With Heart Filled with Love and Loss, Duke's Jahlil Okafor Ready for Spotlight

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagNovember 18, 2014

Gerry Broome/AP Images

FROM THE EDITORS: Some material from Terrance Noland's "Jahlil Okafor Is On His Way Up," which ran in Chicago magazine in January 2014, was used without attribution in this article, in violation of our standards, which can be read here. Bleacher Report apologizes for the error and attribution has been added to the story where appropriate.


When he finally realized it wasn't a prank—when it was obvious his mother, Dee, could hardly breathe—Jahlil Okafor ran from his living room and into the street, screaming for an ambulance.

Okafor knew he couldn't use the phone inside, which was out of service. And at nine years old he was too young to have his own cell. So as his mom lay gasping from a bronchitis attack on the living room floor, Okafor sprinted to his neighbor's house and pounded on the door.

"Call 911!" he yelled.

From there, it was all a blur.

The piercing sound of the sirens, the paramedics ripping open Dee's shirt to perform CPR, the ride to the hospital—and, finally, the doctors approaching Jahlil and his 11-year-old sister, Jalen, in the waiting area to deliver the news.

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Their mother was gone.

Fighting back tears, Okafor walked into Dee's room, stood by her bedside and stroked her hair.

"I just couldn't believe it," he says now. "I couldn't believe it."

More than nine years later, Okafor is on the cusp of what should be his lone season of college basketball at Duke. Still, as the projected No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft prepares for Tuesday's showdown against Michigan State in the Champions Classic, he remains haunted by the events that led to his mother's death at age 29 in 2005.

Photo courtesy of Chucky Okafor

Leaning forward in his chair in an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium last month, Okafor's voice softens as he glares at the hardwood.

"She kept coughing and making all sorts of weird sounds," he says. "And I thought she was kidding. Everyone knew she liked to joke around."

Okafor raises his head.

"If I'd have known she was serious," he says, "if I'd have realized sooner that she wasn't playing, she'd still be here today.

"I can't help but think that."

Painful as it was, Okafor says losing a parent at such an early age made him stronger.

When he says he "grew up faster than other kids," Okafor isn't just alluding to the 6'11", 270-pound frame that left college coaches groveling at his feet.

The aspiring veterinarian is referring to the discipline it took to achieve a 3.0 high school grade point average while traveling the country to play basketball. He means protecting his image by refraining from writing emotional, heat-of-the-moment posts on Twitter. Okafor is talking about respecting authority figures and, most of all, never being satisfied with his success.

"That's the best way I can honor my mother," he says.

Okafor is only 18, but he carries himself with the maturity of a 40-year-old man. While NBA types are smitten with his size and skill set—"the most skilled high school center [I've] ever scouted," a team executive told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski earlier this year—they're even more impressed with the way Okafor has managed everything that comes along with it, from magazine covers to calls from coaches and media to being tagged as the top player in college basketball before he ever competed in a game.

The scenario is similar to the one that engulfed former Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins, who became so overwhelmed by the attention he received at this time last season that he was given a month-long break from media responsibilities.

Considered the favorite to be the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Okafor first must contend with the pressure of playing at Duke.
Considered the favorite to be the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Okafor first must contend with the pressure of playing at Duke.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Okafor is different. Rarely does he squint in the glare of the spotlight—and he relishes the pressure that comes along with it.

"But," he says, "I've never played on a stage as big as Duke University. There will be more eyes on me than ever before.

"This is a whole new level." 

Shortly before the press conference to announce his college intentions, Jahlil Okafor was almost in tears.

He wanted to mention his mother during the speech he'd give at Whitney Young High School, but he was afraid he'd become emotional and end up crying on national television.

"He came to talk to me about it, and he choked up," Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. "And seeing him like that made me choke up. I just told him, 'There's nothing wrong with people seeing you get emotional about someone who was so important to you.' "

While his mother will always be his inspiration, Okafor knows he wouldn't have blossomed into the player—and the person—he is today without his father.

As originally reported by Chicago magazine, Chukwudi Okafor (everyone calls him Chucky) met Dacresha (nicknamed Dee) Benton in 1995 while playing junior college basketball in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Dee had starred on the court, too, but by the time she met Chucky, a knee injury and the birth of her daughter had forced her to halt her career.

