Shane Lawal of Dinamo Banco di Sardegna Sassari not only had to journey long to reach basketball's elite, but he also took an unusual and dangerous path in order to get there. The 28-year old center is currently enjoying a great Eurocup rookie campaign, after leaving mark in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague earlier this season, too. But his career almost stopped well short of this success, as he was ready to end it in 2011.
This season, Lawal has been one of the top rebounders and shot-blockers in both the Eurocup and the Euroleague, where he was featured almost weekly on highlight reels with his thundering dunks and athletic play. Going into the deciding game for a place in the eighthfinals against Banvit Bandirma this Wednesday, Lawal leads the Eurocup in blocks (2.2 per game) is tied for third in rebounds (9 rpg.) and averages 11.4 points on 62% two-point shooting. Prior to that, during the Euroleague regular season he ranked third with 7.2 rebounds and fourth with 1.5 blocks per game.
Although he is playing for European glory this season, in 2011 Lawal was playing in Libya. About a month into his season with Al Hilal, war broke out. He had to hurry away from the country when people rose against the regime of president Muammar Gaddafi. But Lawal was unable to leave soon enough.
Stranded in Benghazi, the city where the protests first started and armed conflict quickly escalated, Lawal and his teammate Kingsley Oguchi were hiding because they feared being mistaken for African mercenaries and becoming targets themselves amidst the killing in the streets. The two teammates hid without any communications for a week and had to go through some risky situations before eventually escaping aboard a boat headed to Malta.
It is something Lawal laughs at now, but the experience changed his life at many levels.
"When I was first looking into going to Libya, everything seemed fine," he recalled. "But then there was first an issue in Egypt, and once their president left, Libya tried to overturn their president. But Gadaffi was on a different mindset."
The club he was playing for, Al Hilal, was based in Benghazi, and he was away with his team for a road game in the capital of Tripoli when the news broke out.
"After a win, we were eating dinner, ready to head to the airport, and we found out from our teammates who had family in Benghazi, there were protests and shooting of citizens and executions", Lawal recalls. "It was not safe to go back to Benghazi. That's when we realized we were in a situation."
"I was ready to leave the country despite everyone telling us it was fine to stay," says Lawal, who has dual Nigerian-American citizenship. "I had my American passport ready, and I was ready to go to United States embassy in Tripoli. But one of my best friends, Kingsley, had left all his stuff and money in Benghazi, so I had to go with him to make sure he was not left behind."
The next morning, they were told it would be safe to return to Benghazi, but once they got there found out otherwise.
"The second we got back to the hotel [in Benghazi], we found out there was more fighting and it was better for us not to leave hotel," he recalled.
Learning that most of the victims were black Africans from Chad, Niger and southern African countries put even more fear into Lawal and Oguchi.
"With that in mind, we did not leave the hotel," he said.
Unfortunately, no one from their club tried to help the two players.
"From the second it started happening, the team did not call us," he says. "They kind of left us stranded at the hotel."
Having seen news of the fighting on TV, his family at home in the United States was panicking, but neither Lawal nor Kingsley could get word out about their situation.
"Gadaffi had a habit of cutting off internet," Lawal explains. "So, when all that started happening there was no internet in the city, it was very hard to even call out. It took a week to get in touch with my mother and my girlfriend at the time, my wife now. We needed to get to the roof of the hotel to get a signal to call home.
"I was never really scared. I was worried about my family thinking I'm dead, especially with them not talking to us for a while. That was my biggest worry."
Finally, the players did get in touch with family thanks to a group of Brazilians who were also brought into their hotel for safe keeping and had satellite phones with them. A few days after, they finally managed to get in touch with somebody at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, who found people of trust in Benghazi to get Lawal and Oguchi to the harbor. There, British ships were taking British, European Union and American citizens out of the country.
"We went on to HMS Cumberland and we were able to get on the boat with them to Malta," says Lawal, thanking the crew. "Everybody got seasick but they took good care of us. They got us safely to Malta, and from there we made it home, with very little money in our pockets but with the story of a lifetime."
But the story was not over just yet for a player who, after college, played in Qatar, Kuwait and the Spanish third division before going to Libya. As Lawal likes to put it, his situation at the time was not something a lot of people would brag about.
"Working my way up third league Spain, going back to Libya, and getting in that situation was not something to be proud of," he recalls. "When I went home I did not tell anybody except family that knew I was in danger. It's a lot of different emotions going on. I wanted to quit basketball. I felt like I was working too hard to keep getting nothing."
After a lot of thinking and turning to faith, he decided to give it one more chance. But it took him some time to openly start talking about the situation in which he had found himself in Libya.
"I kind of went into a shell about it until next season in Spain when they asked me about it," he said. "I told them the story, it went into newspapers, and that's when I opened up about it."
Since then, Lawal's career has taken off. First, in the second divisions of Spain and Italy, and last season with VTB team BC Astana from Kazakhstan. His performances led him to Sassari and the biggest stage in European basketball.
"I'd say it's perseverance," Lawal says about his recent success. "Faith is a big part, but to have faith in something is to persevere. It made me stronger. I'm thankful that I stuck with it. I know guys who caught little adversity and stopped playing. It hurts, because they don't know how much they had to dig to get something."
"I don't think about Libya until I get asked about it, and I don't even get mad any more about it. I laugh now. It is such an opposite of where I am in life, as far as back then. It was so embarrassing and such a tough part in my life. I don't think I'm successful yet, but it made the success story so much sweeter."
As for Oguchi, whose lack of a passport led them into a dangerous situation, Lawal not only went back with him, but never held a grudge.
"Kingsley is one of my brothers for life after that situation," Lawal says now. "Tough times bring you closer together with people."