Maya Nnaji is one of the 10 best high school basketball players in the country, a three-time state champion and a McDonald’s All-American.
But those close to the Arizona commit know basketball doesn’t define her; it’s just a part of who she is.
Nnaji, the Hopkins High School (Minnetonka, Minn.) senior, is an aspiring doctor who provides care packages to homeless people across Minneapolis; an amateur writer whose teacher encouraged her to turn a short story into a novel; and a trustee in the Nnaji Family Foundation, which is building basketball courts and educational centers across Nigeria.
“[Athlete] is what she is now,” said Gillian McNeal, one of Nnaji’s former teachers. “But the skills and things she learned, she’s taking it and branching out in so many ways. She’s going to help the world.”
Nnaji, 18, counts Maya Moore as a role model, and not just because of the WNBA MVP’s on-court accomplishments: Nnaji watched in awe as Moore stepped away from the game at her peak in 2019 to fight for social justice and help free Jonathan Irons, who was serving a 50-year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.
“She knows she has bigger things to chase and more important things to work on,” Nnaji said of Moore. “People maybe didn’t understand her decision, but it really resonated with me.”
Nnaji’s holistic worldview is by design. Her parents, Apham and Janel, have always made sure their children’s interests stretch beyond sports. Nnaji, her younger sister Josie and her older brother Zeke, who now plays for the Denver Nuggets, join their parents on regular trips to Apham’s native Nigeria. All three children are also musically inclined — Nnaji has sung the national anthem before games, Zeke is a virtuoso piano player and Josie plays the piano and guitar. And then there’s the extra classwork.
“My parents made sure we filled our extra time with doing extra schoolwork,” Maya said. “Doing extra math stuff, doing a lot of reading, doing a lot of writing, practicing spelling and making sure we’re excelling in everything we can do.”
That includes helping others. Nnaji hopes to follow in Moore’s footsteps, whatever direction that might take her in — even if it means stepping away from the game earlier than expected.
Nnaji’s desire to be of service to disadvantaged populations stretches back to the beginning of high school.
For a ninth-grade community service project, Nnaji decided to give out care packages around Minneapolis. She, Janel and Josie bought paper bags and blankets from Menards, fruits, vegetables and bread from Sam’s Club and Costco, and toiletries from the Dollar Store. They put together individual packages and drove around the city, offering them to the homeless.
“I didn’t give them a house. I didn’t give them a bunch of money,” Nnaji said. “I could do more to save their lives. But I felt like it was so touching to see the small act of kindness just make their whole day.”
Nnaji and Josie continue to deliver care packages today and have named the informal initiative “Silent Strength.”
That same year, in McNeal’s language arts class, Nnaji penned a powerful story on civil rights and police brutality.
“The kid grew up in a family, and they all did everything right,” Nnaji said, describing the story. “Then his dad was killed from a gang-initiation and his mom was killed being pulled over by a cop. It talks about the system of oppression that Black people are in. No matter how hard you work, you can work twice as hard and still be taken by the system.”
McNeal was so impressed, she told Nnaji to turn the short story into a novel.
“A ninth grader writing like this is uncanny,” McNeal said. “I remember bringing it back and saying, ‘I don’t even know what to say. This was unreal and I think I need you to make this into a book.’
“To get this voice out there, especially in the times we are living in now, this is such a strong voice and it’s actually being written by a teen, which has a whole other level of impact on people.”
The book remains a work in progress, but Apham has promised to get it published if her daughter finishes writing. McNeal said she wants an autographed copy.
Nnaji’s perspective is informed in part by those family trips to Nigeria, where she came across families unable to get necessary medical care because they lacked money for hospital visits.
“You have people dying from simple and curable diseases,” Nnaji said.
Arizona offered Nnaji, a 6-foot-4 forward who averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds this season, a pathway to pursue basketball and medicine. A Zoom call with Arizona President Dr. Robert Robbins was a major factor in her decision. A cardiac surgeon and former president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, Riggins promised to write letters of recommendation and mentor Maya.
“The plan has already been set in place for her,” Apham said. “She’ll be doing summer school to catch up. The whole thing is set up for her to be successful.”
And Nnaji is already thinking about how to best maximize her time. She has applied for Arizona’s Accelerated Pathway to Medical Education program, which would allow her to finish undergraduate and medical school in seven years, instead of eight.
“I know I’m doing it for more than just myself,” Nnaji said. “I’m doing it for thousands and thousands of people who will be able to benefit, and thousands of people I can save and help.”
On a recruiting visit to Arizona in October, helping others wasn’t far from Nnaji’s mind. During a meal with coaches, Nnaji noticed some food had been left untouched. Knowing she wasn’t going to eat the leftovers, she boxed it up, and Arizona head coach Adia Barnes drove her around Tucson as they delivered it to the needy.
“Coach Adia was saying it’s awesome you care so much for so many people,” Nnaji recalled. “She was saying, ‘When you get here, we can do it more often, anytime we’re on road trips or we can have the fans come and do a food donation, do a food drive and deliver it to people around the city as well.’”
end of an era🥺💙 pic.twitter.com/TjfQjkoIhE— Maya Nnaji (@maya_nnaji) March 20, 2022
end of an era🥺💙 pic.twitter.com/TjfQjkoIhE
The Nnaji Family Foundation, founded shortly after Zeke was drafted into the NBA in 2020, plans to build five basketball courts and educational centers across Nigeria and hold basketball camps across the U.S., including in Fort Collins, Colo.
As a trustee in the foundation, Nnaji is working with Josie to design jerseys kids will wear at those camps.
“In terms of overall vision, they are intimately involved,” said Apham, who co-founded the foundation with Zeke. “They are kids. They know what other kids want.”
The foundation wants to help 300 Nigerian children learn the game of basketball and get hands-on technological training, an experience most college graduates in Nigeria don’t receive, Apham said.
Feeding the hungry is also a priority, with the foundation recently providing 26 meals to families in Nigeria.
“My family, we’ve always vowed that if we’re ever successful, we’re going to make sure to give back first,” Nnaji said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Much like UConn star Paige Bueckers, her former Hopkins teammate, Nnaji wants to be an inspiration for thousands of girls. But her dreams don’t end there.
Moore gave up basketball for a higher cause. Nnaji’s professional career is still years away, but she’s already prepared to make a similar sacrifice.
“It might be something I have to do,” Nnaji said, her voice taking on a solemn tone, “step away from a game I love to be able to help people that I love.”
Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.