of the NCAA's erratic enforcement of its Byzantine rules, it sometimes feels as if college sports have lost their souls.

The good from playing the games often gets overwhelmed by the tsunami of arrests and recruiting violations and the pursuit of the BCS's billions.

And as important as it is to track these stories and report on the greed and the misdeeds, it also is important to be reminded that there are thousands of good stories in college athletics.

Seattle University's Brenda Adhiambo is one of them.

College basketball has given her opportunities she wouldn't have had if she had stayed home in Mombasa, Kenya, a city of nearly 1 million. The game is giving her an education and a future.

Adhiambo, a senior post player, looks at basketball as the conduit to do good things in the world long after she has grabbed her last offensive rebound. For her, college athletics are much more than fun and games.

"There is a richness that athletics can bring to a university," said Anita Crawford-Willis, an assistant deputy chief administrative law judge at the Washington State Office of Administrative Hearings, who is a mentor to Adhiambo. "All that Brenda has gotten from the support of the university is an example of that."

At age 19, Adhiambo left Kenya to play basketball at Lon Morris Junior College in Jacksonville, Texas. The first thing she noticed when she got off the plane less than four years ago was the noise and breadth of Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

"It was overwhelming, both scary and exciting at the same time," she said recently, sitting in head coach Joan Bonvicini's office. "It was a different world compared with Kenya. I felt like I had this great opportunity that could change my life forever.

"I knew I had to take it, but at the same time, I was coming to a new country when I was 19 and that was a scary thing to do."

Adhiambo came to the U.S. with her heart, her wits, her intelligence and her game.

That was all she had. And that was enough.

She came to the United States to continue the legacy of community involvement that her father left her after his death when she was 16.

"My dad was always a giving, caring person and just seeing him always helping out in the community and helping people really influenced my life," said Adhiambo, whose older brother died when she was 8. "Because of him, when I graduate I would like to work for a nonprofit organization, give back as much as I can and give back to kids as much as possible and encourage them to follow their dreams. I think that I am a living example of what can happen if you follow your dreams."

At their best, college sports are investments in the future. Without basketball, it's hard to say what direction Adhiambo's life would have taken her.

"She's had a lot of hard things happen to her in her life at an early age," Crawford-Willis said. "And the fact that she's overcome and persevered to achieve all that she has is a tribute to the kind of person she is and the strength that she has."

Bonvicini didn't recruit Adhiambo purely for altruistic reasons. The coach needed a post player and was impressed with Adhiambo's single-minded pursuit of rebounds.

"I like players who really get after it, and the first thing I noticed when I saw Brenda was her work ethic," Bonvicini said. "She had a high motor. She was a rebounding machine. This year, I think she's going to have a breakthrough season."

The Redhawks host the Washington Dental Thanksgiving Tournament, playing Portland on Friday. After three games, the 6-foot Adhiambo is averaging 7 points and 6.7 rebounds.

Bonvicini says she has made the adjustment to the physical game on the court and the mental game in the classroom at Seattle U.

Adhiambo talks with a quiet energy. This is an athlete with plans, an athlete who wants to establish herself here after she has played her final college game.

"There's something different about her in a good way," assistant coach Kristen O'Neill said. "She's the kind of kid who is grateful for everything. That's a breath of fresh air for a coach."

Adhiambo hasn't been home since landing in Houston and admits there are times when she is profoundly homesick, when she badly wants to see her mother, four sisters and brother.

"But then I remind myself that I'm on a mission right now," she said. "I have to take care of what I have to do now. I've learned that I have to appreciate what I have here now and make the best of it."

Brenda Adhiambo is the part of the overwhelming good that comes from college athletics. Let's not forget there are thousands of stories like hers.

Meet Brenda Adhiambo

Hometown: Mombasa, Kenya

Before SU: Transferred from Lon Morris Junior College, where she was a third-team All-American in 2010-11

Stats: Scored career-high 16 last season and has grabbed 10 rebounds twice

Family: Has five older siblings — Yunia, Fidel, Jacky, Diana and Maureen

Source: Seattle University


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