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The Life


February 5, 2003
Double Major
ESPN The Magazine

Emeka Okafor is stumped. He's sitting in Finance 203, a giant among men -- or, more precisely, a basketball player among business majors. Around him, unshaven frat boys and sweatshirt-clad women work laptops and lattes. It's the first class of UConn's winter semester, Applications in Financial Management, and the professor has passed out index cards to gather the usual student info. The first two are easy. Name: Chukwuemeka Noubuisi Okafor. Birthplace: Houston, Texas. But there's one that has Okafor confounded. Career Objective. He freezes, furrowing his brow and rubbing a Dasani water bottle across his goatee, making a sound like sandpaper. His card is still blank when the professor rises to collect it. At the last minute, Okafor hastily scribbles what he wants to be when he grows up.

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  • It's a hard question. Career objective? Mek's got a few of those. He has Discovery Channel smarts (3.8 GPA) and is on track to earn his finance degree by the end of junior year. Not coincidentally, that's also when many scouts expect him to enter the NBA draft. The 6'9", 250-pound sophomore is averaging a double-double for the Huskies this season (15.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg through January) while leading the nation in blocks (4.7) and keeping his team in the Top 20. If he left school this spring, he'd probably be a lottery pick. Add it all up, and it's no wonder Jim Calhoun makes sure Okafor hosts every major recruit who visits campus. "If you were to tell me he'd be the CEO of a major company, or a U.S. senator, or an All-Star power forward in the NBA," the coach says, "I'd believe any one of those."

    But it's not options that give Okafor pause as he sits in finance class. It's the burden of being a 20-year-old perfectionist whose fear of getting typecast is almost as strong as his fear of failure. He's such a premium blend of everything that he takes great care not to label himself any one thing.

    Okafor's commitment to academics -- he once turned a paper in late because he was too busy rewriting it 17 times -- has earned him as much pub as his hoops acumen. The guy who puts student in student-athlete. But who wants to be a walking cliché? "Sometimes people treat me like I'm superhuman," says Emeka (UH-mekka), summoning his mock announcer's voice. "He goes to the gym, then straight to the library, then back to the gym! This guy's amazing!" He stops and grins. "They think I have no life, no personality."

    The flip side is equally unappealing. Last March, after UConn won the Big East tourney, Okafor chased down the cameraman who shot the on-court celebration, which featured Mek gleefully yapping and posturing, his newly minted cap cocked backward. "Can you edit that clip down a bit?" he politely asked as the rest of his teammates hopped off toward the locker room. "I don't want to give people the wrong idea."

    ***

    With pro scouts drooling over his every step, why approach school like a 5'9" walk-on? It's the same reason Okafor switches his cell phone to vibrate upon taking a seat in class: His father is liable to call at any minute. Pius Okafor is a joyous man who frequently buries his heavy African accent under a staccato laugh. He offers his son advice on everything from last night's game (you have to accept shotblocking tips from your dad, even if he's only 6'3") to fashion ("Shave that goatee, your chin looks like an armpit").

    Pius, who served in the Nigerian army, left his war-plagued country in the 1970s and came to America with just a few hundred dollars. He's earned the right to give his son the third degree because he's about to get his: With a BA and an MBA already, Pius is now working toward a doctorate in pharmacy at the U. of Missouri-Kansas City. (He's also a CPA.) "Where I'm from, if you're good at sports but not educated, you're nothing," he says. Father and son have visited Nigeria twice. On one occasion their car was stopped by corrupt police demanding an impromptu toll. On both occasions Emeka came away with the kind of education you don't get in school. "I have all these advantages -- going to college for free, no bills, no stress," he says. "You're telling me I can't make it in this world?"

    When Emeka left the Houston suburb of Bellaire for bucolic Storrs, Pius recommended that he start with 15 credits. But Mek, a member of the Honors Program, shouldered 18 instead, then 17 the next semester. When Business Calculus -- a weed-out class for the B school -- seemed too easy last year, Okafor arranged to show up just for the final. He wound up getting a B, his lowest grade so far. "A student like Emeka comes around once, maybe twice in an academic lifetime," says Ted Taigen, the team's adviser.

    Okafor's taking 15 credits this semester, three above the NCAA requirement. But even with no class on Fridays, he still sleeps only four hours a night. "He's up when I go to bed, and up when I wake up," says roommate Ben Gordon, the team's star guard. "I don't know when he sleeps."

    Certainly not on road trips. On bus rides after games, two overhead lights invariably shine, Okafor's and Calhoun's. And guess who was the only player to show up for a voluntary study session at the team hotel during UConn's march to the Elite Eight last spring. "Some guys, you have to tell them, 'Come to study hour,' " says former team captain Caron Butler, now with the Miami Heat. "This kid, he was the host of study hour. He'd come in and ask, 'Does anybody need help?'"

