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How Elijah Olaniyi’s brain cancer derailed his life

Shooting guard Elijah Olaniyi drives from the baseline against Yale on Nov. 5, 2019. Olaniyi is one of the best players in program history, but his life has taken a bad turn due to brain cancer. EMMA HARRIS/THE STATESMAN

While most of the Stony Brook community celebrated during this past holiday season, one member spent it receiving debilitating news.

Elijah Olaniyi, a former star player for the Stony Brook men’s basketball team, was diagnosed with a brain tumor on his right frontal lobe on Nov. 30, 2023. During the first weekend of December, he underwent three separate surgeries at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to remove 95% of the tumor. His biopsy results came back over the holiday break, revealing that the tumor is cancerous.

The disease has tentatively ended Olaniyi’s basketball career, although he has not ruled out a return if he makes a full recovery.

“I don’t know what’s next for basketball — I’m not really thinking about it,” Olaniyi said in an interview with The Statesman. “If I get the itch to play, I’ll be there if I get the opportunity. We’ll see, but at the same time, nothing’s guaranteed at this point.”

Olaniyi will begin radiation and chemotherapy treatment on Jan. 15. Unfortunately, neither he nor his widowed father, Festus Olaniyi, have the necessary funds to afford his current medical bills or the ones that will follow. He started a GoFundMe on Dec. 6, 2023 and currently has the goal set at $100,000 to help him pay off his expenses; it has only recently surpassed $8,000.

The biggest culprit for his lack of money is his unfruitful professional career. After Olaniyi’s college days ended, he spent the next year and a half trying to land gigs overseas, but struggles with his mental health caused by the tumor have prevented him from catching on anywhere. As doctors found out recently, Olaniyi has had brain cancer since his final year of college, when his mental health was derailing the end of what was once a storied Stony Brook career.

Doctors have linked Olaniyi’s behavior and symptoms during the 2021-22 season to his tumor and its placement on his brain. Aside from irregular emotional behavior, one of the side effects of the cancer that he exhibited was seizures.

“I remember waking up with a nosebleed,” Olaniyi said. “Now, I’m getting the information that I was actually having a seizure. And then right after, I had to go to practice.”

Olaniyi was a shooting guard/small forward for the Seawolves during his time with them, where he had a rollercoaster of a career. On his second day after moving into college back in July 2017, his mother Ruth Olaniyi suddenly passed away. The trauma did not deter him, as over the next three years, Olaniyi became the program’s eighth all-time leading scorer at the Division I level, earning Rookie of the Year and two All-Conference selections along the way.

After averaging 18 points per contest in his junior season, Olaniyi transferred to the University of Miami, where he averaged over 10 in 21 games for the 2020-21 season. After earning his bachelor’s degree in sociology, he put his name back in the transfer portal, where he decided to reunite with the Seawolves in hopes of guiding them on a deep NCAA tournament run.

His return was heavily celebrated by Stony Brook Athletics, who announced his return in both a press release and a corresponding TikTok post on April 8, 2021. By coming back, Olaniyi helped make Stony Brook the favorites to win the America East Conference (AE), and he was named to the 2021-22 Preseason All-Conference Team.

Unfortunately, nothing went as planned. Olaniyi began to feel miserable upon his arrival at Stony Brook in the summer of 2021. He felt as though head coach Geno Ford had treated him differently due to him leaving for Miami in the first place.

“I literally got back to school in the summer and knew I made a mistake,” Olaniyi said. “There was nothing I could do. I signed, I’m here. That was so gut-wrenching.”

Ford denied having any animosity towards Olaniyi.

“I didn’t feel like our relationship was different,” Ford said in an interview with The Statesman. “Of course we wanted him back. Of course I wanted him to play great.”

Things got worse once the season began, as Olaniyi suffered a bone bruise in his left leg in the home opener against Sacred Heart on Nov. 22, 2021. The injury kept him out until Jan. 8, 2022, when he came off the bench and led the Seawolves to a victory over Maine in the conference opener.

Olaniyi feels that Ford exaggerated his injury when speaking about it to the media, which has hindered his ability to land spots on professional basketball teams’ rosters.

“They basically ruined my career from that point on,” Olaniyi said. “Even today, it’s almost two years removed and I still get coaches overseas that ask about that injury. ‘What was it? Was the surgery successful? Are you healthy now?’ I was healthy enough that I came back that season.”

