Jahlil Okafor is being courted by the biggest names in college basketball.
Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and others from a host of schools including Georgetown and North Carolina have all attended one of his games or practices.
Yet the only person Okafor is truly trying to impress is someone who has no connection to basketball, and who is no longer on this earth.
Okafor was 9 when his mother died in front of him from a severe case of bronchitis, and she remains his inspiration to achieve success the right way.
“I don’t do some of the things that a lot of kids do because I know she’s watching over me and I want to make her proud,” Okafor said. “I think that’s part of the reason why I have been successful, knowing my mom is watching me and I feel she has my back on the court and when I’m doing things, and she helps me out a lot when I make my decisions.
“Of course it hurts, but it has been a positive thing in my life to have my mom watching over me.”
Okafor is the biggest attraction in the 32nd annual Beach Ball Classic at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center – both literally and figuratively.
The junior at Whitney Young High in Chicago is the consensus top big man in the class of 2014, and many analysts’ top overall prospect in the class.
He’s 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds with nimble size 17 feet, and has the devastating combination of finesse and brute power. He broke a rim in a tournament game last year, and isn’t out of his element behind the 3-point arc.
“He does a lot of things you see guys that are half his size do. He does things like a guard in a 6-11 body,” Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. “I’m never surprised by it, I don’t get hyped by it, because I see it every day in practice.”
What Slaughter sees on a daily basis, in addition to inside dominance, are 3-pointers, ball-handling in transition with a deftly placed assist, soft lob passes, and agile spins out of double teams. “There’s always something that he does different than he has done before,” Slaughter said.
One day this past summer particularly caught Slaughter’s attention. Utah Jazz 6-11 center Enes Kanter was in Chicago with some other NBA players and they were playing pickup games. Okafor, then 16, was matched up against Kanter, and Slaughter estimates he outplayed the pro in five of six games.
Through his team’s four games this season entering the Beach Ball, Okafor is averaging 28.3 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game while shooting an amazing 78 percent from the field. Last year he averaged 21.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3.8 assists per game.
In front of Krzyzewski in Whitney Young’s first home game this season, Okafor hit all 13 of his shots from the field. “You definitely want to play up to your potential and what they expect of you, so you don’t want to have a bad game,” Okafor said.
He does it all with his mom in the forefront of his mind.
He was living with her eight years ago in Moffett, Okla., and they were watching a show on Animal Planet together when his mother began coughing uncontrollably. “I thought she was just playing, I didn’t realize it was part of her condition. I was only 9 so I didn’t really know what bronchitis was,” Okafor said. “I remember calling the ambulance and it was already too late. I blamed myself for awhile for it.”
It took some time, but Okafor found solace in the activity he had always gravitated to – basketball – if only for the time spent on the court.
“I always loved basketball and [her death] made me shove away,” Okafor said. “I remember locking myself in my room. It was real dark in my room and I didn’t want to talk to anybody.
“We had a basketball rim outside, and a few days passed and I remember going out there and playing basketball again, and it just felt good to be able to play basketball. Ever since then it’s something I do to take my mind off things.”
He recited a poem he had written in dedication to his mother at her memorial, and the strength with which he handled her passing allowed his remaining family to pull together.
“The way he handled it was remarkable at that age,” said his father, Chuck, an AAU and fall league coach in his first year as an assistant on the Whitney Young staff. “How he handled that whole ordeal, that’s the proudest I’ve ever been of him. All the basketball accolades have nothing on the way he handled that situation.
“Some kids would use that as a reason to go crazy and lose their minds. It just made him stronger.”
Okafor moved to Chicago to live with his father following his mom’s passing. “My dad is my world,” Okafor said. “He’s been having to play the role of mom and dad. I wouldn’t be able to be where I am right now without his help. Everything I have done is all because of him and I’m very appreciative of my dad.”
Okafor is a distant cousin of Emeka Okafor of the NBA’s Washington Wizards. The Okafor family’s origin is Nigeria, and his paternal grandfather moved to the U.S. from Nigeria at the age of 20. A 19-day trip to Nigeria and a few other African countries with his father when he was in seventh grade helped reinforce Okafor’s appreciation for the moment and his opportunities.
“It was really weird going there and seeing how different it was,” Okafor said. “It made you appreciate a lot of things you have back home.”
Okafor said he doesn’t have a list of prospective colleges. “I’m pretty much wide open,” Okafor said. “I haven’t really thought about schools yet. I’m pretty much focused on this [Whitney Young] team. First of all we want to win Beach Ball this year, that’s something I want to have under my belt. I’m expecting to win a state championship this year and next year.”
He has a running blog for USA Today that runs every two weeks. He has done it to be proactive in the recruiting process and dispel any rumors about his college options and choices. “It lets everybody know the truth about me, and lets them know if it doesn’t come from my blog it probably won’t be true,” he said. “So it was a good opportunity for me.”
Okafor tries to be as honest as he can on the blog without being disrespectful to or embarrassing a college coach, though he’s not afraid to expose himself to ridicule. He blogged that he regularly watches ‘Pretty Little Liars’. “A lot of girls watch it and I watch it too, so a lot of people made fun of me for that,” Okafor said.
He’s used to the attention. Okafor became national news when he was offered a scholarship by DePaul University in Chicago as a 6-foot-8, 13-year-old eighth-grader. “I really didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until it was on ESPN and my friends’ reaction to the scholarship,” Okafor said. The offer, it was discovered, was against NCAA policy, but Okafor was already newsworthy because of it.
The notoriety has continued unabated. Okafor was the MVP of the 2012 Under 17 World Championships while leading the U.S. to the championship and an 8-0 record.
He has helped the Dolphins rise to MaxPrep’s No. 4 national ranking and has become the team leader, though not solely because of his ability and celebrity. Slaughter said he has led with his behavior and work ethic since joining the team as a freshman.
“There’s no oversight for him. He’s self-maintained,” Slaughter said. “He pretty much demands that the rest of the guys maintain proper decorum.”
He initially got those traits from his mother, and her death still impacts him every day.
“It allows him to know that you can take nothing for granted. Tomorrow is not promised,” Chuck Okafor said. “I can tell just how he approaches the game, how he approaches life, how he approaches studies, he’s hard on himself with everything he does.”