    ***

    Okafor's frenzied day looks like the triangle offense -- he's either at the business school, across Hillside Road at Gampel Pavilion or around the corner at South B residence hall. He blends in a little better on court than in class. But only a little. Usually, he's the most impressive physical specimen on the floor -- with veins traversing his biceps and an intercontinental wingspan. As a freshman he was a defensive enforcer (a school-record 138 blocks) who collected mostly garbage points. Now he fuels UConn's offense with a combo of up-and-unders, face-up J's and other new moves that have made him one of the top post players in the country.

    "What you see now isn't going to be anywhere near the final product," says Calhoun, who signed Okafor in the spring of his senior year at Bellaire High, when he wasn't even a top-100 prospect. "I've never seen a player improve in a two-year span as quickly as Emeka."

    That's pretty scary when you consider his most dominating game as a Husky, a road win last year at Arizona. He scored 19 points, grabbed 15 boards and swatted nine shots (a career high he's matched two other times). "Okafor was the difference," Wildcats coach Lute Olson said later. "He changes the whole complexion of the game."

    Not surprisingly, Okafor approaches the game like it's a problem set. Everything is a linear relationship, part of a complex equation, all effects preceded by causes. To Mek, it's no coincidence if he has a poor outing on a day when he doesn't have time for his pregame hygiene routine (shower and brush teeth). During the off-season, he met with Calhoun to break things down in a way that makes sense to him -- by the numbers. With Butler and Johnnie Selvie gone, the team was short 32 points a game, a deficit that Okafor and Gordon would have to make up.

    The duo hasn't disappointed. Gordon's scoring 21.4 points a game as a sophomore, vying with Okafor for Big East Player of the Year honors. But both lead more by example than words, leaving UConn without a take-charge man in the clutch. At times the Huskies have looked as sluggish as a beat-up Caddie in the Connecticut winter. They suffered a late-game implosion against Miami on Jan. 20, two days after an ugly loss to North Carolina in which they fell behind 23-4. They battled back against the Heels but bowed out after Okafor -- who didn't get to his pregame routine because of a late bus in Chapel Hill -- picked up fouls Nos. 3 and 4 in a 46-second span. So much for respect from the refs. Okafor is hearing more whistles this season, averaging 4.2 a game in Big East play, compared to 2.8 a year ago.

    Calhoun always asks Okafor to calculate UConn's free throw percentage after bad games (the team was 23-for-42 against UNC and Miami). Not that Mek needs reminding: He's shooting a rim-rattling 55%. So he stays after practice every evening to shoot free throws, occasionally dozing on the study hall couch before returning to the court. One night a few weeks ago, Gordon woke him from his nap at 10 p.m. and then the two went back to work, their dribbles echoing off the empty seats. Okafor is excruciatingly deliberate. If something doesn't feel right, he stops in the middle of his attempt, aborting the shot and letting the ball bounce away. This is how he refines his game, on his own and out of sight. If his coaches want him to try a new move in practice, they know they won't see it for a few days -- not until Mek has mastered it in private. As Calhoun says, "He doesn't like to look bad."

    ***

    It's 7° outside, and a nasty wind whips around campus -- one of those days when all you can talk about is how cold it is -- as Okafor walks from accounting class to practice. He's eating a cheesesteak sandwich, a tough task made tougher because he asked the cafeteria kid in the greasy apron to load the bun with the equivalent of a porterhouse. With every bite, mayonnaise dribbles down Okafor's chin, and he leaves a trail of meat and bread behind him, like a fast-food Hansel and Gretel. It's a hilarious routine: monster bite, sandwich fallout, big wide steps to avoid mayo on the Nikes.

    But despite the killer cold, Okafor moves at a few speeds slower than leisurely, his size-15 Air Maxes methodically crunching snow, his legs moving in time with a mental metronome that ticks at half-speed. He is neither bookworm nor baller at the moment, just a 20-year-old college kid cramming it all in. When he arrives at Gampel, he throws his gear in his locker and realizes he's misplaced his meal card. He can't find his 'do-rag, either, the one he just took off his head minutes ago. "Having a lot of mishaps today," he says with a shrug and a grin. "You notice that?" It's this amiable demeanor that makes him the ideal host for UConn recruits. "He's the perfect guy to be with," Butler says. "They want to know about academics, basketball, tradition, alumni, anything -- he knows."

    After locating his headwear and meal card, Mek takes a few more minutes to revisit his morning conundrum: Career Objective. Turns out he simply wrote "finance," his major, on that index card -- not NBA, even though that's the option he'll choose first. "I don't think the professor would have appreciated that," he says. Okay, but what happens after his ballplaying days? What, exactly, does he plan to do in the world of finance? At this, Mek smiles sheepishly. "You'd think I would know, huh?"

    Maybe he does know. Maybe he's just not telling. As he heads for the training room, his sneakers slowly squawking down the hallway, you can't help but wonder if he'll be ready in time for practice a half-hour from now. For a guy who's everywhere at once on the court, it's a wonder he gets anywhere at all at this pace.

    But of course he makes it on time. Because no matter how slowly Emeka Okafor walks, he's not about to let anyone catch up to him.

    This article appears in the February 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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