Okafor, Emeka

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Emeka Okafor

September 28, 1982 • Houston, Texas

Basketball player

Emeka Okafor ended his first season with the Charlotte Bobcats, the North Carolina team of the National Basketball Association (NBA), as winner of the league's 2004–05 Rookie of the Year award. A standout athlete during his college career as a center for the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies, Okafor was the NBA's second draft pick in 2004. Sportswriters described him as one of the league's future legends, but Okafor also managed to compile an impressive academic record at UConn, graduating with honors and a year early, too.

Father flees Nigeria

Okafor is of Nigerian heritage. He was born Chukwuemeka Noubuisi Okafor in 1982 in Houston, Texas, where his immigrant parents had settled. His father's family had come from the eastern part of Nigeria, a place called Enugwuukwu, but during his father's teen years Nigeria was torn by a civil war that would leave a million dead. A small part of the country had seceded (officially withdrawn) and declared itself independent of Nigeria in 1967, and the newly created republic was called Biafra. The family of Okafor's father wound up in a Biafran refugee camp, where they lived for more than two years. Many there, including Okafor's grandfather, starved or died of illness. Okafor's father, Pius, joined the Biafran army because he knew soldiers were fed before refugees in such crises. Pius managed to survive until the end of the war in 1970, which also marked the end of an independent Biafra. Four years later, he immigrated to the United States, where one of his cousins had already settled.

After a few months in Louisiana, Okafor's father moved on to Houston, where he worked at a gas station at night while taking classes at Texas Southern University. On a visit home to Nigeria in 1980, he met his future wife, Celestina. After their marriage, she became a nurse, while Pius earned advanced degrees in business and accounting. He worked as an accountant for oil companies in Houston and then Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for a time when Okafor and his younger sister, Nneka, were growing up.

"Basketball is a gift, but so is intelligence. I don't want to ever waste either of them."

Like his father, Okafor was studious and serious. Once, in the fourth grade, he came home with a "B" on his report card and cried over it. He was also a skilled young athlete, playing soccer and baseball, running track and field events, and swimming competitively. On a playground court near their home, he sharpened his basketball skills with Nneka, who became tired and wanted to go home long before he did. He joined his first basketball team as a sixth-grader. At Houston's Bellaire High School, which attracted some of the city's top students, he played on a freshman squad that won the city championship. Midway through his sophomore year, Bellaire's coaches moved the talented fifteen year old onto the varsity squad as a center and forward for the team.

Emerges as tough shot blocker

Okafor attended a few summer camps for high-school hoops players that are usually sponsored by athletic-shoe companies like Nike. The camps offer teen athletes a chance to improve their game, while scouts for college teams survey the young talent pool. But Okafor was overlooked by college recruiters because he did not have a solid offense style of play at the time. He was, however, an excellent shot blocker, an invaluable resource for any team, preventing the other team from scoring and doing it with a minimum of fouls. Okafor was also tall—by the time he reached his senior year, he stood six feet, nine inches. At that point, he decided he was too thin. He began an impressive weight-training regimen and put twenty pounds on his frame in just six months. College recruiters began to take notice.

Okafor continued to earn nearly straight-A grades at Bellaire. He scored 1310 out of 1600 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), placing him among the top-ranked college-bound high-school seniors in the United States, and graduated with a 4.3 grade point average (GPA), out of a possible 4.0; the extra points came from taking advanced placement classes. He hoped to enter Stanford University in California, but its athletic department did not offer him a scholarship. Instead he was courted by Vanderbilt and Rice universities, as well as Georgia Tech.

Okafor chose the University of Connecticut (UConn), mostly because he liked the style of play for which this school and other teams in the Big East Conference were known. Other schools in the athletic conference include Georgetown, Villanova, and Seton Hall universities. Though UConn's main campus at Storrs was known for its rigorous academics, it also had an excellent winning record in college sports, especially basketball. In 1999, the UConn Huskies won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men's basketball championship. The women's basketball team also had winning seasons, taking NCAA titles in 1995 and 2000.

