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When Brain Meets Brawn EMEKA OKAFOR hits the books so fiercely he'll graduate a year early and blocks shots so ferociously he's the game's most feared defender

Nov. 24, 2003
Nov. 24, 2003

Table of Contents
Nov. 24, 2003

College Basketball Preview 2003-04

When Brain Meets Brawn EMEKA OKAFOR hits the books so fiercely he'll graduate a year early and blocks shots so ferociously he's the game's most feared defender

Life is uncertain. I'm just making sure to leave some doors--and
windows--open. --Emeka Okafor, Connecticut center

This is an article from the Nov. 24, 2003 issue Original Layout

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 title 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 Storrs, 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."

Okafor's story begins far away, in the eastern Nigerian town of
Enugwu-ukwu, where Pius Okafor was born in 1951. Pius was one of
six children of Anakwuo Okafor's second wife (his first wife had
borne him four others), and he was 16 years old when Nigeria was
riven by a civil war that would cost more than one million lives,
most by war-induced starvation. His family lived in a Biafran
refugee camp for much of the 30-month conflict (his father died
there), and when Pius joined the rebel Biafran army at 17, he did
so willingly. "I wanted something to eat," he says. "And there
was no food in the refugee camp." He was assigned to a primitive
medical unit--once he worked in vain to save his wounded best
friend's life--but several times was handed a rifle and told to
fight. After the war ended in 1970 with Biafra's surrender, he
spent four years working as a tax collector until a cousin begged
him to seek a better life in the United States. After his cousin
informed him of the affordable tuition, Pius applied for
admission to Grambling, in Louisiana, and was accepted.

After one semester at Grambling, Pius moved to Houston. There,
while pumping gas at night, he earned a degree at Texas Southern
University in 3 1/2 years. (Like son, like father.) In 1980 he
returned for a visit to Nigeria and met his wife, Celestina. They
were married in Houston in September 1981; one year later their
only son was born and named Chukwuemeka Ndubisi.

Pius raised his family while chasing degrees the way he had once
chased food: first an M.B.A. in 1982 and six years later a
master's in accounting. From 1990 to '92 he worked for Phillips
Petroleum in Bartlesville, Okla. The family moved back to Houston
in '92, but three years later Pius started taking courses that
would help him gain acceptance to pharmacy school. Since '97 he
has lived most of the year in Kansas City, pursuing a doctorate
in pharmacy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. (The 5'7"
Celestina, who is a registered nurse, and Emeka's sister, Nneka,
5'8" and a high school senior, remain in Houston; Pius, 6'3",
visits every three weeks.) He resides two blocks from the urban
campus in a tiny studio apartment that, if upgraded, would be
spartan. The bed rubs against a couch, which rubs against the
kitchen table. He has only what he needs. A battered 19-inch
television sits in a cabinet. "I have my TV, I have ESPN Full
Court," says Pius. "I never miss a game."

Emeka prospered slowly on the basketball court. He was moved to
Bellaire's varsity only in the middle of his sophomore year, and
even when he was invited to national shoe-company-sponsored camps
between his junior and senior years (as are hundreds of
prospects), he was not a high-profile recruit. "I don't think
anyone could have predicted back then that he would become the
player he's become," says Texas coach Rick Barnes, who had just
two scholarships to hand out in Okafor's senior year and did not
recruit him.

Says Calhoun, "I saw him at Nike camp in the summer before his
senior year. He was devoid of any offensive game, but he kept
blocking shots. I loved his quickness off the floor."

In his senior year Okafor, who ranked in the top 10% of his class
and boasted a 1,310 SAT score, decided he wanted to go to
Stanford, but Stanford never made him an offer. The Ivies were
interested, but Okafor wanted better basketball. Arkansas,
Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Rice were aggressive. Calhoun stayed
interested and then in April saw Okafor in an all-star game in
Pittsburgh, during which he had 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10
blocks. He had made huge strides and suddenly many schools were
sniffing around. After the Pittsburgh game Calhoun called Storrs
and talked to assistant Karl Hobbs (now coach at George
Washington). Okafor had been a project. Now he was a must-get.
"If we lose this guy," Calhoun told Hobbs, "it's going to be an
incredible loss."

Okafor measured his options. "I knew they won the championship in
1999," he says of the Huskies. "I knew they were building to win
another one. Coach Calhoun told me I'd get 15 to 20 minutes a
game, and more if I earned it. I came back and told my dad, 'I
think this is a good fit for me.'"

His decision made, Okafor arrived in Storrs for Calhoun's summer
camp. He kept getting better. Blaney, the former head coach at
Holy Cross and Seton Hall, got his first look at the incoming
freshman in an evening pickup game. He went to Calhoun's office
and stuck a Post-It on the coach's desk. It read: EMEKA. OH MY
GOD. Caron Butler of the Miami Heat, who played one season with
Okafor, says, "He's got attributes you can't teach."

Okafor averaged 30 minutes a game as a freshman and got 19 points
and 15 rebounds in a nationally televised victory at Arizona.
Last year he doubled his scoring from eight points a game to
nearly 16. "He came here mature, and he's gotten more mature,"
says Connecticut senior point guard Taliek Brown. "Everything is
serious. Straight business." Okafor will need only one course in
the spring to graduate. In the fall semester he is enrolled in a
special business course that allows an invited group of seniors
to invest a small portion of the university's endowment. "This
class could come in handy next year," says Okafor, as he sat
watching instructor Pat Terrion pull up stock charts from the
Internet.

Next year, of course, Okafor will be investing his own money, not
UConn's. There is a consensus that he'll be a lottery pick and
that the team that gets him will immediately benefit from his
pro-ready rebounding and shot-blocking skills. "He could make a
defensive impact in our league today," says one NBA general
manager. Okafor's offense, by contrast, is mechanical, in need of
refinement. "He has to get better," says another NBA front office
executive. If that observer knew Okafor better, he would realize
that pursuit of that improvement is assured.

On a mid-autumn afternoon Okafor played in pickup games at aging
Guyer Gym for 90 minutes with his teammates. When they left and
UConn's mighty women took the floor, Okafor walked to an adjacent
court with Evanovich and began his drills. Short jumpers were
followed by longer ones, and then by post moves. Occasionally
Okafor pierced the air with a baritone curse, then reschooled
himself with baby jumpers nearer the hoop. He worked for 30
minutes on lefthanded moves alone. Then he stopped for a water
break. "People are proud of me," he said, after pulling a long
slug from a bottle. "But I can't be proud of myself. I have to be
blunt. I have to be harsh."

Okafor dropped the bottle and walked back onto the court. When
the workout began, sunlight had poured through dusty skylights.
Now it was nearly dark. He snatched a ball and pounded it twice
on the floor, not nearly finished for the day.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER IT'S ACADEMIC With a 3.7 GPA, Okafor is on track to get his degree in three years--in time for the NBA draft lottery.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE OKAFOR FAMILY SPLIT PERSONALITY Emeka hammed it up at age two with his parents, but his life in Storrs has been serious and spare.COLOR PHOTO: JAY L. CLENDENIN/POLARIS (RIGHT) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO STILL LEARNING Already NBA-worthy on D, Okafor is working to expand his skills on the offensive end.

Okafor "HAS THIS INHUMAN WILLPOWER to get things finished," says
Gordon, his freshman roommate.

"People are proud of me, but I can't be proud of myself," says
Okafor. "I have to be blunt. I HAVE TO BE HARSH."