THERE'S A WINTER COAT SOMEWHERE IN LOWELL, MASS., that probably deserves a shout-out.
When Alex Oriakhi was an overly tall six-year-old, a pediatrician told his mother, Angela, that her little boy would likely top out at somewhere between 6' 10" and 7 feet. So when Alex's Pop Warner football team benched him for exceeding his age group's height limit, Angela turned his attention to basketball. A coworker at Lowell Health Care Center, where Angela is a nurse, had given her a flyer announcing a new rec team that needed hoops players, and the next day mother and son headed to the local elementary school, arriving 30 minutes before registration ended. But it cost $40 to sign up, and the program didn't accept checks.
"I can see Alex really wants it, so I'm thinking, Oh, my God. I don't have cash, and I don't do ATM, and the bank is closed," says Angela, who came from Nigeria to the States in 1987. "I ask the guy if he could wait for me to go home and get the money, and he said he would. I'm really careless with money; I leave it everywhere. So we rush home, and I say to [Alex and his two sisters], 'Check the jackets! Shake my pants! Shake anything you can out of my clothes!' "
And with a brisk shake of a winter coat, a $50 bill came fluttering out from a pocket. "Oh, we were so happy, we sang all the way back to the school," says Angela. "We took the leftover $10 and went to McDonald's."
WELL BEFORE ALEX ORIAKHI REACHED THE SUMMIT OF collegiate basketball as a sophomore with Connecticut, there were people who saw something special in him. Boston-area youth coach Chris Driscoll first met Alex in his mentoring program for athletes. "He was seven years old, and I said to my friend, 'Rich, that's going to be the best basketball player to ever come out of Lowell, Massachusetts.' "
"That's what my friend said," says Driscoll. "I had no idea really how good he would be, but the size, the talent, the work ethic and the willingness to get over mistakes and listen—those all go into making a great player. Just a great kid. The kind you'd want your daughter to marry."
What Driscoll saw in Alex was reflected in the boy's enthusiasm. "He would have a game at 8 a.m., and around 5 I'd wake up to use the bathroom," says Angela. "There he is, already in the living room with his uniform on, watching TV. 'I just don't want to be late, Mommy. You can go back to bed, and I'll wake you up at six.' "
Alex approached everything with a surplus of something. A surplus of drive, when back in those Pop Warner days he pursued a diet of salad and fruit, believing he could eat himself shorter. A surplus of humility, when after Driscoll got a 13-year-old Alex involved in the storied Boston Amateur Basketball Club, he readily pointed to himself when asked to identify the team's weakest link. But it was his surplus of talent that turned heads.