The Gophers forward from Latvia had a limited grasp of English when he arrived in the United States in 2009.
Oto Osenieks played three minutes, scored three points and made no real impact for the Gophers in their 16-point loss at Michigan State last week.
He loved every second of it, except for the outcome, of course.
"It was one of my dreams come true," he said.
A dream that began in Riga, Latvia. A high school junior and aspiring basketball player, Osenieks played for the Latvian national team and figured he would pursue a professional career in Europe someday. Maybe attend college there, too. But he watched a number of Michigan State games on TV and was fascinated by the atmosphere at Spartans home games at the Breslin Center. He was hooked.
"I decided I wanted to come to America and play college basketball," he said. "I said to myself, 'I want to play there one day.' That court."
He checked that off his bucket list, an item that might sound modest to some, but Osenieks appreciated the experience because it reinforced his desire to pursue a new experience a long way from home with a limited grasp of the language and no guarantees of a successful outcome in basketball.
He is still adjusting to life here on and off the court. A redshirt last season, Osenieks is a Gophers backup forward, averaging 3.3 points and 11 minutes per game. At 6-8, he is more suited as an outside shooter, but he's trying to expand his game beyond that one skill. His development is still in its infancy so it's hard to predict his ceiling as a player, although those around the program cite his work ethic as reason to believe he will continue to improve.
"He's a tough, hard-nosed kid," coach Tubby Smith said.
Osenieks' path here required a one-year stop at Brehm Prep School in Carbondale, Ill. He understood English when he arrived in 2009 but really couldn't converse. He learned by watching TV, mostly the show "Friends." He lived in a dorm at Brehm but spent weekends with his host parents, Charlie and Melanie Jones, who embraced him as if he were their son.
They helped him with the language barrier, cooked him meals, took him to church. If they laughed at something on TV, they would explain the meaning or phrase. They counseled him on any issues that came up.
"He's family," Charlie Jones said. "We love him to death. He's just a wonderful young man and we're blessed to have the opportunity to have him in our life."
They also took an active role in his recruitment. Charlie played basketball at John A. Logan College and now is an assistant coach at that school. Osenieks' biological parents, Gunters and Baiba, gave the Joneses two criteria in helping their son find a college: Pick a place that was safe and offered a quality education.
Melanie had been a fan of Smith since his days at Tulsa, and Osenieks felt comfortable on his visit to Dinkytown. He picked the Gophers after drawing interest from Iowa State, Providence, Virginia and Wisconsin-Green Bay.
"I just really felt wanted here," he said. "The team, everything, I just felt this is the right place for me."
The Joneses drove Osenieks to campus last year and helped him get settled in his apartment. They check in regularly and, like most parents, ask pesky questions about school.
"Oto is an excellent student, so we don't worry about that," Charlie said. "But we ask every time we talk to him."
Osenieks' father visited him for a week in December, but he hasn't seen his mom in two years. He is planning to visit Latvia this summer.
"I'm settled in, but of course I miss my home," he said.
Life is easier now though. Osenieks is comfortable speaking his second language, although he occasionally gets stumped.
"I'm taking astronomy and I have some language barrier issues because of the tough words," he said. "That kind of brings me down sometimes because I can't understand. But overall, I'm learning every day."
The same holds true for his basketball career. Osenieks said practices are more structured and intense than he expected, and he is still adjusting to the speed of the game. But at least he's on the court, including one that helped spark this direction in his life.
"This year is really fun," he said. "It was hard to sit out a year and just watch from the sideline. But I learned a lot. Now this year I'm really happy to be out there playing. It's awesome."
Chip Scoggins • email@example.com
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