Life is uncertain. I'm just making sure to leave some doors—and windows—open.
—EMEKA OKAFOR, Connecticut center
The coach has a standing invitation to his players: Visit my office every day, Jim Calhoun tells them. Stop by and say hello. Tell me about your schoolwork or your family. Tell me your troubles, or tell me what you just ate for lunch. � Like small children called home to bedtime, Calhoun's players have regularly found their way to his deskside in the basement of Gampel Pavilion, and they have relished the love. In the fall of 2001, however, freshman Emeka Okafor arrived from Houston, and when he would dutifully make the trip to Calhoun's suite he was decidedly ill at ease, shifting about like a man with sore feet.
"He was perfectly polite," says assistant coach George Blaney, a witness to those visits, "but he clearly viewed the situation as a waste of time. Everything in his attitude said, What is it you want? I don't have time for this chitchat."
His family, his friends and his coaches shrug and explain that Emeka (pronounced ee-MECC-a) is just different. By the simple numbers he is Connecticut's 6'9", 252-pound junior center, the nation's leading shot blocker (4-7 per game) and a rebounding force (11.2 per game) with a rapidly developing offensive game. Okafor is the reason to predict that Calhoun's Huskies will win their second national tide in six years. "You're talking about a unique combination of talent, intelligence and toughness," says Villanova coach Jay Wright.
But simple basketball numbers are only the beginning of what makes Okafor unique. He is also a gifted and tenacious student who will complete his UConn degree (with a major in finance, a no-nonsense discipline) in May, just three years after enrolling, and currently carries a 3.7 GPA. He has neither tattoos ("Too permanent," he says), piercings ("Ouch!") nor the requisite BMOC SUV. When Janice Wilbur, the school's substance abuse-prevention coordinator, needs a high-profile face to lecture freshmen on the evils of sex and drugs on campus, she hits Okafor on her speed dial. "He's different from any other basketball player," says Huskies guard—and potential first-team All-America—Ben Gordon.
None of this is new. When Okafor was a fourth-grader in Houston, he brought home a B on his report card and was so crestfallen that he dissolved in tears. "What child cries over a B in the fourth grade?" asks his father, Pius. Five years later, when Emeka was playing on the city champion freshman basketball team at Houston's Bellaire High, he carried his books to the bench to study—in uniform—while resting a sore knee. Whenever his first AAU coach, orthodontist George Schudy, would use an uncommon word, Emeka would interrupt and ask him to define it. Among his high school friends were the nerdy kids who took honors-level courses and were generally shunned by athletes. Okafor's friends were more foresighted than he was. Says Brandon Lepow, a high school teammate who is now a junior at St. Edwards University in Austin, "We were always telling him, 'You're going to the NBA Just focus on basketball.' "
Soon enough, Okafor was working on his game with equal passion. In the spring of his senior year he looked hard at his long, 220-pound body in the mirror, concluded "I'm skinny," and began working out every morning with former Houston Phi Slamma Jamma forward Michael Young, who is a personal trainer. He didn't miss a day for nearly six months and arrived in Stores, Conn., at a buff 240.
There, his obsessive discipline—in athletics and academics—continued. He spooked Gordon, his freshman roommate, who would awaken in the small hours and find their dorm room illuminated by a desk light or computer, as Okafor toiled away at assignments. "He has this inhuman willpower to get things finished," says Gordon. During that same freshman year, in order to more quickly accumulate credits toward a swift graduation, Okafor took the final exam in a business calculus course without taking the course, simply by reading the textbook. "It's called 'testing out of the course,' " says Ted Taigen, Connecticut's faculty adviser for men's basketball. "Most people are afraid to do it because while they may get a passing grade for the credit, that grade may not be high and it will hurt their GPA." Okafor got a B, the lowest grade on his transcript. This he catalogs without emotion. "It wasn't worth my time to take the entire course," he says. "And realistically, my GPA isn't going to be that important."
Not unless NBA scouts start checking report cards. It will be a shock if Okafor doesn't leave UConn after this season—degree in hand—to play pro ball. He works overtime on his game, trying to refine his offense in exhausting sessions with senior walk-on Justin Evanovich. "All I'm doing is rebounding and feeding, and I get tired before he does," says Evanovich.
For now, Okafor dismisses all NBA talk. "That's so far down the road," he says. Instead he's chosen to wrap his ample wingspan around this year and treasure it. "When I talk to freshmen, I tell them, 'College is the last stop before reality hits,' " he says. "Life is simple here. It's carefree. What I want this year is a ring. And some good memories to take with me. That's simple enough."