Earns top grades

Okafor arrived at Storrs in the fall of 2001, and he made vast improvements in his game under men's coach Jim Calhoun. He finished his first season as the third best shot blocker in all of college basketball, with a count of 136 shots blocked. He also took eighteen credit hours his first semester, and seventeen credit hours the next. Even during that freshman year, he attracted attention as a possible future NBA star. In March 2002, he was the subject of a New York Times article in which sportswriter Joe Drape celebrated Okafor's drive, talent, and ambition—both on the court and off. Okafor admitted that he was as committed to earning good grades as he was to playing for the Huskies. "As much as I love basketball, I want to have options," he explained to Drape in the interview. "I'm goal oriented and I have this thing about failing."

Around this same time, Okafor made his first appearance in the NCAA men's basketball tournament commonly known as "March Madness." The Huskies had racked up a undistinguished 25–6 season record, partly because it was a younger team with Okafor and other freshman and sophomore players. Because of this, they were not expected to do well in the tournament, but went on to beat the Hampton, North Carolina State, and Southern Illinois University (SIU) teams. In that last game, Okafor kept one of SIU's top players, Rolan Roberts (1978–), from scoring for the final seventeen minutes of a game. But Okafor and the UConn team were beaten by the University of Maryland Terrapins, 90–82, who went on to win their first NCAA title in the school's history.

In the 2002–03 season, the Huskies had an even worse win-loss record than the previous year by the time March Madness began. Despite that, they made it into the semifinals after beating Seton Hall, 83–70. From there Okafor and the team defeated Syracuse University, 80–67, then Stanford University, 85–74, but lost to the University of Texas Longhorns by just four points and exited the tournament.

Leads the Huskies to Final Four

As the 2003–04 basketball season neared, Okafor was anticipating his final year in college—though he was still a junior. He was able to graduate a year ahead of schedule by taking a heavy course load every semester and other tactics. One strategy involved reading a business calculus textbook and then taking the final exam for it, instead of taking the class. This is called "testing out" of required classes, and some top students prefer not to do so, because a poor grade on the exam—which translates into their grade for the class—can lower their GPA. On that business calculus exam, Okafor earned the only "B" on his college record.

Because of his excellent academic record, NCAA leadership liked to point to Okafor as proof that college players could excel in both sports and school. The NCAA rates how well colleges and universities do in balancing athletics and academics, and a school is considered in line with NCAA standards if its athletes graduate within six years. Okafor, in response, has said that the NCAA might do more to help college athletes. Additional game tickets for family members was one way, he said, along with a voucher for the occasional airfare home to visit family. Scholarship money was another issue. "Right now athletes can't keep additional scholarships they earn through academics," he told Sports Illustrated journalist Alexander Wolff. "That makes no sense. And the gambling is getting crazy. Every town I go to, some fan is like, 'Emeka, I got a thousand bucks on you guys.' I'm like, 'Great, dude, I don't really care."'

Becomes NBA draft pick

Okafor's high 3.95 GPA prompted Basketball Digest to name him its Player of the Year in December 2003 for excelling on the basketball court as well as in the classroom. He had a tough season, however, due to a stress fracture in his back that caused painful spasms, and sportswriters wondered how the Huskies would do in the NCAA tournament if he was benched. He wasn't, and thanks to his impressive performance, UConn advanced to the "Final Four," where the last four teams left in the tournament compete to be in the championship. The UConns won the 2004 NCAA championship after beating Georgia Tech, 82–73. Okafor put in an impressive performance for what would be his final game in college basketball, with 24 points and 15 rebounds. He also won the Most Outstanding Player award at the tournament. Sportswriters predicted he would not play a fourth year with Connecticut and instead turn professional, and on April 16, 2004, Okafor announced that he was giving up his final year of college eligibility to instead declare himself a candidate for the NBA draft.

