The first time he saw Obi Romeo on the basketball court, Greenbrier East coach Jim Justice wondered exactly what he had gotten himself into with the 6-foot-9 Nigerian native.
Obi, who was adopted by the family of Rick Romeo, was definitely a project.
“I always go back to the first few days of practice,” Justice said. “He would get the ball and he would take off running. He’d run six steps and dunk it. He didn’t realize what the three second call was early in the year.”
In fact, the first time he walked into the Spartans’ gym was the first time he played on an inside court.
To say he has improved would be a classic understatement.
All the sophomore has done is average a double-double in his first go-round at organized basketball.
Romeo is averaging 10.5 points and 13.1 rebounds with 87 blocks for the Spartans, who travel to Parkersburg today at 7 p.m. for a Class AAA Region 3 co-final.
That’s a pretty quick turn around for the personable center with a reported 7-foot-plus wingspan.
“He has just gotten better and better and better,” Justice said. “The sky is really the limit for this kid. He has picked up things faster than we ever could have imagined.”
He is also a favorite around the Fairlea school.
“He wears a bow-tie to school almost every day,” Justice said. “He likes to dress up. He said that when students grow their hair long here they would be called bushmen in his country and wouldn’t be allowed to go to school. He has a radiant way about him. He has an infectious smile. He is like a 6-9 little kid. Everyone loves Obi.”
He still struggles with intricacies of the American game, most notably fouls.
“When he fouls someone, he thinks he has to go over to them and pat them on the back and tell them he is sorry,” Justice said. “When he thinks that he hasn’t fouled, he believes that the officials aren’t being his friend.
“A perfect example was our game at Capital (an 83-75 overtime loss Jan. 19). He had three fouls and the referee called a fourth. Obi sometimes throws his hands up to his face when he talks. He walked up to the referee and said, ‘I did not foul.’ Well, the official called a technical on him. He just couldn’t understand that.”
His growth will continue, on and off the court, Justice believes.
“He is just a great kid,” Justice said. “He wants to be a civil engineer so that he can return one day and help his country with its water problems.”
Today, he will try to help the Spartans earn a trip to Charleston.
Greenbrier East (13-11) hosted Parkersburg Jan. 6 and fell 57-53.
The Big Reds (18-6) are led by Mountain State Athletic Conference player of the year Devin Hoehn, a 5-foot-10 senior, who is averaging just over 20 points per game.
He had the game-winning shot, part of his 27-point night, in Parkersburg’s 57-55 win over defending state champion George Washington in the Class AAA Region 3, Section 2 championship game.
Greenbrier East, meanwhile, fell to Woodrow Wilson 79-68 in the Section 1 title game.
Hunter Roberts leads the Spartans, averaging 14.8 ppg. Mike McCormick averages 13.5 points, Richard Romeo averages 10.7.
— E-mail: demorrison@