Never one to hide his feelings for his son, Chucky Okafor provided a home and mentor for Jahlil after Dee's death.
Never one to hide his feelings for his son, Chucky Okafor provided a home and mentor for Jahlil after Dee's death.Photo courtesy of Chucky Okafor

By December, Dee had given birth to Jahlil, and even though they never married, she and Chucky stayed together for the next seven years, eventually settling in a tiny town in Oklahoma near the Arkansas border.

Jahlil was a self-described mama's boy who relished trips with Dee to the pizza parlor. But he was also extremely close with his dad, a bond that hardly weakened when Chucky moved back to his native Chicago in 2003. Jahlil took extended trips to visit his father each summer and, during the school year, he called Chucky every evening before he went to bed, as Chicago magazine also recounted.

"Who loves you more than your dad?" Chucky asked each night.

"No one," Jahlil always said.

Jahlil needed Chucky more than ever when he moved to Chicago to live with him following Dee's death in 2005. He missed the woman who was not only his mom, but also his best friend. Making matters worse was that he partly blamed himself for her death.

"He felt some guilt," Chucky says, "but I had to tell him that there was nothing he could've done that would've changed the outcome. It was something no one could've stopped, but that was hard for a kid that age to understand."

At the time, as originally reported by Chicago magazine, Chucky was living in the same rough area on Chicago's South Side that had led to problems for him as a teenager. Chucky was around it all. One of his biggest issues had been fighting, which is one of the reasons he'd attended five high schools in three years. He'd also spent time in a group home for troubled youth and was kicked off three junior college basketball teams.

By the time Jahlil moved to Chicago, though, Chucky had turned his life around. As Chicago magazine reported, he had a good job as a doorman at an area condominium and had recently completed his bachelor's degree in curriculum and instruction at Chicago State.

Within a year, Chucky had saved enough money for Jahlil and him to move to the suburb of Rosemont, a far cry from the gang-infested streets of his old neighborhood.

"You can't just sit around and wait for things to get better," Chucky says. "So I removed him from the situation. The things I fell into at an early age...I wasn't going to let it happen to him."

Also keeping tabs on Jahlil was his aunt, Dr. Chinyere Okafor-Conley, a high school principal who often drove Jahlil to school when his father couldn't.

"She called a lot of the shots," Jahlil says of his father's older sister.

Well-acquainted with the risks of hanging out with the wrong people, Chucky kept Jahlil close to home for much of his upbringing in Chicago.
Well-acquainted with the risks of hanging out with the wrong people, Chucky kept Jahlil close to home for much of his upbringing in Chicago.Photo courtesy of Chucky Okafor

By the time Jahlil reached the ninth grade, the Okafors had relocated again, this time to the West Side of Chicago so Jahlil could attend Whitney Young. Along with touting a well-regarded boys basketball program, Whitney Young—Michelle Obama's alma mater—was recently ranked fourth in the state for academics.

Being in a disciplined environment around students who competed with one another for grades forced Okafor to develop strong study habits and time management skills—traits that would influence his work ethic on the court.

"It was the type of place where, if you didn't do your homework, you felt embarrassed," says Chucky, who kept a close watch on his son's activities away from school.

No matter how busy he was with school and basketball, Jahlil was still expected to wash the dishes each night. If Jahlil wanted to hang out with friends on the weekend, his dad would pepper him with questions about their parents. If he asked to go to a party, his dad wanted a list of everyone who would be there.

"Most times he'd say, 'No, that doesn't sound like a good idea,' " Jahlil says. "It was frustrating at first, but after a while I understood. Seeing all the stuff that happens in Chicago, with all the drugs and people getting shot at parties...there's no need to be around that."

Instead Jahlil's social life revolved around basketball, as most of his closest friends were guys from his AAU team or other players he'd met on the circuit. If they weren't at a tournament, they usually spent Friday nights watching movies or playing video games.

No matter what his son was doing, though, Chucky was almost always there. Jahlil loves to tell the story about the time he was a stagehand in a school play. When he came out to move some props between acts, his father applauded and screamed his name.

