Michael Ojo was a massive man. He was 7-foot-1 and 290 pounds. A giant among giants on the basketball court.
But what we remember most about Ojo was the massive smile. How could you not? He always seemed happy. He always seemed to be squeezing the most out of life.
That’s what hurt Friday morning. A fan favorite at Florida State who had played professional hoops in Serbia the last four seasons, Ojo died of a heart attack at 27 during practice in Serbia with his pro basketball team.
“In all of my years of coaching, I’ve never been around a person who captivated the emotions of everybody he came into contact with like Michael,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He had to be the most popular person in Tallahassee, and, certainly at Florida State University. Michael Ojo was a wonderful, wonderful human being. He was one of the purest Seminoles that I have ever been around; he will be missed tremendously by the whole Seminole nation.”
In a sport of numbers, Ojo wasn’t a guy who put up numbers. He scored 4.9 points and averaged 3.2 rebounds as a senior in 2016-17. He was raw as an August day in Tallahassee is hot. But Ojo practiced and learned and we saw the improvement.
Early on, his free-throw attempts were difficult to watch. No form, no rhythm. But he worked at it. Ojo made 36.4 percent of his free throws in year 1. How did he finish? He made 80.6 percent of his free throws as a senior, 58 of 72. He led the team in free-throw percentage. How about that?
He was a presence in the lane, altering countless shots and blocking others. And maybe that’s what made us smile.
FSU changed his life, Ojo told those around the program. It wasn’t just basketball. That may have been the vehicle in which he earned a scholarship. But it was how he earned not one but two degrees, both in International Affairs.
“I’ll never forget the big hug we shared when he walked across the stage at commencement,” president John Thrasher said. “We will miss him.”
Ojo was on a few NIT teams as well as one that didn’t even play in the postseason. But his senior year, following a medical redshirt due to a knee injury, he returned in 2016-17 looking to get FSU to the NCAA Tournament.
He joked that he felt like he was a member of the coaching staff – that’s how long he had been in Tallahassee. The chance to push the program to the NCAA Tournament was important and he helped the Seminoles earn a No. 2 seed in March 2017.
“All of those years were kind of like a rebuilding process for our program, just for a moment like this,” Ojo told the Osceola at the time. “For me, going through those years, the injury last season, I would say it was very unfortunate, but I’m grateful to get my masters and play this year.
“This is the best year I’ve ever had here and I had a chance to play in the tournament.”
He made time for everyone. If you ran in to him, he would smile and stop for a photo. He would pick up kids for a quick photo from a mom or a dad and they would look like a toddler in his arms.
Ojo and another FSU 7-footer, Boris Bojanovsky, were often inseparable. They hung out together and were often spotted around campus, stopping to take photos with students.
“We came to FSU together as two international student-athletes that were new to America,” Bojanovsky said. “We became close friends. That made the transition easier for both of us. We stayed really close our four years in college. For me, Mike was one of those friends for life who don’t come around every day. I’m at loss of words. Rest in peace brother.”
Ojo was fun. He smiled. When he shook your hand you felt tiny. His hand enveloped yours. Unforgettable.
“Not only did Michael Ojo teach me to be a leader, he taught me how to love others. He taught me that there’s more to life than basketball,” teammate Terance Mann said. “He would always tell me he has more friends than just our teammates. He encouraged me to get out of my shell and meet new people and taught me how to love FSU for what it all has to offer.”
Quotes from Hamilton, Thrasher, Bojanovsky and Mann courtesy FSU sports information