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Princeton’s Tosan Evbuomwan has ‘come a long way’ to the Sweet 16

The son of Nigerian and Nigerian-English parents was on a pro soccer path before switching to basketball as a teen

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Princeton men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson interrupted the victorious postgame news conference at the NCAA tournament to correct the moderator after he butchered forward Tosan Evbuomwan’s last name during introductions.

“It’s pronounced Eh-WHOA-Ma,” Henderson said.

Two schools certainly familiar with the name Evbuomwan and 15-seed Princeton are No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 7 seed Missouri, as both lost to the Ivy League school he stars for in the 2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Up next for Princeton is its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1967. The 6-foot-8, 219-pound Evbuomwan and his Tigers will face 6-seed Creighton on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky. Princeton hopes to join St. Peter’s as the only 15-seed to advance to the Elite Eight in men’s NCAA tournament history.

With March Madness fans becoming more familiar with Princeton, they may soon learn how to pronounce Evbuomwan and learn his about his motivational story as a kid from England with Nigerian roots who made it to America and the NCAA tournament.

“I’ve come a long way. Anything is possible. You just have to put in the work and have self-belief and have the right people around you throughout the journey,” Evbuomwan told Andscape after defeating Missouri 78-63 on March 18 at Golden 1 Center. “I’ve been very fortunate to have that. Anything is possible, really. Just keep working at what you’re doing.”

“Speaking to my dad and my brother and her sisters about her [his mother, Michelle Evbuomwan], I learn something new and amazing every time. She was a massive inspiration.” — Tosan Evbuomwan

Torisesan “Tosan” Evbuomwan was born on Feb. 16, 2001, in Newcastle, England. He was the second son of Isaac and Michelle Evbuomwan. Isaac Evbuomwan is a gynecologist who played college basketball at the University of Lagos (Nigeria). Michelle Evbuomwan, whose father is from Nigeria and mother is from England, moved from Manchester, England, to Lagos when she was 21 years old before making history as an airline pilot.

Isaac Evbuomwan says Nigerian heritage and pride was taught to his sons. Evbuomwan described his family’s Nigerian influence on him as “massive.”

“The great thing about that is a mentality for excellence and ambition,” Isaac Evbuomwan said. “You have the ability to strive, to succeed. It’s the community and type of a culture we are. So, it’s a very powerful and positive situation where kids know that the sky is the limit in terms of what they can achieve and education being at the heart of it.”

Said Evbuomwan: “You always feel the support of Nigerians. The culture is amazing. We really root, for one another, support and have just genuine happiness for one another that is amazing. I felt that throughout my whole life.”

Michelle Evbuomwan was one of the first women to captain a plane in Nigeria, according to her widow. According to Isaac Evbuomwan, she piloted flights that included South African anti-apartheid activist and politician Nelson Mandela, flew for the Red Cross during the Angolan War and Rwandan genocide and earned an Airline Transport Pilot license. Michelle Evbuomwan died of breast cancer on Nov. 16, 2012, in Newcastle, England, when Evbuomwan was 11 years old. She was a homemaker who left being a pilot to focus on raising her two sons.

Evbuomwan wears No. 20 in honor of his mother’s birthdate on March 20 and also plays in pink sneakers to bring awareness to breast cancer.

Michelle Evbuomwan was one of the first women to captain a plane in Nigeria.

The evbuomwan family

“A pioneer, essentially, not only for women but for Black women,” Evbuomwan said of his mother. “Obviously, I knew her for the first 11 years of my life. But speaking to my dad and my brother and her sisters about her, I learn something new and amazing every time. And she was a massive inspiration. She would always tell me be me and just give your best and that’ll be enough. I remember she’d say that in different ways but that was essentially the message.”

Evbuomwan has been a standout athlete since his youth as he participated in soccer, rugby, cricket, track and field, and cross-country. He was invited into the esteemed Newcastle United Youth Academy at the age of 8, as he showed the potential to be a professional soccer player. But by the age of 11, the midfielder grew tired of the pitch while his mother fought cancer. He committed to finishing the school year and left the academy with the blessing of his parents.

“It was a big deal when he quit soccer because he was at the Newcastle Academy. As you would imagine, most other parents frowned at us say, ‘What are you doing? This is such an opportunity,’ ” Isaac Evbuomwan said. “But from our point of view, his primary aim was not to do a sport as a career. Yes, he was picked in those sports because he was good at it. So, it was important from our perspective to say, ‘As long as the kid is enjoying it, then it makes sense. If he stops enjoying it, then there’s absolutely no point.’ And he did get to that point in soccer when he turned around to myself and his late mom and said, ‘Look, I’m not enjoying the game anymore.’ ”

Evbuomwan grew up with a basketball hoop in the backyard at the family house. He enjoyed watching his father play on an adult league basketball team called the Wickham Warriors. Those adult league games eventually convinced Evbuomwan to begin playing basketball seriously when he was around 14 years old. He said he fell in love with the game after playing with his friends and because of the athletic challenges it brought.

