TALLAHASSEE — Solomon Alabi's passion for basketball began humbly enough.
As he stood underneath a makeshift rim welded to a pole on a sandy deck that passed for a court — one of the few in his hometown of Kaduna, Nigeria — he shot layup after layup.
And missed layup after layup.
A friend, for whom he was rebounding that day less than six years ago, took a few moments to demonstrate the basics of shooting in case Alabi wanted to try again.
"The next day," Alabi said, "I went back."
He didn't have to say if he made any shots. The determination etched on his face and the force of his usually soft voice said enough. He found his touch, and though he didn't know it then, he had found his ticket to a new life, one that began a year later at Montverde Academy and last year brought him to Florida State.
Alabi (pronounced Ala-bee) missed all but 10 games as a freshman because of a leg injury, but these days, the 7-foot-1, 241-pound center is back at it. He's developing his game and honing his sizeable skills for FSU (7-1), which hosts No. 23 Florida (6-1) tonight.
"The sky's the limit for Solomon, no question," coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He's going to be a great one."
Alabi, 20, grew up playing soccer, tennis, pingpong, volleyball, handball and field hockey. But after he started playing basketball and was told that he could get a college scholarship, he saw a new world of possibilities.
"Since then, I took it seriously," he said.
Still, coming to America wasn't like hitting a layup. He knew he wouldn't get to see his parents, three brothers and two sisters often. "It was hard for me to decide," he said. "But my dad (a retired police officer) struggles sending us all to school. Coming here and getting a better education would relieve stress from my parents."
Alabi came to the United States in June 2005 and has returned home twice, playing for Nigeria's under-19 team after his junior year at Montverde Academy, in the Orlando area, and the summer before starting at FSU.
"The most difficult thing about Solomon being in the United States is that he misses his family terribly and we miss him very much," his mother, Ester, wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "Solomon has always been very close to his brothers and sisters; they are best friends."
The family hasn't seen him play, but it's "a wish and a dream of mine for us to come to the United States to see him play basketball for Florida State," Ester wrote.
In high school, Alabi showed he was more than just tall and unusually graceful. He was determined to improve each time he played, and as a senior, he averaged 17.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and six blocks.
"He's got some tools that I think you can't teach," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He's got very good timing. He's a good runner, and he's agile on his feet for such a big guy."
Alabi just didn't get much of a chance to show it last season.
He developed a stress fracture in his right leg, his first serious injury, and needed surgery Jan. 2. That ended his year after 10 games, and he got a medical redshirt.
Watching and rehabilitating weren't easy, but Alabi relied on the support of his U.S. family: his coaches and teammates, especially fellow Nigerian Uche Echefu.
"We've been there for each other," said Echefu, a senior forward who spent the offseason recovering from surgery.
FSU coaches have patiently and carefully brought Alabi along as he recovers, insisting, for example, that he ride a stationary bicycle at times rather than go through a particular drill.
"He hasn't wanted any of his teammates to think he was slacking off," Hamilton said. "That's Solomon. He wants to go all-out all the time. We're really pleased with how he's coming along."
Alabi is averaging 7.5 points (on 53.3 percent shooting from the field and 70.6 percent from the line), 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. That's while playing about 18 minutes a game.
"I'm really excited and happy to be able to play," Alabi said. "I just want to go out there and play as hard as I can."
Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report. Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.