"If you've been to one of my games, you've definitely heard him," Jahlil says. "He's loud and energetic, just full of energy. He's always been my biggest supporter."

Slaughter, the high school coach, remembers multiple times when Jahlil and Chucky would share a long hug before the team boarded the bus for a road game. Other times he couldn't help but overhear Jahil talking to his dad on the telephone.

Apr. 3, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Varsity basketball team member Jahlil Okafor poses at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. Okafor, a 6 foot 10 inch junior who plays the center position, is poised to become one of the top basketball recruits for
Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

"Every conversation they have ends with, 'I love you,' " Slaughter says. "That type of public affection just isn't something you see in young men. But they have a genuine love for one another, and it's not contrived based on Jahlil's athletic prowess.

"Watching them interact...I've never seen anything like it."

Still, as well as he got along with his father, Jahlil never stopped missing his mother. Slaughter recalled an afternoon when Jahlil was having a poor practice. As he was scolding him, Slaughter noticed his star player "welling up" with emotion. Slaughter called Jahlil that night to discuss what had happened.

Jahlil told him it was the anniversary of Dee's death.

"Over and over, I keep telling him that his mom is still with him," Chucky says. "She might not be physically here, but she's watching over him. You're being watched. I think he takes that to heart."

Along with learning from Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski and competing for an NCAA title, there's another reason Jahlil Okafor chose to attend Duke.

The dorms.

While more and more basketball programs are constructing ritzy living quarters for their high-profile athletes, Duke still requires its first-year basketball players to live among the regular students in the freshman dormitories.

The setup suits Okafor just fine. Despite his celebrity, he's never been the type to walk around with his nose in the air. To him, a good day involves coming home from class, watching movies on Netflix, eating Toaster Strudels and then going to practice.

"He just likes being a normal kid," teammate Justise Winslow said.

Okafor helped lead three junior USA Basketball teams to gold medals in international tournaments.
Okafor helped lead three junior USA Basketball teams to gold medals in international tournaments.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

That's not always easy.

By the time he was in the eighth grade, Jahlil stood 6'8". DePaul offered him a scholarship that same year. From 2011 to 2013 he helped USA Basketball's junior teams win gold medals at the FIBA World Championships in Mexico, Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

No matter the state or country, Okafor—a McDonald's All-American—was known in every basketball arena in which he set foot. An Ohio State assistant who was recruiting him went as far as to name his dog after Okafor.

"I've definitely had to grow up faster than most of my friends," Okafor says with a laugh.

After his junior season, Okafor began fielding so many calls from coaches and reporters that his father changed his phone number without even telling him. Jahlil, he said, needed time to relax and play Call of Duty and walk his Great Dane, Hector. He needed time to think, to relax, to enjoy himself.

"He handled it all effortlessly," Chucky said. "But as a dad, you don't want your kid talking to that many adults on a daily basis. It's just not healthy."

Okafor—the consensus No. 1-ranked overall prospect in the Class of 2014—had decided long ago that he wanted to attend college with top-rated point guard Tyus Jones, a Minnesota native and his teammate with USA Basketball.

After each college visit, Chucky said Okafor and Jones made up a "report card" about the school, dissecting everything from the coaching staff to their potential teammates to the possibility of winning a championship.

Eventually they whittled their list down to Duke, Kansas and Baylor. Blue Devils assistant Jeff Capel said he was confident about his team's chances—mainly due to the vibe he felt when Jones and Okafor visited Duke along with Winslow.

While the recruits played pickup ball on the court behind Krzyzewski's house, their parents sat in the living room with the coaching staff for hours, sharing stories and laughs.

"It just felt like family," Capel says. "It was one of the best official visits I've ever been a part of."

Capel said he heard a few competitors tried to convince Okafor that Duke wasn't good at developing big men, but Capel wasn't concerned.

Okafor was drawn to Duke, in part, because of the warm connection he felt he could find with his teammates and the coaching staff.
Okafor was drawn to Duke, in part, because of the warm connection he felt he could find with his teammates and the coaching staff.USA TODAY Sports

"It was just a scare tactic," Capel said. "It's unfair, but all we had to do was lay out the information for Jah and prove to him that it's not true. He's one of the best kids I've ever been around. It was obvious he loved Duke. Not just Duke basketball, but Duke University."

