Azubuike balances athletics, academics and his faith

October 29, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Trying to balance athletics, academics and his spiritual faith can be an imposing task at times for Kelenna Azubuike. However, he says it's not an impossible balancing act.

"It's a challenge, but it's possible. I try to give each one a good amount of attention and try to make sure that I keep things in perspective," said Azubuike. "The spiritual part really helps. It keeps family and everything else in perspective and helps remind me of what is really important."

It's not unusual for Azubuike, a junior forward, to share his faith. He's become active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at UK.

"I've always been involved in different programs like that," Azubuike said. "FCA has Bible study and other things now that I really like. Getting in FCA has been a real blessing for me.


"I enjoy going out and sharing my faith when I can. I like talking to people. It's not like I preach or anything like that. But it is a joy for me to be able to say something to kids to let them know what my faith means to me.

"My only problem is that I have to make sure that I don't get to where I am doing too much of that. People keep asking me to speak because they've heard I went somewhere else and gave a talk. You can't say yes to everybody, but it's also hard to say no."

Azubuike knows his message will be listened to more intently because of the success he's had on the basketball court. He became a starter last year and is Kentucky's second leading returning scorer going into this season.

"That's just the way it is in Kentucky," Azubuike said. "People love basketball and it puts you at a place where people will listen to you if you have something interesting to say. That helps me share my message.

"I keep it low key. It's usually real casual when I go out because that's just me. I share my experiences in high school and college and how God has helped me and been such a big influence in my life. I try to show how my relationship with Jesus Christ shows in all I do."

Azubuike doesn't let his academic work slide, either. He says his amount of study time varies from semester to semester, but that he values his educational opportunities.

"It's definitely not easy here. I just try to balance everything out and make sure I don't get behind," he said. "That can be hard, especially during the season. I just work as hard as I can and put all my energy into my studies when I do study. A lot of us on the team do a good job in that area. It's something coach (Tubby) Smith expects from us."

High expectations

Smith expects a lot on the basketball court from Azubuike, too. He averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last year, but the coach says it is time for Azubuike to do even more.

"In the past, we haven't needed him to assume a bigger role. This year we do," Smith said. "He's a veteran player now. He has to carry a bigger load on everything from scoring to rebound to defense to leadership. He has to be more accountable. But we really need him to score more, which he is capable of doing."

Azubuike, Oklahoma's leading high school scorer his junior and senior years, worked to develop his offensive skills during the summer. He's become a better ballhandler and spent time working on using his left hand more.

"You can never stop working," Azubuike said. "If people say you have a weakness, you want to turn that into a strength. That's always one of my goals."

"He's worked on his ballhandling and passing so he can make that extra pass if he gets double teamed," Smith said. "That's the one area that had been lacking in his offensive game."

Azubuike developed into a dependable defensive player last year. That was a weakness he had his first year at Kentucky.

"Defense comes with experience. You have to understand where to be," Azubuike said. "It's tough to come in right away your freshman year and have it come easy to you and play defense the way coach Smith wants. That comes with being here and now I do feel like I'm a good defensive player.

"Maybe at times I concentrated too much on defense last year. But as far as coach Smith is concerned, you can never play too much defense. This year I just have to balance it out better."

Friendship with Mills

Former UK player Cameron Mills has no doubts Azubuike can do that. Like Azubuike, Mills is a strong Christian and likes to share his faith with others. That's one reason he became friends with Azubuike and his family.

"I love Kelenna," Mills said. "Because of our faith and similarities, our friendship was a natural. Even though we have not spent a lot of time together, it's like we are brothers in Christ. It's just something we have and why I pull for him in more than just basketball."

Mills knows Azubuike has had to cope with his father's heart transplant as well as his father's legal problems in Oklahoma.

"He said this all has brought him closer to his father," Mills said. "He's spending a lot of time with his family, which is an awesome thing. At the same time, basketball can be a relief. He can get out on the court and not have to think about stuff like that.

"He handles it all well. Kelenna is a strong person and when he goes through tough times like he's been through and has family has been through, he just relies more on the Lord than anything else. As someone who tries to do the same thing, it's better than anything else."

Mills believes Azubuike can become a marquee player this year, much like Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans have been in recent years.

"He's not that assertive type of guy naturally, but he has to become that on the court this year because he's one of the team's best players," Mills said. "He's one of the leaders and he has to behave that way. He has to be much more of a leader, but he has everything you want in a star player. He just has to go out and do it."

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