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College basketball

Okafor scores high marks with effort

The UConn center sets perfection as a goal and does everything he can to achieve it.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published January 17, 2004

For as long as anyone can remember, including himself, Connecticut center Emeka Okafor has sought nothing short of perfection.

As a fourth-grader, he burst into tears when he reluctantly showed his parents his report card.

"I said, "Emeka. What's wrong?"' his father Pius said.

"I made a B," Okafor said.

It was his first.

"I looked at the report card, I can't remember which subject it was, but it was all A's and the one B," his father said. "I said, "Don't cry. You did very well."'

"Dad," the son said, "I don't like to make B's. I like to make A's."

That, the elder Okafor said, showed the ultra competitive side of his son even at a tender age. Nothing has changed. Not when it comes to his report cards. Not when it comes to his results for the No. 1-ranked Huskies.

Okafor, a finance major, carries a 3.7 grade-point average and is on track to earn his bachelor's degree at the end of this semester, a year early. On the court, the 6-foot-9, 252-pound junior is a leading candidate for national player of the year.

Despite double-teaming defenses, he averages 19 points, 11.6 rebounds and a nation-best five blocks entering today's showdown at No. 9 North Carolina.

"I think he's a great poster boy for what college athletics should be about," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said, placing Okafor in the class academically and athletically with Grant Hill and Tim Duncan.

Sampson watched Okafor rack up a near triple double - 21 points, 10 rebounds, nine blocks - in a resounding 85-69 nationally televised win Sunday against his then-No. 6-ranked Sooners.

Talk about bringing home your A game.

"Here's a kid in his junior year in high school was an ordinary player ... and he has evolved into arguably, in my opinion, the most valuable player in all of college basketball," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "And he's only going to get better because he's going to work so hard at it."

* * *

For Pius Okafor, the chance to attend an American university meant an escape from war-ravaged Nigeria. He graduated from Texas Southern in 31/2 years, earned an MBA and later a master's in accounting.

With his family in Houston, he has spent major chunks of the past six years in Kansas City, Mo., working toward a doctorate in pharmacy. He is one semester shy of completing his course work and then he will move back to Houston full time to complete his clinical requirement.

Any wonder why Emeka (pronounced eh-MEK-a) has a passion for the books?

"My parents, they were never really on me about education," he said. "I was always so serious about it. I guess they did their dirty work early. Ever since I can remember, since I was in kindergarten, I hated to go to school and not have my work finished. I was always pretty disciplined about it."

He didn't just get it done. He did it well. He finished in the top 10 percent of his class in high school and scored a 1,310 on his SAT.

"I always told him academics were first and sports were second," Pius Okafor said. "In sports, anything can happen at any time. But with academics, you can go anywhere. It will carry you through life."

Perhaps, sports weren't actually second.

They were more like 1a.

* * *

As a youngster, Okafor played baseball and football. He wanted to be a star wide receiver. Basketball? He didn't want to try it. Once he did, he couldn't stop and abandoned baseball to concentrate on it.

He needed to. He was tall, agile and instinctive around the basket, particularly on defense, but he wasn't considered a slam-dunk prospect. Some called him a project.

To him, that was like receiving a B.

"I still have a long way to go," he said modestly, rattling off his need to improve his free-throw shooting (54.5 percent), his jump shot and even his footwork.

The other day, he stayed an extra two hours after practice to work on his free throws. Days earlier, he nearly showed up late, which would have been a first. Why?

"He decided he needed to get another 35 minutes of weight training in before practice," Calhoun said. "He would do the same thing at 3 o'clock in the morning calling our academic adviser. ... I'm not sure I've met many people in my life, I'm including coaches in this and there are some incredibly driven people in this profession, who are as driven as Emeka is to perfection."

Too good to be true?

He is, Calhoun said, and it is good to coach him.

"Emeka wants to make everything look perfect," said his father, who can't attend many games but does have the ESPN fullcourt package so he can watch most UConn games on his 19-inch television. "He tells me, "Dad. You have to work hard. Nothing comes easy."'

Sampson said that attitude is what separates Okafor.

"Emeka was not a finished product coming out of high school," Sampson said. "He had to really, really work to get to the level he's at. The thing that impresses me is he hasn't forgotten where he comes from. ... A lot of kids get to a certain level and they kind of coast, they start thumping their chest about look how good I am now. Emeka plays like a kid who's still trying to become better."

Okafor knows that an A-plus is better than an A.

[Last modified January 17, 2004, 01:32:39]


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