Before going public with their announcement, Okafor and Jones requested a conference call with Krzyzewski. They teased him at first by acting as if they were heading elsewhere before finally revealing they intended to be Blue Devils.

"When we told him, there was about 45 seconds of silence," Okafor says.

He smiles gently when asked if Coach K became emotional.

"I don't know," Okafor says. "You'll have to ask him."

As crazy as the hoopla was during high school, things have been even zanier at Duke. Magazine covers, radio shows, autographs on campus...everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Okafor. Still, he continues to exhibit the traits his mother and father began preaching in kindergarten. Be polite, smile, look people in the eye and say thank you.

With so many folks looking up to him, Okafor knows how important it is to maintain a good image.

"Some of my friends get on Twitter and tweet a bunch of rap lyrics with bad words," he says. "They may not mean anything by it, but it creates a negative perception. It doesn't make them look good.

"I can't do stuff like that."

Along with being pegged as a preseason All-American by numerous media outlets, Okafor has also been voted as the national preseason player of the year by Bleacher Report, CBS Sports and others.

As the buzz about Okafor continues to increase, his situation is beginning to resemble the one Wiggins experienced last season at Kansas. Even though the attention appeared to be too much for Wiggins at times, Okafor said he was impressed with how he handled the stress.

Chucky and Jahlil pose with Jahlil's sister Jalen after the announcement that Duke had secured a player many feel is the best in the country.
Chucky and Jahlil pose with Jahlil's sister Jalen after the announcement that Duke had secured a player many feel is the best in the country.Photo courtesy of Chucky Okafor

"I met him on my visit to Kansas," Okafor said. "I went in his room and he was just sitting there playing Call of Duty. He seemed relaxed, like a regular guy. It just taught me to block out what everyone else is saying and be true to myself. I'm not going to change who I am."

And he's not going to let the intensity of the situation stop him from enjoying what's likely to be his only season of college basketball. For years, his mother's death has weighed heavily on Okafor's shoulders. Now more than ever, he's been able to relax and have fun.

That couldn't be more comforting to Chucky, who can't help but marvel at the man Okafor has become. On the court, his throwback, back-to-the-basket game could be as good as college basketball has seen in years. Okafor has changed his eating habits and is now down to 9.6 percent body fat.

Off the court, he's a strong student whose favorite class is a sociological study called "Decoding Disney." He's also a Good Samaritan using his pedestal to make others smile.

Shortly before he enrolled at Duke last summer, Okafor heard a story about a fan who was being bullied at a Chicago elementary school. Wanting to help, Okafor showed up in the boy's class unannounced on the final day of school and treated him as if he was his best friend.

"More than anything," his father says, "that's the kind of stuff that makes you proud."

Back in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Jahlil Okafor walks away from a photo shoot with Sports Illustrated and wipes sweat from his brow. For the past 20 minutes, he's dunked, jumped, dribbled and posed while multiple cameras clicked at a furious pace.

"A lot of work for one picture," says Okafor, who would eventually be featured on the magazine's cover.

Okafor, though, certainly wasn't complaining. He's thankful for the publicity—but also ready to justify it. First at Duke, where he hopes to lead the Blue Devils to their first national title since 2010. And then in the NBA, where scouts believe he'll be a perennial All-Star. Okafor hasn't thought quite that far ahead. He's just looking forward to buying Chucky a shiny red truck.

Whatever the case, Okafor knows it won't be easy to live up to the lofty expectations that seem to increase each day.

"I'm ready," Okafor says. "I don't think I could be any more prepared than I am right now."

It all started last week, when Okafor averaged 18 points and 7.5 rebounds in victories over Presbyterian and Fairfield. A tougher test awaits Tuesday against No. 19 Michigan State in Indianapolis. Before each game—just as he did prior to every contest in high school—Okafor will close his eyes as he stretches at midcourt. Look closely enough and you may even seen his lips move.

"I always pray to God and ask him to let my mother be my wings on the court," Okafor says. "It gives me confidence.

"It makes me feel like I can't be stopped."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR .


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