Evbuomwan and his friend Kian Ardabili even convinced the deputy of sport at Royal Grammar School in Newcastle to start the first basketball team that he played on.

“They effectively introduced basketball to the school and with the help of the deputy of sport who then helped them to absolutely develop it, and so, yeah, so that was how we went and got into basketball and then just excelled,” Isaac Evbuomwan said.

Tosan Evbuomwan (right) and his brother, Toju Evbuomwan (left), in 2004.

The Evbuomwan family

Tosan Evbuomwan (right) with his father Isaac (center) and brother Toju (left).

The evbuomwan family

Evbuomwan was still relatively new to basketball when he was asked to try out for England’s 15-and-under team. The versatile forward represented England for the first time at the 2017 Haris Memorial Tournament in Manchester, England, and next at the 2018 FIBA European Championship. Evbuomwan went on to rank as the fourth-best prospect at the 2018 Deng Camp, which highlighted the Top 40 players in the United Kingdom, after averaging 19.3 points and 7.9 rebounds and scoring well off the dribble and in the post.

Two-time NBA All-Star Luol Deng told Andscape he was impressed by what he saw from Evbuomwan at his camp.

“At my camp I saw Tosan’s versatility to be his biggest strength,” Deng said. “At his size he was able to bring the ball up and cause all kinds of mismatches. He just impacted the game in so many ways at both ends. It’s great to see his improvements at Princeton and now [him] showing it all on the big stage.”

Evbuomwan was not only a stellar basketball player, but he was an elite student as well. His father dreamed of his son playing college basketball at a school that was renowned academically. He sent an email of his highlights to several different highly regarded universities. Princeton showed interest immediately.

In the end, Evbuomwan said that in 2019 he chose Princeton over Stanford and Northwestern to play basketball and major in economics.

“If a child is capable, you simply encourage him to pursue what it is to the highest level. Tosan has excelled both academically and in sports, so it kind of makes sense that the Ivy League institutions and other equal institutions provided such opportunities,” Isaac Evbuomwan said.

Said Henderson: “We knew he was something special right away.”

Princeton forward Tosan Evbuomwan (left) plays in the second half against Missouri in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Golden 1 Center on March 18 in Sacramento, California.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Evbuomwan has made his mark at Princeton in just three seasons, highlighted with a trip to the Sweet 16.

The two-time All-Ivy League First-Team selection has scored 1,009 points in three seasons. The 2022 Ivy League Player of the Year averaged career highs of 16 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game as a junior during the 2021-22 season while also making the 2022 NABC District 13 First Team. The 2023 Academic All-Ivy League selection averaged 14.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists as a senior.

“Tosan’s passing, you won’t see at Princeton again for 50 years,” Henderson said. “He’s really a very unique passer … It was like a brilliant blinding light from heaven. He’s a joy to coach. His humility is extraordinary.”

Princeton landed its first NCAA tournament bid since 2017 by beating Yale 74-65 in Ivy League tournament championship. Evbuomwan scored 21 points in the title game and was named Most Outstanding Player. He averaged 12 points, 8 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the Tigers’ NCAA tournament wins against Arizona and Missouri.

Evbuomwan described making it to the Sweet 16 as “unreal.”

“I can’t put the feeling into words right now, to be honest,” he said. “It’s just an unreal feeling to do this with my guys, my teammates, and my coaching staff. We love each other. We push each other. It’s showing. Just a group of really tough guys. It’s all coming together at the right time.”

Isaac Evbuomwan attended both of Princeton’s wins in the NCAA tournament before returning to England. He visited with his son after the Missouri win and is still in awe of what he has accomplished.

“It’s a bit crazy, right? It’s been amazing. It’s living the dream,” Isaac Evbuomwan said.

Evbuomwan has NBA aspirations after he finishes his playing days at Princeton. Henderson believes his senior forward has the talent to be an NBA player, too.

One NBA scout told Andscape that he expects the Princeton star to make it to the NBA G League next season. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony currently does not rank Evbuomwan among his Top 60 prospects for the 2023 NBA draft. But a strong showing at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament for college seniors and the NBA pre-draft camp could help Evbuomwan’s hopes of playing in the league next season.

In time, NBA fans may learn how to pronounce Evbuomwan. But for now, he is concentrating on defeating Creighton in the NCAA tournament and enjoying every second of Princeton’s unbelievable run.

“I want to keep playing for sure. NBA’s obviously the goal. But we’ll see how that works out. We’ll see with all that stuff after the season,” he said.

Said Henderson: “He can play in the NBA. He’s a really such hard worker. His skill set is perfect. He’s a great passer. He dominates the game. I think our players are the smartest and he’s the smartest.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.