PROVO — New Mexico Junior College forward Gideon George walked into the dorm room of a teammate one day in Hobbs, New Mexico, and saw a pair of basketball shoes discarded in the garbage.

“What are you doing with those shoes?” George asked.

“I’m throwing them away,” his teammate said. 

“We need shoes back home,” George said. “Can I have them?”

The answer was yes. George retrieved the shoes and instinctively knew what to do. That marked the beginning of a heartfelt, and impactful, project. 

George, a native of the remote village of Minna, Nigeria, who signed with the BYU basketball program in April, started talking to his other NMJC teammates about collecting shoes to send to Africa. 

“The players started giving their shoes away and then the women’s basketball and track teams gave their shoes away,” said New Mexico JC coach Luke Adams. “Next thing you know, they had 30 to 40 pairs of shoes.”

Later, the school’s athletic director held a game-day promotion, giving free tickets to those who donated shoes. They gathered more than 100 pairs. Gideon and his brother, Samson, who played last season at the University of Pittsburgh, connected with an organization, Time Out 4 Africa Foundation, that transported the shoes to Nigeria, where the average salary is about $400 a year.

“I appreciate the people giving away their shoes for the kids back home,” said George. “I just wish I was there to see their faces when they got the shoes, to see them happy.”

That story, Adams said, exemplifies the type of person that the 6-foot-6 forward is. 

“He’s one of the best human beings that I know. He’s a special, special kid. Gideon is always looking to give back to the kids,” Adams said. “He’s always trying to serve. He’s a great Christian kid. He’s very appreciative of everything. He’s not entitled. He’s just so happy. He’s in the moment all of the time. He’s a happy person. He’s a very hard worker. He’s coachable and I don’t think he’s ever had a bad attitude or thinking about himself. He thinks of others. He has a pure heart. I’ve never seen a kid as pure as him as far as how unselfish he is and what kind of teammate he is off the floor.

“Anyone that gets to know him loves him because he doesn’t ask for anything and he’s so grateful. It’s rare to see. If I could coach a Gideon George every year, I would do it. I’d have zero issues with that.”

BYU coach Mark Pope predicts that Cougar fans will embrace George, who has two years of eligibility remaining. 

“Gideon is one of the most genuine, sincere, dedicated, hardworking athletes that I’ve ever had the opportunity to recruit. Growing up in Nigeria, he learned a work ethic and lives with a level of gratitude that is inspiring.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

“Gideon is one of the most genuine, sincere, dedicated, hardworking athletes that I’ve ever had the opportunity to recruit,” he said. “Growing up in Nigeria, he learned a work ethic and lives with a level of gratitude that is inspiring. He is an extraordinarily gifted athlete, a great teammate and we have high expectations for his growth and what he’ll contribute here at BYU. He’s going to be a fan favorite.”

“When they see everything about him, they’ll fall in love with the kid,” Adams said of BYU fans. “No question in my mind that he’ll be a fan favorite.”

BYU assistant coach Chris Burgess said what makes George different is that he’s focused on what matters most. 

“Gideon doesn’t have Netflix, he doesn’t play video games. He doesn’t know about that stuff. He knows about going to class and playing basketball,” he said. “If you know coach Pope, that’s what he’s about. There’s no nonsense to him. He’s a unique individual. He’s going to work his tail off and he’s going to be in the gym all the time. The guys are going to really get along with him.” 

Elite rebounder 

So how could George help the BYU basketball program? 

On the court, he is an aggressive rebounder and defender and is improving as a shooter. Adams believes his abilities will translate well to the Division I level.  

“He has a lot of upside. Especially from the character aspect — how good of a teammate he is, how tough he is, how competitive he is. All those characteristics that you want in any player. On top of that, he’s a very, very good athlete,” Adams said. “He’s got great hands, big hands. He’s a freak when it comes to his body and athletic ability. When you tie all that to his skill set, he’s going to be a very good player. He’s got these huge hands. He’s very, very strong. He’s got a very quick second jump. He can shoot a shot, miss it and grab his own rebound and go back up with it. He has great instincts as far as chasing the ball and pursuing it with two hands. He goes after it more than anyone else so he gets more than anyone else. He’s an elite rebounder, for sure.”

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Adams recalled a game against South Plains JC. Someone told Adams that George had thrown an elbow during the game but he didn’t see it. Neither did his assistants. 