"A Cat Named Bob"

Emeka Okafor played his rookie season for the Charlotte Bobcats, a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise in North Carolina's largest city. The Bobcats were also rookies that 2004–05 year, because it was their first season of regular league play as the NBA's newest expansion team. The team is owned by Robert L. Johnson (1946–), the first African American to own a majority stake in an NBA franchise. Born in Mississippi into a family of ten children, Johnson earned a graduate degree from Princeton University in 1972 and was a public-television executive and later vice president of a group of cable-channel owners in the 1970s. In 1979, he founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), a cable channel aimed at African American viewers that went on the air the following year.

Over the next two decades, Johnson expanded BET from a cable channel that aired just two hours of programming daily into an entertainment powerhouse that produced public-affairs programs, gospel events, and even ventured into event promotion with its acclaimed BET Jazz music festival series. In 1999, Viacom bought BET for $2.3 billion in stock. Johnson remained chief executive officer and chair of the cable channel, which reaches sixty-five million homes in the United States, until stepping down in 2005 to devote more time to the Bobcats. He has said that he named the team after himself, "a cat named Bob." The rapper Nelly (1978–) owns a minority stake in the Bobcats.

On June 24, 2004, Okafor was the number two NBA draft pick in the nation, after Dwight Howard, a talented high school player from Georgia who was signed by the Orlando Magic. Okafor was taken by the Charlotte Bobcats, a new NBA expansion team that would be playing its first regular NBA season in 2004–05. He had a good first year in pro basketball under coach Bernie Bickerstaff (1944–), leading the team in points and rebounds. Early in the season, the Bobcats beat the Detroit Pistons, the 2004 NBA champions, and became the first expansion outfit to beat a title-holding team since 1971. Midway through the season, Okafor was named to the NBA All-Star Team. He received 408,082 votes, the most out of any rookie player that year. But the Bobcats did not do as well: with a record of eighteen wins and sixty-four losses, they finished the season in fourth place among the five teams in their Southeastern Division of the Eastern Conference.

During his rookie season, Okafor had nineteen straight double-doubles from mid-November to January. Double-doubles is the statistical term in basketball for game performance numbers that reached double-digits in two of the following categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots. He also led all NBA rookies in scoring, with an average of 15.9 points per game, and with 10.9 rebounds per game. At the end of the 2004–05 season, he won the NBA Rookie of the Year award, beating out former Huskies teammate Ben Gordon (1983–), who had started his own pro career that year with the Chicago Bulls.

Okafor's teammates teased him when People named him "Sexiest NBA Rookie" in its annual issue that ranks celebrity sex appeal. Out of college, he could now devote his spare time to reading for pleasure, and he did a lot of it during travel time to and from away games. "It keeps my mind fresh," he told Chris Ballard in a Sports Illustrated interview. "You don't want your brain to rot too badly. You can only watch so many movies and play so many video games."

For More Information


Ballard, Chris."Emeka Okafor: Bobcats Forward." Sports Illustrated (April 18, 2005): p. 33.

Drape, Joe. "Okafor Is Quick Study, on Court and in Class." New York Times (March 21, 2002): p. C16.

Kertes, Tom. "Center of Attention." Basketball Digest (December 003): p. 50.

Kertes, Tom. "The Incomparable Emeka." Basketball Digest (July–August 2004): p. 48.

Layden, Tim. "A Student of the Game." Sports Illustrated (April 14, 2004): p. 12.

Layden, Tim. "When Brain Meets Brawn." Sports Illustrated (November 24, 2003): p. 74.

Wolff, Alexander. "Remember the Alamodome." Sports Illustrated (April 14, 2004): p. 46.

Web Sites

Emeka Okafor: 50.http://www.nba.com/playerfile/emeka_okafor/?nav=page (accessed on August 23, 2005).

The Official Site of the Charlotte Bobcats.http://www.nba.com/bobcats/ (accessed on August 23, 2005).