PORTSMOUTH — E.J. Onu was a standout on the basketball court for four years at Shawnee State University.
Coming in during Coach Delano Thomas’s first year as head coach of the Bears, Onu quickly made a name for himself for his ability to block shots — even breaking his coach’s all-time program record for blocks in his junior year.
“Shawnee was great,” he said. “I met a lot of new people and I was introduced to a different environment. Some of them will be lifetime friends, and I’m definitely grateful for my time there. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
In his senior year, Onu led the program to its first-ever Mid-South Conference (MSC) season and tournament championships — and an NAIA National Championship while being named to the NAIA All-Tournament Team.
“Winning a National Championship means everything not only to me but to the town of Portsmouth and our families,” he said. “Coach Thomas and I had been together since Fall 2017, and the first thing we talked about was winning a championship. There’s no better way to leave Shawnee than after winning a championship. It still feels so surreal.”
At SSU, Onu leaves a legacy as the all-time record holder in program history in blocks (529), blocks per season (182) and blocks per game (13) while ranking third in points (1,578) and rebounds (866).
He was a two-time NAIA All-American, three-time MSC Defensive Player of the Year, and 2020-2021 MSC Player of the Year.
“My favorite memory has to be winning the championship,” he said. “Just seeing all my teammates happy and jumping around, you know, you can’t make it up. We earned that, and we deserved every bit of that moment.”
Onu graduated in May 2021 with an Exercise Science degree, successfully balancing a busy academic schedule with his responsibilities as a student-athlete.
“I stayed motivated,” he said. “Honestly, school can be hard sometimes, especially with all the traveling, but I had some great professors who were willing to work with me and my schedule. Of course, I also had to work hard, but at the end of the day, nothing beats getting good grades.”
After graduation, Onu worked out with several National Basketball Association franchises before signing to become a professional basketball player with the Niagara River Lions of the Canadian Elite Basketball League — where he was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2022.
“My teammates were a big part of my success, you know, I couldn’t do it without them,” he said. “They pushed me hard during practice and games. They made me the player I am.”
One year after he wore the Bears uniform, the 6-11 all-star has set out on a new path with the NBA G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Onu encourages high school students who are interested in attending SSU and joining the basketball program to be ready to put the work in.
“Be ready to work!” he said. “Coach Thomas, Coach Lin, and the rest of the staff only want the best for you and the program. They’re going to push you hard mentally and physically, but at the end, it’s all worth it. I’m living proof of what happens when you work hard and trust the people around you.”
This feature was originally released in the Shawnee Magazine 2022 issue.
To view the full magazine online, visit www.shawnee.edu/magazine.