It's Onyeka Okongwu's Time to Shine

The former running mate of the Ball brothers considered quitting basketball after a tragedy in his family in 2014. Now he's putting on a show of his own at USC, with the NBA lottery waiting.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorMarch 9, 2020

Onyeka Okongwu walks into USC's locker room and finds his cubby in the far corner. He touches the band around his wrist, black with green letters—NNAMDI OKONGWU #21, WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU—and kisses it. He takes a seat, clasps his hands, shuts his eyes and begins to pray.

In these moments, Nnamdi, his older brother is there. With him. In his chair, in his locker. On the whiteboard, on the door. Inside his sneakers, inside his jersey. Onyeka can feel it. Feel him.

Nnamdi died in 2014 after suffering a brain injury from a skateboarding accident. He was 17 years old, a promising basketball player himself.

"I think about him every day," says Onyeka, now 19. Some days he wants to talk about it. Some days he doesn't. For him, grief isn't something to get over, to go through. It is constant—both motivating and devastating. But when he is playing basketball, Onyeka feels like he can connect with Nnamdi. Speak to him. Learn from him.

Just like he did as a kid, when Nnamdi taught Onyeka how to do the move that has become Onyeka's signature at USC: spin, turn baseline, dunk two-handed. Onyeka remembers the day his brother taught him how to do it, in a gym in Carson, California. Onyeka was 12. It took his older brother weeks to master the move, but Onyeka spun and flushed the ball home with ease on the first try.

Onyeka smiles, remembering how Nnamdi used to brag to friends about him. Used to tell people, "My little brother's going to be way better than me."He remembers how much they looked alike, even sounded alike: same goofy laugh, same lanky gait. He remembers how they used to dream about each in turn winning a state championship at Chino Hills, then playing at USC, then jumping to the NBA.

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When it's time to leave his locker, Onyeka kisses the band one more time, as if to say to his brother: I'm here. I'm right here. I'm here where you wanted me to be.


Okongwu, who goes by "Big O," pulls up a chair after a morning practice at USC in late January. His elbows rest on his knees, making him look even longer than his 6'9", 245-pound frame and 7'1" wingspan. He is bright. Energetic. Smiling. "I'm a gentle giant," he says, laughing. Except on the court. There he turns into a shot-blocking savant. Has done so ever since he was nine years old when he came out of nowhere to smack a boy's shot so hard that the ball torpedoed into the seventh row. "I hit 'em with one of them LeBron blocks," he says.

"I have the mindset of: 'You're not going to score on me no matter what you do,'" he adds.

Okongwu is agile, coordinated—can juggle three tennis balls at once (he used to play tennis)—and has magnificent touch around the basket, scoring with a variety of low-post moves as one of the top big men in the nation. He's averaging 16.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game for the Trojans, who at 22-9 look like a good bet to make the NCAA tournament but could seal it with a win or two in the Pac-12 tournament, which begins Wednesday.

His best asset is his energy. His work ethic. His humility. He was genuinely surprised when he found out he might be a top-10 2020 NBA draft pick this June. He doesn't talk about the NBA with his family. At all. That's partially because of Nnamdi. Because he knows how quickly life can change. He could easily not be on the draft boards tomorrow. He could easily not be here, at all, tomorrow.

His mother, Kate Okongwu, often reminds him that he'd be lucky to play the game for the next 10 years.

Okongwu was nationally ranked as a teen, but he was never viewed as a sure NBA player. His freshman season at Chino Hills High, 2015-2016, he was mostly a defensive standout. Given that he was sharing a court with the famed Ball brothers, he rarely touched the ball on offense, except for dunks in transition. His primary role was to rebound, run and block shots. The team went undefeated and won a state championship.

Over the three years that followed, he developed post moves. Became an offensive force. Cultivated a jump shot. Now, he's working on his three-point range. "I'm proud of him. He's always in the gym," says Lonzo Ball, now with the Pelicans. "He has a lot of potential. He's always been able to block shots, and he's only gotten better over the years."

He will likely continue that trend. "I think he has a chance to be in the league for a long time," says Glen Worley, one of his former Compton Magic AAU coaches. "He's always been kind of overshadowed, and now, this is the first time where everybody's like, 'OK, Onyeka can really play.'"

Steve Barron / B/R Hoops

Okongwu still feels he has a lot of work to do, a lot to prove. "I'm not guaranteed anything in life. I'm really not," he says. "And I'm not trippin', because everything happens for a reason."

Some reasons, he is still searching for.


What reason could there possibly be for God to take my brother? He wondered this, night after night, when he couldn't stop crying. Once, he asked his mom: "Mama, Nnamdi was such a good guy. Why would it happen to him?"