“Make no mistake about it, on the floor, he’s vicious,” Adams said. “Usually a kid will deny throwing an elbow. I texted him. I knew 100% that he would tell the truth. I said, ‘Gideon, did you elbow a player?’ He goes, ‘Yes, coach, I did. I’m sorry.’ I asked him when. ‘Sometime in the beginning of the second half.’ That he would respond to that truthfully is the funniest part. He didn’t elbow him that bad at all. But the fact that he is going to tell you the truth is the type of kid Gideon is.”

George’s athleticism and rebounding ability should help BYU next season. 

“He’s looking to be developed. He’s got athleticism, he’s got a work ethic and he’s got a really good stroke for only playing a few years,” Burgess said. “This has Mark Pope written all over him in terms of player-developing kids. He just really fit us.”

Gideon George, a 6-foot-6 forward who will join the BYU program next season, averaged 14.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.5 steals as a sophomore at New Mexico Junior College in 2019-20. | Nate Edwards, BYU

Adams agreed that George is a good match for the Cougars. 

“From the player development aspect, BYU has great resources there and a great staff. They have all the resources that a high-major has. They’re in a very good conference but it’s not a Big 12 or an ACC. Gideon will be very good in (the West Coast Conference),” he said. “He just has to get that experience of playing and he’ll continue to grow. As he stays on that path, he’ll get a lot better.”

Adams expects George to develop quickly in Provo. 

“A lot of NBA scouts look at players and see how much they improve from their senior year in high school to their freshman year. It tells you how high their ceiling is,” he said. “I’ve been around a lot of really good players. I played at Texas Tech with a lot of really good players. I’ve never seen anyone make as much improvement as him. I’m curious to see how he keeps improving. I think BYU is a perfect spot for that.”

Burgess said he can see George playing either the three or four spot for BYU. 

“If we want to be really good and do what we did the past year, he’s going to be able to play both positions equally because of what he does defensively and his length,” he said. “He can really shoot it but he’s never been in a system or been asked to shoot a lot of 3s. He takes open shots the way Dalton Nixon took open shots. He shot them in the flow of the offense. He can make plays off the bounce. Our job is to teach him that part of the game. He’s an undersized four. But his length and athleticism make up for that.

“His ceiling is extremely high. If he has a great career at BYU and plays overseas and two or three years later he might work his way to a higher level,” Burgess added. “I think his ceiling is off-the-charts because he’s so raw. He has everything that basketball is looking for — length and athleticism, being able to play multiple positions defensively. His ceiling is super high. He has a really good IQ. He can talk the game.”

Burgess said George “has the potential to be an all-conference player if he’ll continue to work hard, trust us and do what he does best — use that length and athleticism to run, rebound, finish shots and score in the post. We’ll use everything he has to give. But the hardest thing for junior college kids is the transition to Division I — the workload doubles and sometimes triples. It’s harder on you mentally. The schedule is harder, the travel is harder. That’s going to be the biggest thing for him, the transition from junior college to Division I. It’s a big jump and we have a good track record under coach Pope of junior college kids making that transition smooth.”

George has developed considerably since enrolling at New Mexico JC. “I’ve improved a lot, a lot in every aspect of my game,” he said.

For him, it’s all part of living his dream.

“Every kid’s dream back home is to get the opportunity to play basketball in America,” he said. “When my brother left for America, I wanted to go to America, too, to play basketball.”

Introduction to basketball

George has only been playing basketball for four or five years. He grew up playing soccer in Nigeria and turned to hoops after his older brother got involved in the sport. 

One day his mom sent him to go get his brother, who was playing basketball at a gym. George showed up and before he knew it, the coach had given him a ball and immediately started working him out. 

“I fell in love with the game and I started working hard,” George said. “The coach just put me in the right direction. He explained the game of basketball to me.”

One of Adams’ close friends, Brandon Goble of JUCO Advocate, traveled to Nigeria to put on basketball clinics and find athletes that want to attend college and play in the United States. 

George and others traveled about eight hours on a bus to be at that basketball camp and they slept outside, Adams said. 

Gideon George was named to the 2019-20 NJCAA All-Region V Team and the All-Western Junior College Athletic Conference Team as a sophomore at New Mexico Junior College. | Nate Edwards, BYU

“They got chased by security guards. He came back. It was in the hot sun and it was an outdoor court,” Adams said. “He never asked for a break, didn’t ask for water. He hadn’t eaten in two days. He was getting dizzy so they figured it out. They ordered food for him. They hadn’t eaten. That’s how bad they wanted to be there. He comes from an area that barely has electricity.”

George arrived in Hobbs, New Mexico — it was the first time he had ever left Nigeria — a couple of years ago. New Mexico Junior College, located in Hobbs, has an enrollment of about 3,000. Its most famous alum is former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson.

