U. Da Man
UConn's Emeka Okafor is the stylish pick, we know, as SIOC's male athlete of the year and cowinner of the first U. Award, but we happen to believe his coach, who says we may never see another like him on campus
By John Walters
Some men are bound for greatness. Other men rebound for greatness.
For nearly two years Justin Evanovich, a 6'3" senior walk-on guard on the UConn basketball team, has dutifully served as personal rebounder for teammate Emeka Okafor during Okafor's daily shooting routine, which was anything but. First the 6'9" All-America would make 25 shots from each of nine spots on the court, all within the three-point arc. Evanovich chased down all of Okafor's shots, hit or miss, every day.
"After those nine spots," explains Evanovich, "Mek would make 25 three-pointers from nine different spots."
"No," says Evanovich. "Twenty-five each from nine different spots. Mek spent more time on threes than most three-point shooters do."
Two hundred and twenty-five three-pointers. Every day. On his own time. By a center. By a player notorious for his shot blocking (he led the nation this past season with 147) and rebounding (third nationally at 11.5 per game). By a player who never attempted a three-point shot in a game in three college seasons.
The question is not, Why did Okafor never attempt a three-pointer in a game? ("For some reason," says Evanovich, "he thought Coach would take him out of the game if he did.") No, the question is, Why did Okafor practice the three-pointer so much in the first place?
"I was looking at the long term," says Okafor, a junior who has declared himself eligible for the NBA draft. "That's not a three-point shot in the NBA [which has a 23'9" three-point line to the college game's 19'9"], but I'll need to be able to shoot from that range. I'm just thinking ahead."
Let Okafor think ahead. We prefer to look back and admire what he's already accomplished in his first 21 years. We admire him, above all, for being the paragon of the term student-athlete. Earlier this month he led the Huskies to the program's second national championship. A leviathan in the paint, he was the principal reason why UConn led the nation in opponents' field-goal percentage (36.7%) in 2003-04. Next month Okafor will graduate after three years with a 3.76 GPA and a degree in finance. He is the first player in Big East history to win the conference's player of the year, defensive player of the year and student-athlete of the year awards, and he did it all this past season.
God is in the details, though -- quite literally in Okafor's case. In his family's native Igbo tongue, his given name, Chukwuemeka, means "God has done wonderfully well." As obvious as that might appear on the court, it is equally apparent in the regal manner in which he carries himself away from the hardwood. In the way that Okafor prays before he eats, or asks the waitress if he can substitute broccoli for french fries, or in his assiduous study habits. At Bellaire High School in Houston, Okafor once studied on the bench during a game because he was injured and knew that he wouldn't be playing. At UConn he tested out of Calculus 105 after he "took the book home for about a week" and studied it. During the preseason his coach, Jim Calhoun, advised him to take out a policy to insure against a career-ending injury. Okafor initially declined, insisting he'd survive just fine without basketball, before capitulating.
"Hard work is part of [my success]," says the son of Nigerian immigrants. (His father, Pius, immigrated to the United States when he was 17, and has since earned three advanced degrees, with a fourth on the way.) "But it's also being in the right situation. We visited Nigeria when I was 16, and I got a whole new perspective. When your electricity goes out and you have no idea when or if it'll go back on, you realize how blessed you are to be here."
In this age of jumping directly from high school to the NBA, of pros on trial for murder or rape, Okafor is a rarity. "Make sure you take his picture," Calhoun likes to say, "because you won't see his like ever again at the University of Connecticut."
Huskies fans are all too eager to heed Calhoun. The Taye Diggs look-alike incites a flash mob wherever he goes -- or a flashbulb mob. During the on-campus pep rally the day after UConn beat Georgia Tech 82-73 to win the national title, Okafor posed for so many photos (he estimates between 300 to 400) that by day's end his vision was affected.
