Okafor Exemplifies Concept of 'Student-Athlete'

UConn center is the best player in college basketball, an academic All-American and now a national champion.

Emeka Okafor holds up a piece of the net after UConn's win over Georgia Tech.

Emeka Okafor holds up a piece of the net after UConn's win over Georgia Tech.

April 6, 2004

By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The parents knew little about basketball, and cared even less.

Pius Okafor took his 8-year-old son, Emeka, to his first rec league game in Bartlesville, Okla., mostly because other kids played, too. Besides, he thought the fast-growing boy needed to burn some energy.

Although Pius struggled to follow the action at times, by the third game even he sensed his son had a gift. But he didn't leave war-ravaged Nigeria behind, and work night and day in his new homeland, just to raise a basketball player. Pius and his wife, Celestina, had much grander plans.

"I made him understand academics went first," she said. "He would go to school, come home, take a nap, go play and study again. ... We had rules."

Thirteen years later, Emeka Okafor is the best player in college basketball, an academic All-American, and after Monday night, a national champion to boot. He will graduate from Connecticut with a 3.8 grade-point average and a degree in finance in just three years. Then he will take his brains and brawn to the NBA and become an instant millionaire.

"I don't think it's hit me yet," Okafor said. "When's practice tomorrow?"'

As confetti swirled and the celebration of UConn's title continued on every side of him, coach Jim Calhoun looked back to where Okafor stood in a gaggle of his teammates, waiting for his chance to cut down a strand of the net.

"He's an advertisement," Calhoun said, "for why every kid should go to college."

The story of how Okafor wound up at a powerhouse like UConn has more to do with luck than basketball prowess. At the end of his four years at Bellaire High in Houston, Emeka was still a better student than athlete.

His top college choices were academic powerhouses like Stanford, Vanderbilt and Rice, but none of them had a scholarship to offer. Like a lot of coaches, Bob Knight thought enough of Okafor's potential to make a side trip to Houston the day after he got the Texas Tech job. Calhoun saw the same qualities and started recruiting the kid hard, but their first meeting didn't go smoothly.

The coach's heavy New England accent was tough for Okafor to decipher, and he had trouble following the fast-talking Irishman's pitch. Calhoun, meanwhile, was puzzled by a game the father and son played while he sat in their living room.

"It took me a couple of minutes to figure out," Calhoun said. "They were competing in a game where they're naming streets, from all over the world, I think, and then spelling them, rapid-fire. His father is just like him."

"Competitive," teammate Rashad Anderson said, finishing the thought. "Other than me, Emeka is the most competitive guy I've ever known. The one thing I do better than him is shoot 3-pointers and we've spent hours after practice going back and forth until he wins at least one.

"I've met his dad, too," Anderson added, "and I'm pretty sure that's where he got most of it."

Whatever the source, the rest of the college basketball world never quite found a way to cope. Okafor began drawing attention in the middle of last season, becoming faster and stronger as the games marched on, and by tournament time, he was arguably the most dominant force in the sport.

But his progress this season wasn't an unbroken line. Like UConn, he began it saddled with expectations and then was hampered by back problems. With Okafor struggling, the Huskies lost to Georgia Tech in the Preseason NIT, and by the end of January, despite stringing together a 17-3 mark, he and his team were labeled disappointing. Then they closed it out with a 14-1 run.

"It was kind of stressful at points, but we just stayed with it and prevailed," Okafor said.

Georgia Tech center Luke Schenscher knew only too well how that felt,

"He's a great player. We knew that coming in," Schenscher said after battling Okafor in the post all night. "We tried a few things defensively, but he had his way with us."

Okafor has been doing that with just about everybody he's come in contact with since childhood. Those he couldn't overpower, he simply charmed.

"We always knew he'd be good at something, but who would have dreamed it would be basketball?" his father said. "I remember when he was in the ninth grade at some tournament or other, and afterward, he was signing autographs for all these kids who weren't much younger than him."

Then the elder Okafor looked back at the court, trying to find his son in the middle of the chaos.

"Athletics were not very important growing up back home. We let Emeka continue on with it, because it made him happy. But who," he said, with a sweep of his arm, "could imagine it would lead to this?"

With that, Pius Okafor rubbed his chin, took in the scene before him again and flashed a grin that seemed to say, "Only in America."

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