George was “really raw,” Adams recalled. “He showed up on time, he did whatever you told him to do. He really bought into it and he really improved as a shooter. He had a lot of issues with his game and we tried to clean it up a lot and simplify it for him. He’s the type of kid that if you tell him to do something, do 50 of these a day, he’s going to do 75 of them. He’ll run through a brick wall for you. With him coming here, it was a great experience. The best part of it was watching him grow as a player and a person in the short amount of time that we had him.”

This season, George was named to the 2019-20 NJCAA All-Region V Team and the All-Western Junior College Athletic Conference Team. He helped the Thunderbirds post a 23-9 overall record. 

George averaged 14.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.5 steals as a sophomore. He also shot 50.8% from the floor and 36.1% from 3-point range. He averaged 3.0 offensive rebounds per game. In 2018-19, George earned WJCAC Freshman of the Year honors after averaging 10.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and shooting 59% from the field.

Choosing the Cougars

Goble told Burgess about George while Burgess was coaching at Utah Valley University a couple of years ago. Goble let Burgess know that George was “going to be a big-time player.” 

Burgess started tracking George during his freshman year at New Mexico Junior College. When Burgess became an assistant at BYU, he and the staff felt like he would be the right kind of player for the Cougars. 

“I chose BYU because of the relationship I have with the coaching staff and the players. I came out to visit and I saw the way they mingle with each other and the way they love each other in the locker room. Coach Pope is elite.” — Gideon George

“We watched him all season. I felt like we recruited him the hardest,” Burgess said. “We built this great relationship and we felt we were the best fit for him.”

George took his recruiting trip in February and was in attendance when BYU upset No. 2 Gonzaga in front of a sellout crowd at the Marriott Center and watched fans storm the court afterward. He was amazed by the atmosphere and he committed to the Cougars days later.  

“I chose BYU because of the relationship I have with the coaching staff and the players,” said George. “I came out to visit and I saw the way they mingle with each other and the way they love each other in the locker room. Coach Pope is elite. When I took my visit, I went to his office. I was just looking at his wall. I saw where he played for teams in the NBA. I want to play in the NBA, too. It’s definitely a dream. I think BYU will help me get to the next level.”

Enduring the pandemic

Since COVID-19 has shut down sports, George has been finishing up classes in his dorm in New Mexico. 

“He’s kind of by himself. Everyone has left campus and gone home,” Burgess said. “It’s been difficult for him. He’s in a rough spot. But our players have done a good job of reaching out to him and making him feel a part of the team.”

The plan is for George to arrive in Provo at the end of May or first of June, after he graduates from New Mexico JC. 

Adams said George doesn’t take things like running water for granted. Once Adams asked George how his family obtained water. George told him that he’d travel 20-30 minutes in a truck and then bring it back to the family’s home. 

“One time we were on the team bus and the air conditioner broke. I said, ‘Did you have air conditioning on your bus in Nigeria?’ He said, ‘No. We just put the windows down.’ It wasn’t bothering him. Everyone was complaining and moaning and Gideon was smiling, looking out the window. Then we got a brand new bus. We had just finished practice and he was on the bus. He’s standing up with his face right in the air conditioner. I said, ‘Gideon, this bus is a little nicer than the one in Nigeria.’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, this bus is unbelievable.’ He put his face right up against the air conditioner. He was smiling and loving it.”

“With him coming here, it was a great experience,” New Mexico Junior College coach Luke Adams said of Gideon George, who’s now headed to BYU. “The best part of it was watching him grow as a player and a person in the short amount of time that we had him.” | Nate Edwards, BYU
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While George is not in an ideal situation right now during the pandemic, Adams said he’s not complaining about it. 

“He’s a kid that appreciates life and the everyday process of everything. That’s rare. We could all use a reminder, especially in a time like this, of all the stuff we’re going through as a country and the world,” Adams said. “Gideon’s in the dorm right now. He’s bored out of his mind. But I promise you that kid has never felt sorry for himself for one second. It’s a lesson we can all learn, too.”

George isn’t just passionate about sending shipments of shoes back to Nigeria for those less fortunate. He’s passionate about making the most of what he’s been given, thousands of miles away from home.

“He left his country. Provo is like the biggest city he’s been to. He understands the opportunity he has and he wants to take full advantage of it,” Burgess said. “Not just with basketball but with an education. He comes from a village in the outskirts of Nigeria. He knows what he wants. He knows what he’d like to do for his country. That’s just who he is.”

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