By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic School in Irving never had welcomed back a former student wearing official Harlem Globetrotters gear.
But when Globetrotters’ rookie Joyce “Sweet J” Ekworomadu visited the school on Jan. 27, posters saluting the Globetrotters adorned the gym’s walls. The school band played lively music as the students greeted the professional basketball player and applauded the fact that her career began in a Holy Family jersey.
Ekworomadu, 27, attended Holy Family from first grade through fifth grade, where she played basketball. The graduate of Coppell High School and Texas State University is just the 12th woman to play for the Globetrotters, an 88-year-old barnstorming organization famous for goodwill and spectacular basketball skills.
“I remember going to Mass at Holy Family every Friday,” said Ekworomadu, who taught speech and coached at Grand Prairie High School before the Globetrotters chose her after a tryout in Houston last fall. “I remember that I had a lot of cool friends. Going to Holy Family helped with character-building. The school rules helped me when I got older.”
Ekworomadu (pronounced eck-wor-oh-MAA-doo) will perform with the Globetrotters’ “Fans Rule” tour at American Airlines Center on Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
She said that her mother, Justina, a devout Catholic, wanted her only child to attend a Catholic school when the family moved from Oklahoma.
“I went to Holy Rosary Catholic School in Nigeria,” said Justina, a pediatric nurse who lives in Richardson. “I liked the religious education and discipline at Holy Family. Joyce is a very hard worker. When she wants something, she will go for it.”
Ekworomadu, whose record-setting career at Texas State included Southland Conference Player of the Year and Student Athlete of the Year honors in 2008, continues to play for the Nigerian National Team when she is available, as both of her parents were born in Nigeria.
She said that the Globetrotters came up with the nickname “Sweet J” for her because they admired her jump shot. Playing basketball with boys on the outdoor courts near her Irving apartment helped her develop her game, she said.
“By the time she got to Coppell High School, she was good,” said Ekworomadu’s father, Samuel. “I was trying to make ends meet, so I did not have much time to see her play. I have always told her that whatever God has assigned to her, she will accomplish it.”
Samuel, who said he plans to attend the Globetrotters’ performance on Feb. 1, said that he recalled when his daughter grew anxious and began to second-guess her choice of colleges. “I told her, ‘Do your best and leave the rest to God,’ ” Samuel said.
Former coaches said that Ekworomadu was a blessing to coach.
“She was the type of kid who would run through a brick wall for you,” said Katie Hensle, the former girls basketball coach at John Paul II High School in Plano. Hensle coached Ekworomadu in AAU basketball. “Joyce has such a good spirit about her. Everything about her is genuine.”
Hensle, who served as an assistant coach at Texas Tech University and now coaches at Austin Westlake High School, had a 107-39 record in four years at JPII.
University of Houston assistant women’s basketball coach Leah Foster, who served as a graduate assistant coach at Texas State when Ekworomadu was there, said that she worked hard toward the goal of playing pro basketball.
“She was the model student-athlete,” Foster said. “We put in tons of work. When she found out she made the Globetrotters, she was ecstatic, more so because of the opportunity to give back than because of the hype.”
Ekworomadu said that she loves the Globetrotters’ commitment to community outreach.
“We know the importance of being positive role models,” said Ekworomadu, a 5-10 guard who played basketball professionally in Italy and Poland. “We believe in character-building, and do a lot of clinics and camps.”
During the assembly at Holy Family, she and veteran Globetrotter Buckets Blakes not only demonstrated their ball-handling wizardry, but also engaged the students on the topic of bullying.
Among the Globetrotters’ educational and outreach initiatives, the organization introduces students to “The ABCs of Bullying Prevention,” which offers ways to use action, bravery and compassion to thwart bullying.
Blakes said that Ekworomadu brought many gifts to the Globetrotters, including her work ethic, personality and truly sweet jumper.
“It’s a pure jump shot,” he said. “It’s all skill; hard work; muscle memory, and repetition. She’s an amazing teammate. She’s very intelligent and very easy to get along with. Her energy is out of this world.”
Holy Family Principal Janet Muelschen said that Eckworomadu’s visit provided great inspiration.
“It has really energized our school, and coming during Catholic Schools Week is an added bonus,” she said. “It’s exciting to have a former student come back who has developed her skills to this point of recognition. She’s an example for our students.”
Muelschen said that it was safe to say that the day marked the first time for the school to host the Harlem Globetrotters, featuring a former Holy Family Raider.
“But hopefully, it won’t be the last time,” she said with a smile.