The clamoring from inside Mountain of Fire and Miracles church can be heard from well outside the walls on this fall Sunday in St. Paul.
As the pastor’s voice bellows into the microphone, the biggest member of the congregation — all 6-10 and 245 pounds of him — sways back and forth in the middle of a purple pew.
There’s shouting. There’s shaking. There’s chanting all around.
Gophers center Daniel Oturu closes his eyes, pumps his fists and taps his chest in response to the morning sermon.
“Oh, God, arise and help me make a positive impact in my generation,” he repeats.
This is an essential part of the Nigerian culture, a young man committed to paving the way for others behind him. That’s Oturu’s role now. Set the example. Lead.
He is embracing that role at home and for the Gophers men’s basketball team, which opens a new season Tuesday. Oturu helped Minnesota reach the NCAA tournament as a freshman, and he’s added 20 pounds of muscle, determined to get back there and become an All-Big Ten sophomore.
Raised in a family that spent years apart and crossed an ocean before reaching Minnesota, Oturu calls it “God’s work” that he’s here right now, a Minnesota-grown talent playing for the hometown Gophers.
Swaying beside him in the pew is his father, Francis, who stands only 5-5 but learned to play pingpong so well, it paved the way for the family’s migration from Nigeria.
Praying along next to them is Oturu’s mother, Deborah, who at 6-1 never played basketball but bought her outsized son his first roundball and encouraged him to give it a try.
Deborah laughs now about being so nervous that she left her Target Center seat and headed for the concourse before her son’s buzzer-beating dunk that won Cretin-Derham Hall the 2018 Class 4A state championship. “It was a game that we can never forget,” she said.
By then Oturu had signed with the Gophers, despite receiving a scholarship offer from Kansas and receiving interest from Michigan State. Those blue blood programs couldn’t offer what Minnesota could — the chance to stay home with his parents and three siblings.
Now, with Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy off to the pros, Oturu will be the offensive and defensive focal point, the face of the program.
“He’s humble; he’s fun-loving,” coach Richard Pitino said. “He has a great pride in the state and great pride for the name on the front of the jersey. He wants to win and has a great heart.”
That heart has come to appreciate all the sacrifices his parents made along the way, starting with Francis’ decision to leave Nigeria. He set off from the densely populated West African nation in search of better opportunities for his family, even if it meant years apart as he worked to establish a home for them to join.
Oturu was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his parents were reunited. Soon after, the family moved to Minnesota and has lived here for nearly two decades, while establishing the Mountain of Fire congregation.
“Growing up as an Oturu is definitely [special],” Oturu said. “My parents are hard-working. They do a lot to provide for my family and my siblings. They’ve done a lot to really help me to get to where I am.”
The power of pingpong
Think of the distance between Minnesota and Chicago. That’s how far apart Oturu’s parents grew up in Nigeria.
Francis is from Fadeyi, a suburb of Lagos, which is a city of roughly 21 million along the Atlantic coastline. His mother is from Ife, an ancient inland city of about 750,000 in western Nigeria.
Oturu’s parents met during his father’s trip to the local university in Ife, where his brother was a student. The oldest of 16 children, Francis remembers his father being a strict man who stressed education and kept his kids away from trouble in the streets of Lagos — where some of their peers were exposed to gangs, drugs and alcohol.
“He never wanted us to grow up and do something that might ruin our life,” Francis said.
Francis used that disciplined upbringing to focus his energy on hitting a tiny white ball. He turned into a table tennis star, traveling the world playing for the Nigerian national team.
In 1983, he helped the team win the U.S. Open title. That was 16 years before Oturu was born, but the son has seen pictures of his dad with Nigerian legend Atanda Musa, a table tennis silver medalist in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“Pingpong gave my dad an opportunity to come here,” Oturu said. “I always heard those stories, even before I played basketball, about him overcoming adversity in [his sport].”
After getting married, Francis had a comfortable life in Nigeria in the same house where he grew up. Still, his passport kept collecting stamps on trips to the U.S. to play pingpong. Each visit made him want to stay longer.
Shortly after the Oturus’ first child, Eunice, was born in 1990, Francis left Lagos to play in his last pingpong tournament, at Cobo Hall in Detroit. He made the hard decision to not return to Nigeria for 11 years, seven of those years living away from his wife and young daughter, while navigating a difficult path to establishing U.S. citizenship.
After tireless days working as a recruiter for a security company in New York, Francis would spend nights phoning home to make sure Eunice did not forget her father’s voice.
They finally joined him in 1997, and Akinfayoshe Daniel Oturu was born two years later. Deborah wanted a strong biblical name, so she chose Daniel for his middle name. Francis liked the name Akin, which means hero. He added “fayoshe,” which translates to living with joy and happiness in Yoruba. “I was telling my wife that any time God was going to give me a man,” he said, “I was going to name him that.”
The green and white Nigerian flag drapes the wall entrance of Mountain of Fire. The congregation’s African heritage is also represented by their colorful head cloths, wraps and blouses.
