Coming full circle
Men’s basketball’s Yilret Yiljep returns to the court after four-season medical leave
His journey began in Kaduna, Nigeria. Yilret Yiljep – known by his teammates and friends as “YY” – played for the Nigerian U-16 national basketball team. He then moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania to play in high school and was recruited by AU during his senior year.
The 6-foot-7 forward took the court for 13 games his freshman year, averaging 2.5 points per game, 2.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists in the 2013-2014 season.
But that all came to a grinding halt during his 13th game as a freshman. Yiljep began to notice that something was not right.
Thirteen minutes into the game against Holy Cross, Yiljep said he found it harder and harder to breathe. He had recorded four points, three rebounds and two assists before coming out.
“The symptoms were shortness of breath and instant fatigue,” Yiljep said. “I was getting tired after a couple of seconds.”
The diagnosis came shortly after: cardiomyopathy. Yiljep’s season and undergraduate career were cut short due to the heart condition, which makes it difficult for the heart to deliver blood to the rest of the body.
“It was really tough to take in because basketball means a lot to me,” Yiljep said. “But I had great teammates and a very supportive coaching staff as well. Applying myself in a different role and trying to help the team as much as I could and being as involved as possible really helped me ease the pain.”
Mike Brennan, the head coach of AU men’s basketball, said Yiljep took on the role of a student coach and mentor.
“He was helping young guys through practice and working with them on things that he had been working on, and he continued to be a strong voice in the locker room,” Brennan said.
Yiljep said his time as a student coach allowed him to see the game from a different perspective.
“I was telling the guys what I saw from the bench and what they needed to work on,” Yiljep said. They valued my opinion.”
Yiljep’s life moved on outside of basketball. He graduated in 2017 with a degree in business administration and found a job in nearby Chevy Chase. But his ability to work out and play the game he loved was still limited.
“I was told to dial everything down,” Yiljep said. “I could shoot jumpshots, but I couldn’t do anything to the point of exhaustion. Everything I did was monitored. I had to keep my heart rate under a certain level.”
But last fall, Yiljep found out some surprising news: doctors told him his heart was in good shape. He no longer had to work out with restrictions and, best of all, he could play basketball again.
“I was overwhelmed, I was so happy,” Yiljep said. “Since I found out about the diagnosis, I had been living with caution every day. Every day when I was going up the stairs and my heart rate goes up, I got scared that maybe my heart was going to fail. Every day I had to take heart meds, and it was a constant reminder that there was something wrong with my heart.”
On Oct. 1, Yiljep was medically cleared to resume all athletic activities and compete for the Eagles in the 2018-19 season as a graduate student. The NCAA and the Patriot League approved a waiver request from AU that granted Yiljep an additional season of eligibility given his special circumstances.
Yiljep said that no longer having to take daily medication and knowing that he can participate in physical activity without restrictions has been liberating. Playing basketball, he added, is “just another huge bonus.”
Brennan, who has known Yiljep for over five years, said he was happy to see the forward get his playing opportunity back.
“It’s a big blow to a young kid when your whole life is basketball and then it’s taken away,” Brennan said. “The maturity level back when this happened, for a kid that young to handle this adversity as well as he did, and to continue to be such a positive influence speaks to who he is.”
Since he has been away from the hardwood for over three years, Yiljep is primarily concerned with his physicality entering his final season. He said that getting back in shape for the season was “a race against time.”
What’s most important to Brennan is that Yiljep goes out and has a good time in his final season at AU.
“I want him to go out there, have fun, play hard and do the best he can,” Brennan said “I think if he does that, he’ll have a big impact on our team.”
In AU’s season opener at George Mason University on Nov. 9, Yiljep showed signs that he could play consistent minutes for the Eagles this year. He not only started the game against the Patriots, but was on the court for 21 minutes, notching a steal and a block for the Eagles in their 78-75 overtime win.
Yiljep said that not being ostracized by the team after he was forced to sit out season after season and surrounding himself with understanding people has driven him throughout his journey back to the court.
“This all just reminded me of how much I love the game of basketball,” Yiljep said. “Having it taken away from me was a challenge that I never quite got over, and getting the opportunity to play again makes me realize that dream.”
“A part of me felt like it was missing when I wasn’t playing, and now being able to play again, I feel more complete.”
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's November 2018 fall print edition.