Kate tried to find an answer when there wasn't one. "Sometimes things just happen," she managed. "God wants to take some people a little earlier." She pulled him close and repeated: "Sometimes things just happen."

Onyeka would remember every detail of the day Nnamdi died, from the moment he woke up. 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. Nnamdi, 17, had to go to summer school. Chemistry class. Onyeka, 13 at the time, remembers him walking out of his room, going downstairs, leaving. He remembers playing NBA2K, going to Carl's Jr. down the street, taking a nap, wondering where his brother was. Wondering why when he called, his brother's phone rang and rang. He must be with his friends.

Onyeka remembers arriving at the hospital, his mom crying.

"Why are you crying?"

"Your brother."

"What happened?"

"He got into an accident."

"Is he gonna make it?"

"No."

Onyeka knew his mom wouldn't be so direct if she didn't truly believe he was not going to make it. (She works as a nurse and so had more of a sense than anyone.) And then Onyeka saw his brother lying on the hospital bed. He remembers a scar, a ring, around his neck. He remembers his brother's teeth, normally straight, perfect, with a big gap down the middle.

How could this happen? Why is this happening? Onyeka started crying. Couldn't feel anything.

He still tried to have faith in his brother. He thought of him as a warrior. The most arrogant guy he had ever met. He would defeat this. Brag to him later about how he overcame this.

But Kate kept telling Onyeka that Nnamdi was not going to wake up. He just wasn't.

He didn't.

Chino Hills High held a candlelight vigil. The basketball team was there, devastated, including Lonzo, who was close with Nnamdi. "That was it. A week later, that was it," Onyeka says. The finality of it all hurt the most. That there was nothing he could do to change the outcome. Erase the pain he was feeling. "I would cry every single day," Onyeka says. "Just break down for four weeks straight."

He'd walk past Nnamdi's room and think: 'His room is right here. His clothes are right here. His life was right here. And now it's not.' He had to accept that—that every sentence he uttered about his brother would now be in past tense.

He would never get to see him again. Never get to practice two-handed dunks with him again. Never get to watch their favorite movies, like the Rush Hour series. Never get to eat their favorite Chinese food down the street, orange chicken and kung-pao chicken.

"He was in so much pain," Kate says. "So much pain."

Onyeka thought about quitting the game he's loved since the fourth grade. The only reason he started playing was he wanted to tag along with Nnamdi. Be like him. Be better than him. Then he started falling in love with basketball himself. He'd wake everyone in the house at 6 a.m. on game days, too excited to stay under the covers. When Kate would drive to the gym, he'd have shortcuts planned so they'd get there quicker. "Take that street!" little Onyeka would yell from the backseat.

He had a knack for the game, boxing out so hard that he was accused of being older, even holding himself back. By the eighth grade, a school project asked him to write about his dream career. He said his dream was to be an NBA lottery pick.

But without his brother? "I didn't play basketball for a while," Onyeka says. "I was like, 'Do I really want to do this?'"


The more Onyeka wrestled with that question, the more he realized his brother would have wanted him to keep playing. He vowed to play for him. Every time he felt down, he'd tell himself: You'll be all right. Be strong. Life goes on. Have faith. "God is not going to give you something you can't handle," he says.

Chino Hills embraced him as he joined the team. They had all known Nnamdi, who played for the school. "We all went up to him and told him, 'We're your brothers,'" says Andre Ball, a Pepperdine guard and cousin of Lonzo and LaMelo. "We were there for him. It was rough, the first couple of months after it happened, but when he was on the court, he didn't look depressed. He switched into this gear, like: It's time to hoop."

The court became a place where he felt connected to his brother, protected by his brother. "Basketball became his heaven," Kate says. "It's where he found his peace, where he found his soul."

Chino Hills routinely blew teams out. But when the season started, Okongwu was still trying to just make it up and down the floor. The team ran and ran all practice. Players had to make it up and down in nine seconds, and Okongwu would keep missing the mark. The team would have to run again. But then he started making it. Then he always made it.

He became a starter, but more so a role player. "He never complained about anything," says former teammate Eli Scott, who's now at Loyola Marymount. "He was always the first one in the gym, always staying after to get extra hooks in." He put his head down, boxed out, got boards, ran the floor and defended as hard as he could.

Okongwu and LiAngelo Ball defend De La Salle's Colby Orr in the 2016 state title game.
Okongwu and LiAngelo Ball defend De La Salle's Colby Orr in the 2016 state title game.AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

He was the same way on his Compton Magic team, becoming the lone 14-year-old to start on the U17 team in the history of the program, which has produced dozens of NBA players. That's why he was prepared to face some of the nation's top competition with Chino Hills that first season.

