Jahlil Okafor is being courted by the biggest names in college basketball.
Kentuckyâ€™s John Calipari, Michigan Stateâ€™s Tom Izzo, Louisvilleâ€™s Rick Pitino, Dukeâ€™s Mike Krzyzewski and others from a host of schools including Georgetown and North Carolina have all attended one of his games or practices.
Yet the only person Okafor is truly trying to impress is someone who has no connection to basketball, and who is no longer on this earth.
Okafor was nine when his mother died in front of him from a severe case of bronchitis, and she remains his inspiration to achieve success the right way.
â€œI donâ€™t do some of the things that a lot of kids do because I know sheâ€™s watching over me and I want to make her proud,â€ Okafor said. â€œI think thatâ€™s part of the reason why I have been successful, knowing my mom is watching me and I feel she has my back on the court and when Iâ€™m doing things, and she helps me out a lot when I make my decisions.
â€œOf course it hurts, but it has been a positive thing in my life to have my mom watching over me.â€
Okafor is the biggest attraction in the 32nd annual Beach Ball Classic at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center â€“ both literally and figuratively.
The junior at Whitney Young High in Chicago is the consensus top big man in the class of 2014, and many analystsâ€™ top overall prospect in the class.
Heâ€™s 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds with nimble size 17 feet, and has the devastating combination of finesse and brute power. He broke a rim in a tournament game last year, and isnâ€™t out of his element behind the 3-point arc.
â€œHe does a lot of things you see guys that are half his size do. He does things like a guard in a 6-11 body,â€ Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. â€œIâ€™m never surprised by it, I donâ€™t get hyped by it, because I see it every day in practice.â€
What Slaughter sees on a daily basis, in addition to inside dominance, are three-pointers, ball-handling in transition with a deftly placed assist, soft lob passes, and agile spins out of double teams. â€œThereâ€™s always something that he does different than he has done before,â€ Slaughter said.
One day this past summer particularly caught Slaughterâ€™s attention. Utah Jazz 6-11 center Enes Kanter was in Chicago with some other NBA players and they were playing pickup games. Okafor, then 16, was matched up against Kanter, and Slaughter estimates he outplayed the pro in five of six games.
Through his teamâ€™s four games this season entering the Beach Ball, Okafor is averaging 28.3 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game while shooting an amazing 78 percent from the field. Last year he averaged 21.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3.8 assists per game.
In front of Krzyzewski in Whitney Youngâ€™s first home game this season, Okafor hit all 13 of his shots from the field. â€œYou definitely want to play up to your potential and what they expect of you, so you donâ€™t want to have a bad game,â€ Okafor said.
He does it all with his mom in the forefront of his mind.
He was living with her eight years ago in Moffett, Okla., and they were watching a show on Animal Planet together when his mother began coughing uncontrollably. â€œI thought she was just playing, I didnâ€™t realise it was part of her condition. I was only nine, so I didnâ€™t really know what bronchitis was,â€ Okafor said. â€œI remember calling the ambulance and it was already too late. â€¦ I blamed myself for awhile for it.â€
It took some time, but Okafor found solace in the activity he had always gravitated to â€“ basketball â€“ if only for the time spent on the court.
â€œI always loved basketball and her death made me shove away,â€ Okafor said. â€œI remember locking myself in my room. It was real dark in my room and I didnâ€™t want to talk to anybody.
â€œWe had a basketball rim outside, and a few days passed and I remember going out there and playing basketball again, and it just felt good to be able to play basketball. Ever since then itâ€™s something I do to take my mind off things.â€
He recited a poem he had written in dedication to his mother at her memorial, and the strength with which he handled her passing allowed his remaining family to pull together.
â€œThe way he handled it was remarkable at that age,â€ said his father, Chuck, an AAU and fall league coach in his first year as an assistant on the Whitney Young staff. â€œHow he handled that whole ordeal, thatâ€™s the proudest Iâ€™ve ever been of him. All the basketball accolades have nothing on the way he handled that situation.
â€œSome kids would use that as a reason to go crazy and lose their minds. It just made him stronger.â€
Okafor moved to Chicago to live with his father following his momâ€™s passing. â€œMy dad is my world,â€ Okafor said. â€œHeâ€™s been having to play the role of mom and dad. I wouldnâ€™t be able to be where I am right now without his help. Everything I have done is all because of him and Iâ€™m very appreciative of my dad.â€
Okafor is a distant cousin of Emeka Okafor of the NBAâ€™s Washington Wizards. The Okafor familyâ€™s origin is Nigeria, and his paternal grandfather moved to the U.S. from Nigeria at the age of 20. A 19-day trip to Nigeria and a few other African countries with his father when he was in seventh grade helped reinforce Okaforâ€™s appreciation for the moment and his opportunities.
â€œIt was really weird going there and seeing how different it was,â€ Okafor said. â€œIt made you appreciate a lot of things you have back home.â€
Okafor said he doesnâ€™t have a list of prospective colleges. â€œIâ€™m pretty much wide open,â€ Okafor said. â€œI havenâ€™t really thought about schools yet. Iâ€™m pretty much focused on this (Whitney Young) team. â€¦ First of all we want to win Beach Ball this year, thatâ€™s something I want to have under my belt. Iâ€™m expecting to win a state championship this year and next year.â€
He has a running blog for USA Today that runs every two weeks. He has done it to be proactive in the recruiting process and dispel any rumours about his college options and choices. â€œIt lets everybody know the truth about me, and lets them know if it doesnâ€™t come from my blog it probably wonâ€™t be true,â€ he said. â€œSo it was a good opportunity for me.â€
Okafor tries to be as honest as he can on the blog without being disrespectful to or embarrassing a college coach, though heâ€™s not afraid to expose himself to ridicule. He blogged that he regularly watches â€˜Pretty Little Liarsâ€™. â€œA lot of girls watch it and I watch it too, so a lot of people made fun of me for that,â€ Okafor said.
Heâ€™s used to the attention. Okafor became national news when he was offered a scholarship by DePaul University in Chicago as a 6-foot-8, 13-year-old eighth-grader. â€œI really didnâ€™t realise how big of a deal it was until it was on ESPN and my friendsâ€™ reaction to the scholarship,â€ Okafor said. The offer, it was discovered, was against NCAA policy, but Okafor was already newsworthy because of it.
The notoriety has continued unabated. Okafor was the MVP of the 2012 U-17 World Championships while leading the U.S. to the championship and an 8-0 record.
He has helped the Dolphins rise to MaxPrepâ€™s No. 4 national ranking and has become the team leader, though not solely because of his ability and celebrity. Slaughter said he has led with his behavior and work ethic since joining the team as a freshman.
â€œThereâ€™s no oversight for him. Heâ€™s self-maintained,â€ Slaughter said. â€œHe pretty much demands that the rest of the guys maintain proper decorum.â€
He initially got those traits from his mother, and her death still impacts him every day.
â€œIt allows him to know that you can take nothing for granted. Tomorrow is not promised,â€ Chuck Okafor said. â€œI can tell just how he approaches the game, how he approaches life, how he approaches studies, heâ€™s hard on himself with everything he does.â€