Olaniyi played in the following two games as well, but he felt confused by the way he was treated by others around him after returning from the injury. After their Jan. 17, 2022 matchup with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he asked Ford if he could take a mental health break. Olaniyi sat out the next four games before returning to the court on Feb. 2 against Binghamton. Earlier that day, the AE had banned Stony Brook from the conference tournament.

As a lame duck graduate student with no championship left to play for, Olaniyi left the team and withdrew from the University. However, he alleges that Ford encouraged him to leave and advised him to focus on his professional career instead, making him feel unwanted.

“I felt like I was being forced out because things didn’t go as planned,” Olaniyi said. “It’s so crazy because I came here to do something at Stony Brook, and they basically threw it out the window and painted me a villain.”

Ford denies that he ever told Olaniyi to quit.

Leaving Stony Brook on bad terms and wasting his final year of college took a large toll on Olaniyi, who by this point, had already developed brain cancer. His deteriorated mental health prevented him from being able to make any kind of progress in life.

He tried getting a job selling insurance so he could have some pocket change while playing professionally overseas. Unfortunately, Olaniyi’s season at Miami was brought up during his job interview, and he got overly passionate about his fallout in college, which dissuaded the organization from hiring him.

“I tried to get a desk job, just for money,” Olaniyi said. “The CEO started saying, ‘You played basketball at such a high level, why’re you done?’ And then when I talk about basketball, I’m too emotional about it. They’re like, ‘This guy’s not over basketball.’”

Olaniyi spent the summer of 2022 training down in Miami alongside NBA players while he waited for a contract offer from a professional team. Eventually, he received a low-paying offer from Basket-Ball Club (BBC) Sparta Bertrange: a professional team from Luxembourg in Northwestern Europe.

Practicing with NBA players paid dividends for Olaniyi, who excelled during preseason workouts and scrimmages with BBC Sparta Bertrange. However, he was disappointed by his level of competition, as he found it too easy to play against them. He grew unhappy with his situation, spoiling his relationship with the team’s upper management by the start of the season.

“I got into a place of just extreme depression,” Olaniyi said. “I had been beating up on subpar competition for a month and a half. This stuff was not fun, it was not fulfilling, nothing.”

Despite his unrest, Olaniyi’s strong preseason earned him a spot in the starting lineup for Sparta’s 2022-23 season opener. On Sept. 24, 2022, he made his professional debut, scoring 21 points on 7-of-17 shooting while tallying five rebounds and six assists. His performance helped lead Sparta to a 98-69 blowout win.

Despite the win and Olaniyi’s play, Sparta’s management was unwilling to overlook his negativity.

“The team comes to my agent after the first game and says, ‘Elijah doesn’t look like the same person,’” Olaniyi said. “They basically said, ‘He has to be happy, or we’re going to have a problem. If he doesn’t get happy, we’re going to cut him.’ I left Luxembourg and came home.”

After staying in the United States for the rest of fall 2022, Olaniyi received an offer from Saint-Chamond Basket Vallée du Gier: a professional team in France. He only played in one game for Saint-Chamond, logging six minutes off the bench in an 86-75 loss on Jan. 31, 2023. His time with the team came to an end just hours before the next game when the team released him due to a lack of minutes to allocate for him.

Since then, Olaniyi has not remained with a professional team for long enough to accrue any sort of currency. He signed with Spars Realway Sarajevo — a professional team from Bosnia in Southeastern Europe — in the late-summer of 2023, but the organization cut him before the season began. After being released, he came home and stayed for a few months before he woke up with “the worst headache of his life” on Nov. 30, leading to the urgent care visit that discovered his cancer.

Now just 11 days away from undergoing radiation treatment with medical expenses piling up, Olaniyi desperately needs assistance from others to help him get through the process. No matter how big or small a donation to his GoFundMe may be, he appreciates everyone who is willing to lend a hand.

“Anything helps.”

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About the Contributor
Mike Anderson, Sports Editor
Mike Anderson is the Sports Editor at The Statesman. He is a senior majoring in journalism with aspirations of becoming a sports journalist. His love of sports comes from his time spent as a baseball player. As a reporter for The Statesman, he has covered baseball, softball, football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, men's and women's lacrosse, women's volleyball and hockey. He has also interned at Axcess Sports as a high school and college baseball and softball reporter. He is a local product from Port Jefferson, N.Y. and is a diehard Mets, Jets, Nets and Islanders fan.
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  • C

    Curt HyltonJan 7, 2024 at 8:27 am

    Could you please share the details of the gofundme account so that we can help? Thank you very much.

    Reply