“There’s nothing like a mortar flying over your head, and there’s nothing like feeling the blast wave of that mortar landing a couple hundred yards away. I’ve never felt anything like that in my life.”
For Santa Cruz Warriors D-League 6-feet 4-inch guard Onyenma Daniel Nwaelele this was just another day on the job for five years of his life, where with the Air Force, he served in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
Now 28-years old, Nwaelele, simply known as Dan by his teammates, colleagues and coaches, is making his return to the game that he loves. In 2007 he was offered a two-year contract with the San Antonio Spurs, but the Air Force wouldn't let him leave his five-year commitment.
“Since sixth grade I didn’t want to do anything but make it to the NBA.”
Dan was born in Oklahoma City, Okla. to Daniel Sr. and Constance Nwaelele, two first generation immigrants from Nigeria, but he would not find a place to call home until they made the move from Oklahoma, to Texas and finally Washington.
“They came over here with nothing,” said Dan. “Suitcase and that’s it.”
“They worked their way to what they have now, and they’ve worked very hard and I think I’ve just taken that kind of mentality and used it for my life as far as working hard and doing the right things.”
While settling into his new found home of Bothell, Wash., Dan was introduced to basketball by his friend who was in an organized youth league.
With Dan Sr. working long days for the state government as a health and safety manager and his mother, Constance, selling cosmetics and going to school, his parents weren't sure they had time to have him in a league. His friend's parents pressed them.
"My dad was kind of hesitant at first,” said Dan. “His dad just said, ‘no come on, we can take him to practice, we can switch it up, we can carpool and stuff’ and my dad finally said yes.”
“That was it for me, I didn’t want to play any other sport but basketball. Through junior high and high school it was all basketball.”
Living in the region known for it's long, rainy winters, Dan spent numerous hours shooting hoops outside the front of his house with the ever-coming drops of precipitation pelting him as he would mold his game with every outing. He would elevate and shoot, elevate and shoot, elevate and shoot for so many repetitions it would even make a conveyor belt worker sick. His silky smooth jumper was shaped by watching and dissecting the games of NBA superstars Ray Allen and Reggie Miller he said.
“I remember one day in high school I had one good shooting day, and the next day we had open gym I was way off. My coach came up to me and said I needed to be more consistent. From that day on I always tried to do better the next time and try and get better every day.”
Dan would go on to leave his mark on Inglemoor High School being selected the team's most valuable player all three years and earning All-State and First-Team All-League honors in his senior year while averaging 17 points and six rebounds per game.
Despite putting up remarkable numbers Dan would not receive any scholarship offers from any Pac-12 school, then known as the Pac-10.
“A lot of the Pac-10 schools wanted me to walk-on, and Air Force was there offering a full ride. I took the visit down there and felt good about the situation.”
On one the first days at his short stay in boot camp before his four year stay at the Air Force Academy, Dan and all of his fellow peers were scrunched into a hall were the Commandant of Cadets told the wide-eyed eager youths that were teeming with pride “Your lives are about to change, good luck.”
To their surprise the second they walked out into the shinning sun the military leaders of the boot camp, yelled with the force of a thousand speaker horns, “GET ON YOUR FACE!” Hundreds of the America’s future finest men and women were all on the floor preforming push-up in unison to the barks of their leaders.
“It was a culture shock,” said Dan. “We can sit back and laugh about it now, but it definitely prepared me for the Academy it was a good experience discipline, leadership and creating that camaraderie that we had.”
While learning to become a fined-tuned Air Force officer Dan also shot his way up the ranks of the all-time greats in the basketball program’s history. At the end of his four year stay at the Academy he ranked 17th in scoring, fifth in free throw percentage with 83.6 percent and second in three point shooting finishing with 45.1 percent.
With the Academy in the books Dan was seeing interest from some NBA teams, most notably the San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich who also was an Air Force Academy Alum. After a handful of workouts Dan was asked by the spurs to show up to their mini camp and after having a great showing was invited to the training camp, but because of his commitment to the Air Force he could not go.
"(The Spurs) thought he was the player that stood out the most at that camp," J.R. Harris Dan’s Agent at the time said according to the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "Popovich and Dell Demps, their director of player personnel, were very impressed and wanted to bring him back for training camp. They thought he might have a real chance to make the team."
The following year he was invited to the Spurs Summer League, but again because of his commitment he could not continue with the team after that.
“I remember talking to my dad (and telling him) ‘It just makes me want it that much more,’” said Dan. “I just use that as fuel for motivation to not give up and keep on pressing and keep on pushing through it.”
Once again Dan put in the hard work. Making the basketball court and the weight room his best friends when he had the chance.
“I was working out by myself doing the drills that I learned coming out of college. I’d just go to the gym and workout for hours, every day.”
Though he had to worry about keeping his basketball game up to par, he also knew that he had to be focused on being the best officer that he could be.
In his first deployment he found himself in one of the most dangerous provinces in Afghanistan, Kandahar, and in his second deployment he was stationed in Saudi Arabia.
“I went out there and did my job, focused on the mission, worked with the Marines and Army, had a really good group of guys out there. We were working 12-13 hour days and just trying to be safe.
“There’s a lot of craziness that goes on, and you come back and you appreciate the little things like the green grass, the clean air, not being in the desert and being hot all the time. I came back with a new perspective of just being thankful for everything that I have ... just being grateful for everyday that you got.”
As his five-year commitment was dwindling down he began to think of where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. After finishing his commitment in the month of April he went back home to Washington where he worked out with other NBA hopefuls. Until he received a call from his agent.
“You workout everyday, and then everyone starts leaving and finally you get the phone call. I was happy about it obviously, I didn’t know if I was going to get one, but I just remained faithful and kept on working hard and things happened.”
It was a meeting of extraordinarily average basketball players with a few hidden gems on that Sunday Oct. 7 in Oakland at the Golden State Warriors practice facility. Santa Cruz Warriors general manager Kirk Lacob and head coach Nate Bjorkgren selected just one hopeful young man out of the 40 that put their game on display that day.
Dan was that man.
“I knew about him before he got there,” said Bjorkgren. “I knew he was a shooter. He stood out to me at the open tryout, but he stood out to me a lot more on the first day of training camp with how hard he worked, how coach-able he was, his defense and all those things.”
That hard work kept him on the roster through two weeks of training camp and three series of cuts. The money is no concern to Nwaelele, who only sees his love of the game. D-League players make between $12,000 and $25,000 a year. The starting pay in the NBA is $490,000.
Now, Dan is working back from an ankle injury that has sidelined him for the beginning of the season, but he’ll do the same things he’s done with all of the obstacles he’s met in the past. He’ll keep his head up, his hopes high and work in the pouring rain or the blistering heat.
After all this is just another day on the job for the Captain and former member of cadet squadron 20.