"It hurt my eyes," he says, wincing at the recollection. On this day in late April he stands outside of Gampel Pavilion and is swarmed by fans of four generations. People feel the need to touch him, as if he were a majestic sequoia or an immortal.
"My son has the basketball you signed for him in England," yells a grandfatherly figure from across a parking lot. The man's wife brazenly approaches and squeezes Okafor's biceps muscle as if it were a cantaloupe. He nods politely and smiles, answers all their questions. How, you ask, does this disciple of time management put up with all these demands on his time?
"It's just a heightened homeostasis," he says. (Go ahead, look it up. We had to.) "You reach a new equilibrium."
If erudition like that makes you wonder if Okafor is stiffer than David Robinson's hatband, relax. He is remarkably down to earth, or as much as someone 81 inches in height can be. Inside Okafor's dorm room on UConn's South Campus are posters celebrating his two favorite shows, Seinfeld and The Simpsons. When you tell him about a recent dinner companion whose voice was inaudible over the restaurant din, he nods in empathy and says, "Low-talker." In the hallway outside his single is a floor-to-ceiling shrine to Okafor, replete with cards, photos and press clippings. Passing it, Okafor gives his visitor a sidelong glance. "I did that," he says jokingly.
Okafor's academic acumen is the stuff of legend in Storrs. He took 18 credit hours his first semester on campus. (Thirteen to 15 hours is the norm at the school.) Last summer he took 15 credit hours and still found time to lift, play two hours of pickup hoops with his teammates and do morning and evening shooting sessions with Evanovich.
"I asked him if he had a day planner or a to-do list," says Evanovich, who says that the pair also did three days of two-a-day sessions in the week leading up to the Final Four, "and he looked at me and asked, 'What for?'"
Okafor has more than a day planner embedded in that marvelous mind; he has a life planner. "Even when I was a child," he says, "I had this ideal person in my head. I wanted to be this ideal: to have a muscular body, to be smart, to be kind. Slowly and surely I started working toward that, and I started to see that person. I had a chance to be that person."
It was during the first half of the national semifinal against Duke, when Okafor picked up two fouls before four minutes had elapsed, that his college career appeared to be drawing to an unhappy end. He had battled a chronic back injury and a stinger to his shoulder earlier in the tournament and, by his own assessment, had underperformed. "We were winning big, and Justin would tease me," recalls Okafor, who had scored just two points in UConn's previous game, the Phoenix Regional final versus Alabama. "He'd say, 'Yo, Mek, whenever you're ready,' or, 'How's the view from on the court?'"
As Okafor sat on the bench during that interminable first half against Duke, he was in agony. "I thought, Damn, I finally got to a Final Four and all I got is the best seat in the house."
At halftime in the UConn locker room, Okafor unleashed an hour's worth of pent-up frustration. He paced the room as if he were Chris Rock on stage, exhorting the Huskies and bellowing, "We're gonna kill 'em!"
"I was sitting next to Ben Gordon," Evanovich recalls, "and he just sort of smiled and said, 'This is kind of different.'"
You know the rest. Okafor scored 18 points, including the go-ahead bucket during a late 12-0 run, in UConn's 79-78 win against the Blue Devils. Two nights later he schooled Georgia Tech and 7'1" center Luke Schenscher in the anticlimactic championship game, scoring 24 points and grabbing 15 rebounds.
He was, in a word, brilliant.
In the game's dying seconds Okafor grabbed his final rebound. He passed the ball to guard Taliek Brown. Then he panicked. Okafor coveted the game ball -- he had decided a week earlier that he would claim this prize -- and now it was out of his hands.
Brown passed the ball to teammate Rashad Anderson. The buzzer sounded. Okafor sprinted directly toward Anderson. "I was afraid he'd throw it up into the stands," says Okafor. "I ran him down before he could do it."
The ball, autographed by his UConn teammates, is now perched atop the desk in his dorm room. Even as he finds himself focused on new goals, some things are worth looking back on.
Issue date: April 29, 2004