Home away from home: How international athletes celebrate Thanksgiving

By Dominic Campbell, Staff Writer

Kene Chukwuka, a Pitt basketball player originally from Stockholm, Sweden, didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until he came to America in 2016 to play for New Mexico Junior College, before signing with Pitt in 2017. Last year, Chukwuka’s Thanksgiving was spent at a restaurant with the team, but this year, he will be spending it with junior guard Malik Ellison’s family.

“I will be staying with Malik [Ellison] on the team,” the sophomore forward said. “He’s going home … so I’m going to enjoy Thanksgiving with one of my teammates. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

Even though he got most of his food from a restaurant, Chukwuka did experience some real Thanksgiving food last year when Ellison brought back leftovers.

“I had a plate from [Ellison’s] family last year,” Chukwuka said. “He had some good wings.”

Chukwuka is one of five international athletes that play on the men’s basketball team, spanning from Canada to Nigeria. The women’s basketball team is no different, hosting three international athletes, from Canada, Greece and England.

Kyla Nelson, a sophomore guard for the Pitt women, is the most prominent international athlete on the team. Originally from England, she has spent time playing for both Oaklands College and the Great Britain senior team.

Nelson experienced her first Thanksgiving last year. To celebrate, she went to one of her teammate’s houses with the team and ate traditional Thanksgiving food her teammate’s family made.

“I enjoy it,” Nelson said. “I like the whole thought of Thanksgiving, like giving back and being together. I love the food so I’m excited to celebrate it.”

Because she has a sweet tooth, Nelson loved all the pies and desserts Americans make, but she also likes sweet potatoes and cornbread — things she never tried until she came to the States.

Nelson’s second Thanksgiving will be a little different than her first. Instead of spending time at a teammate’s house, Nelson and the team will be traveling to Nashville, Tennessee, to play in the Challenge in Music City.

“I’m excited,” Nelson said. “It will be nice to spend Thanksgiving with the whole team … because they are like my second family away from home.”

So far Nelson’s Thanksgiving plans most likely include a practice, but she isn’t sure how her team will celebrate.

“Our coaches are very family oriented,” Nelson said. “I’m sure they’ll do something for the holiday as a whole team and as like a family.

Unlike the women’s team, the men’s basketball team will be home to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Chukwuka and graduate guard Sidy N’Dir are two of the five international players on the men’s team.

N’Dir is from Burgundy, France, but has spent more time in the States than Chukwuka has. He went to high school in Florida at West Oaks Academy and then played basketball for New Mexico State, where he helped the Aggies to a WAC title and an NCAA tournament appearance.

Having never celebrated Thanksgiving before, N’Dir and Chukwuka have similar feelings when it comes to the holidays.

“[Thanksgiving] doesn’t really mean that much to me because we don’t celebrate it back home,” Chukwuka said. “So to me it means good food and good company.”

N’Dir feels the same way about the holiday, but also enjoys the family and cultural aspect of Thanksgiving.

“I mean, I’ve been here for a couple years now so it’s cool to see the culture here and Thanksgiving’s really important,” N’Dir said. “We don’t celebrate it in France, but it’s a great feeling I guess … there’s always a lot of food and laughs and I guess it’s cool.”

While he was at New Mexico State the last few seasons, N’Dir said that there wasn’t anything different about the holiday despite being far away from high school in Florida.

“It was the same thing,” N’Dir said. “We usually had a little dinner with the team or go out with your teammates to the coach’s house and just have Thanksgiving there.”

Even though it’s a new holiday, N’Dir has adapted to the food quickly and enjoys typical Thanksgiving foods.

“I definitely like stuffing,” N’Dir said. “That’s definitely good. I also really like turkey as well.”

Even with the fun of the holidays, both teams still have games to focus on. The men’s team will be taking on undefeated St. Louis on Wednesday, Nov. 21, in the Barclays Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.  

The women’s team will be playing two Power 5 schools and a mid-major team that is hosting the tournament.

The Challenge begins Friday night against Wisconsin and then consists of two more games, Arkansas on Saturday and Tennessee State on Sunday for the women. Despite the difficulty of these games, Nelson says that she and team are ready and want to play better competition early in the season.

“It will definitely be tough, but I mean we want challenges this year and we want to be pushing in non-conference so we can be ready for conference play,” Nelson said. “I’m just excited to keep playing and getting better as a team and proving a lot of people things that we could do this year.”