He remembers facing Bam Adebayo, then with High Point Christian Academy and now with the Miami Heat. "I'm a scrawny, little freshman," Okongwu says, "and this dude is a muscleman. Like Thanos." He was so nervous. Damn, I am really going against this dude. What am I going to do? I don't want to get embarrassed. Everyone is watching. He told his teammates: "Help me if you can. He's a big dude." He tried to calm himself down. But Adebayo dominated him.

The next time they matched up? "I wasn't going for any of that," says Okongwu, who remembers having 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. He continued to rise in high-pressure situations, with sold-out venues, as people came to see the Balls play. "He's a great player to play with," says LaMelo Ball, also a projected lottery pick this year. "He blocks shots. He runs the lane. I loved playing with him."

Okongwu would do the little things that mattered, like a momentum-changing dunk or deflecting a critical pass. "People don't understand how instrumental Onyeka was, from the beginning of the season to the end," says Steve Baik, the former Chino Hills coach. "If 'O' wasn't there, we don't even come close to having that dream season. Not even close."


After the 2015-16 season, the Balls left—Lonzo for UCLA, LaMelo for Lithuania. Many thought Chino Hills was doomed. They'd chant: "WHERE'S LA-MEL-O! WHERE'S LA-MEL-O!" during games. Some wondered if Okongwu would leave the school. But he didn't.

"I wasn't going to leave my city. I wasn't going to leave my people," he says.

Okongwu had a chance to become involved in the offense, to become more than a shot-blocker. Newly hired coach Dennis Latimore came and taught him post moves, helped develop his footwork around the basket. They'd do Mikan drills, drop steps, spin moves, jabs. Over and over.

"I don't think he was comfortable with dominating the game," Latimore says, "so what our coaching staff was trying to get through to him junior year was: 'It's time for you to be the man. You gotta step up. You gotta be the man now.'"

Okongwu finished his career as a three-time state champion and two-time California Mr. Basketball honoree. Yet he still was not selected as a McDonald's All-American. Some questioned whether he would be good enough at the college level. "I think it's one of the biggest snubs in McDonald's selection history," says Etop Udo-Ema, Compton Magic's founder and director.

Latimore went to Okongwu's history class on the day rosters were announced to deliver the news. "Hey, Coach, don't worry about it," Okongwu said. "I know my worth." Latimore knew it bothered Okongwu deep down, but the coach was impressed at how mature, how wise, he was. That he had bigger goals. Okongwu told him his goal that year was to get other players on the team scholarships.

He also knew he had accomplished his other top goal: winning the state titles Nnamdi never got to.

Okongwu with teammates after winning the 2019 state championship.
Okongwu with teammates after winning the 2019 state championship.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

"I hope Nnamdi is proud of what I'm doing," Onyeka told his mom.

She smiled. "I think he would be very, very proud of you."


At USC, Okongwu immediately emerged as the team's best scorer and rebounder, starting his college career with two straight 20-point double-doubles and scoring 33 in his fifth game. But his coaches say he has even more potential. Assistant coach Eric Mobley often works on post moves with him. When a defender cuts Okongwu off, he usually likes to make a move before finishing. "I'm more like: Run the dude over. Just run 'em over," Mobley says.

Okongwu is quicker than many of his opponents. He has a quick first step, and he's able to maneuver around defenders with his speed. He has the ability to shoot the three but doesn't do it much in USC's offense. He does shoot jumpers late into the night, though. "Even the night before game days," says forward Isaiah Mobley, his roommate.

Okongwu will have to stretch the floor a bit at the next level. "He's exceptional in the lane, and he can make a 15- to 17-foot jump shot," says USC head coach Andy Enfield.

His former coaches tell him to enjoy this moment. Enjoy how far he has come. "He's a prime example of what you do when you keep working, keep playing hard, and now you have a chance to be a lottery pick," Worley says.

Steve Barron / B/R Hoops

Still, Onyeka and his mother don't really believe the hype yet. They just want to honor Nnamdi. There is a picture of him in their living room near the front door. Onyeka has a ritual where he has to knock on the picture before leaving the house.

Grief has brought him and his mom closer. They often go grocery shopping at Walmart together, with Kate making Onyeka pull down the items from the top shelf, despite being 6 feet herself. He pushes the cart for her too.

Then they go home and watch his highlights together. "Why did you turn the ball over? You gotta be strong with the ball!" she tells him, critiquing his moves.

When he isn't with her, he texts her: How are you? Are you OK? Where are you? She does the same with him. "I'm 19, and I still got a curfew because she's still so scared. Anything can happen," Okongwu says.

But while watching him play, she feels a little more at ease. She takes her customary seat behind the backboard and watches how he sprints down the court, notices how much he looks like his brother from the side. Especially when he spins, turns baseline and throws down that two-handed dunk.

She smiles. Looks up. It's true. Nnamdi always said how great his little brother would become.

                   

Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

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