HOUSTON -- Should UConn cut down the nets come Monday, and should sophomore center Alex Oriakhi put forth an effort consistent with his 9-point, 9.8-rebound output over their last nine games, there's a winter coat somewhere in Lowell, Mass., that probably deserves a shout out.
When Oriakhi was six, a pediatrician told his mother Angela that her little boy would likely top out at somewhere between 6'10" and 7-feet. So when his Pop Warner team benched the unlikely offensive lineman for exceeding his age group's height limit, Angela turned his attention to basketball. A flier handed to Angela by a coworker called for young basketball players for a new rec team and later that day mother and son headed to the local branch, 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. "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 my kids, 'Check the jackets! Shake my pants! Shake anything you can out of my clothes!'"
Finally fate smiled down. With a brisk shake of a winter coat, a $50 bill came fluttering down from the pocket "Oh, we were so happy, we sang all the way back to the Y," says Angela. "We used the leftover $10 and went to McDonalds."
But well before he even set foot to hard-court, there were others who were glimpsing something special. Boston-area youth coach Chris Driscoll first met Oriakhi when Oriakhi enrolled in his non-profit, Mentoring At Risk Athletes (MARA). "He was 7-years-old at the time, and I said to my friend, 'Rich, that's going to be the best basketball player to ever come out of Lowell, Massachusetts right there.'"
"That's what my friend said," says Driscoll, now an assistant coach at Providence. "It sounds silly to say it, and I had no idea really how good he would be, but the size, the talent, the work ethic, and the willingness to get over your mistakes and listen, those all go into making a great player. Just a great kid. The kind of kid you'd want your daughter to marry someday."
Whatever Driscoll saw in his prophecies rapidly started manifesting itself within Oriakhi, and he took to his new hobby with a surplus of 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.'"
In fact, Oriakhi seemed to approach everything he did with a surplus of something. A surplus of drive when, while playing Pop Warner, he pursued a diet of salad and fruit, believing he could eat himself shorter. Or a surplus of humility when, after Driscoll got Oriakhi involved in the storied Boston Amateur Basketball Club, he would readily point to himself when asked to identify the team's weakest link. But it was a surplus of talent that turned college scouts on to him.
As a rising high school freshman, Driscoll brought Oriakhi down to the Nike Peach Jam in Augusta to play with a group of older kids from the BABC. "One of the players, a top 20 player in the country, he went in for a dunk and Alex went up and blocked the shot, pinning the ball against backboard," remembers the coach. "We all just looked at one another and said, 'Wow.' That was when he was noticed." Within three years, Oriakhi was a UConn committ.
When Connecticut 6'11" power forward Ater Majok abruptly left the team before the '10-'11 season, who would stand in as the team's presence down low was the nagging question, but Oriakhi had the answer. "That's when I knew everything was going to be put on me and that's when I got to work on getting my body right in the weight room. I knew that the team was going to need me," he says. And he's embraced that role without hesitation, upping his rebounding average to a team-best 8.6 per game.
If this Husky is deficient in any aspect, it's his bark, which, like his bite, tends to lack a sense of peril. "I'm easygoing," says Oriakhi in his characteristic low decibel. "I don't argue. I just feel, what's the point?"
UConn coach Jim Calhoun has lamented aloud the soft-spoken big's missing mean streak, and there's question as to how effective he will be in facing Kentucky's attack from the tandem of Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. But until of now, Oriakhi hasn't needed either a bark or a bite to get to this point, a starting center for a team on the brink of a national championship. No, all Alex Oriakhi needed was his inherently good attitude, his preternatural drive, and a stray $50.