Oturu is wearing a maroon and black Gophers polo shirt, but he remembers dressing up and going to church every Sunday as a youth. He knew the Bible front to back and taught Sunday school.
“My parents are very religious. They’re very prayerful people,” Oturu said. “They’ve always instilled in myself and my siblings life teachings and lessons to help us as we grow.”
After a fall service, Oturu follows his family through a hallway behind the altar. Eunice and her husband ask the pastor to bless their soon-to-be-born first child. The Oturus then pose for a family picture.
When a better job opportunity surfaced in Minnesota, Francis left them for two years and looked for a place where the entire family could settle down.
Daniel was 3 and Eunice was 12 when they arrived with their mother from New York in 2002. A year later, Francis and Deborah took the teachings of the Mountain of Fire church they attended in Lagos and New York and started a local chapter in the Twin Cities.
“I’m grateful to God of where I am now,” Oturu’s father said. “It’s far better than where I was before. When you have your family around you, you have everything.”
Francis takes as much pride in the church and his St. Paul table tennis club as he does in being a counselor for 20 years at Fraser, a company providing early childhood mental health care. Deborah loves filling her children’s bellies with traditional Nigerian meals and has worked in nursing homes for nearly 15 years.
Besides working to provide for their four children, both parents became ordained ministers, determined to ground their family in the Christian faith and grow the church. Mountain of Fire’s first Twin Cities branch opened in 2003. What first was 20 members is now more than 200 of a Pentecostal denomination founded in Lagos in 1989.
“There’s a lot of upbeat, singing and chanting,” Oturu said. “It’s fast paced.”
Growing up in Woodbury, Oturu would bike with his crew to play ball in backyards and driveways. At night, he’d come home and duel it out in cards and video games.
Already as tall as his mother at 6-1 in the sixth grade, Oturu stood out at Lake Elmo Elementary as a lanky, goofy and charismatic man-child.
“He wasn’t the class clown, but he was filled with energy,” said Oturu’s childhood best friend, Michael Roberts. “He’s always been that bubbly kind of guy.”
As much as Oturu liked to have fun, he took his big brother role seriously, with his siblings and even mentoring younger children.
He would chat with teachers at Lake Elmo, asking how David and Priscilla were doing in school. What started as chaperoning on field trips for his siblings turned into volunteering at his former elementary and middle school.
“They’re usually like, ‘Who is this big, tall kid?’ ” Oturu said. “I tell them I was once in your seat.”
In March, Oturu’s former kindergarten teacher, Tracy Mankowski, used a break in class to switch the TV onto the NCAA tournament first-round game between the Gophers and Louisville. Students wore Gopher gear to support the big man on the U’s campus with a big smile and bigger heart.
“For these little guys to look up to this young man, who is successful, to know he was once a little guy can be really meaningful for them,” Mankowski said.
Lining a wall in the bedroom Oturu grew up in are posters of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, his three favorite NBA players.
He loved basketball, but it took him a while to take playing the game seriously. Not until he finished runner-up at AAU nationals with the Rice Street Rebels from St. Paul in seventh grade.
“That instilled confidence and seriousness in basketball in me,” Oturu said. “Before then, I just mostly played for fun.”
From there, Oturu fast-tracked to Howard Pulley’s loaded AAU program as a 6-5 eighth-grader and eventually started on Cretin-Derham Hall’s varsity as a 6-8 10th-grader.
When it came to playing college ball, even after developing into a top-50 recruit with a plethora of Power Five offers, Oturu never imagined going away from his family.
When his older sister left home for college, the family cried. That wouldn’t happen with Daniel, who drove his brother to school at Cretin a couple of days after playing in the NCAA tournament.
“He was at our school saying hello to the principal, assistant principal and our coaches,” Cretin-Derham Hall coach Jerry Kline said. “He came in and visited with people throughout the building for a couple hours. It was really cool.”
Oturu thought it was cool that Pitino mailed pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together one by one to form a poster of him in a Gophers uniform. The larger-than-life picture still covers half the wall to the entry of the Oturu family home.
“Being blessed with an opportunity to play here is obviously God’s work,” Oturu said.
The Gophers’ entire recruiting strategy focused on Oturu, knowing if they could get him, other recruits would follow.
Sure enough, after Oturu, along came fellow local stars Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa in 2018. It was the most Minnesota players in a recruiting class for the program since 2009.
The next step for Oturu will be to become one of the league’s top big men.
“I want to be an All-Big Ten player,” said the center who led all conference freshmen in rebounds (7.0), blocks (46) and field goal percentage (55.0). “We can show people that there’s a great opportunity to do things here in [Minnesota].”
Expectations are growing for Oturu, but his family’s journey to this country keeps him humble. His faith taught him to make a positive impact.
“It means a lot,” Oturu’s mother said. “If he happened to go to another state, some of the things we’ve done together we might not be able to do it. It’s good that he stayed home. I think him staying home brings something positive that people will be able to embrace.”