Emeka Okafor’s big dance to the basketball draft

November 8, 2011


by Tola Adenle

As you are reading this, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) would have crowned this year’s winners of the women’s and men’s basketball championships.  Even before the first whistle is blown this coming weekend for the University of Connecticut (Uconn) and Duke University (Duke) Semifinal game, I must offer an armchair preview.  If Uconn’s Huskies wins against the Duke’s Blue Devils in the more-anticipated semifinal, then this year’s NCAA crown goes up to Connecticut because Emeka and his team would beat whoever wins the Georgia Tech/St. Joseph’s match-up!  And if the Huskies win, of course, Emeka would get drafted Number One in this year’s version of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft Lottery.

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech.) is no accidental tourist at the Final Four because it is also a basketball powerhouse that plays in the same college conference with Duke, and has its own storied past.  When I first saw the brackets before the start of the annual tournament, a.k.a. March Madness, I imagined the NCAA board chuckling as they drew up who went up against whom and daring Okafor to show his stuff against College Basketball’s anointed by leading UConn to the Final via North Carolina (home of Duke).

Duke is College Basketball royalty, arguably the only one since John Wooden’s UCLA teams.  Duke, to be fair, has produced some impressive NBA players but watching a Duke team play another college is often fraught with wonderment at refereeing.  Calls always seem to go Duke’s way: offensive foul by a Duke player could become a ‘charge’ from the other team!  While I did not see much of UCLA’s boys under the legendary Mr. Wooden, the NBA was there to showcase the talents of his boys.  Meanwhile, even though Duke has become a sort of perennial that goes far and often with the crown at the annual dance, its products have not been so dominating in the professional league. Duke kids who get much ballyhooed at college level are not particularly impressive when they reach the NBA.  I remember, in particular ‘Little Bobby Hurley’, Duke’s point guard in the early 90’s and his team mate, Christian Laettner.  If the radio was the source of my knowing about college basketball, I would not have expected that Grant Hill, their African-American team mate who was always mentioned NOT in the same breath with Laettner and Hurley’s abilities, would be the one to excel in the NBA.  How come?

Emeka is very much in focus for this essay but relevant facts must come in.  There is a lot of ostrich- playing and hypocrisy in sports in the United States.  In world soccer, for example, the tradition is for various leagues to build up rosters by looking to lower leagues and playing fields everywhere.  The playing fields could be the streets of Brazil, primary and secondary schools.  Fred Adu, the Ghanaian-American soccer sensation whose present professional home is in the sandpit (pardon me) of the U.S.A. Soccer League (NASL) was already under the radar of international recruiters by the time he was twelve.  There are quite some teenagers in the English Premier League and other corresponding leagues in Europe who have never seen the inside of a university.  Now, I am not against kids being asked to get a good education; I couldn’t, coming from my part of Nigeria!

Except in rare cases:  Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, Minnesota Wolves’ Garnet and new sensation, Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, the road to lucrative careers in the NBA is still though college.  Pardon me, or what passes for college because many of the kids go through four years of college and even though armed with a bachelors’ degree, many cannot read or write!  Yes, I am not kidding.  I have forgotten now but several years ago, a Washington Redskin player (American football) testified before stunned Congressmen that his situation is so bad he could not read a restaurant menu.  No, not while visiting France but right in good old U.S.A. and we all know how difficult  “steak on rye” and the like are. 

The road to professionalism starts early even though the athletic powers-that-be would like to pretend it does not exist.  By Middle School which is like Junior Secondary One and Two, a kid who would make it in sports is already up and running and by high school, it’s full throttle.  I had a kid who was on her high school basketball team and during the season, there were two games or so EVERY week plus days for practice.  While travel did not extend beyond the city, an inordinate amount of time was spent on sports.  College sportsmen are excused from classes although claims are made that make-ups are done.  For instance, although Emeka’s UConn plays in the ‘Big East’ conference which means his teams travels not only to (among others) nearby Boston College, Seton Hall (New Jersey),  Georgetown in Washington and faraway Indiana to meet Notre Dame but it also plays non-conference games.  Any team that wants to be ranked highly must roam far and wide across the country which saw Emeka and his team mates play nationally-ranked Oklahoma, halfway across the country earlier in the season.  From the time the season begins in October till it ends before March madness (for all the teams that do not make it to the Championships) and till first weekend in April AND the Monday Finals for the last two teams, it IS a long season when not much studies really can get done.  Good teams have schedules of up to twenty or more games and it is a very grueling schedule.

This is why Emeka’s achievements have been more remarkable.  Now that the real season is ending and the award season is setting in to be capped by the NBA draft, the young man has reason to be very pleased with himself and thankful to God.  The six-nine-two hundred and fifty pounder not only got a place for himself on the coveted All-American team with UNANIMOUS vote by AP (Associated Press) writers, he also won the All-American Sports Academic of the Year.  While the All-American team weighs more in terms of his professional career – it’s equivalent to a national First Team – I believe the academic laurels should bring a lot of happiness to him and his parents. 

The NCAA, I believe, cuddles itself by ensuring that some academic powerhouses are prominent in the competitions.  It deceives itself, though because why is it that rarely do we find any of the colleges in the Ivy League Conference which comprises, among others, Harvard, Brown and Rutgers doing well enough to feature prominently in the real competition.  These are the real academic powerhouses and very good schools like Duke, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, etcetera, who feature in the Championship do so by looking elsewhere in the performances of student-athletes so that these kids can just get by in academics.

This is why, unless Emeka and the other Huskies play the game of their lives, AND the gods have decreed it, Duke has to beat them.  They will be refereed out.  Emeka’s qualities – top rebounder and even ability to run the ball – will become liabilities: “offensive foul”, “elbowing”, “traveling”, etcetera.  If the Huskies manage a win, the championship is theirs.  And Commissioner Stern will present a team’s shirt to the kid whose root lies across the Niger River FIRST if he enters the draft. 

The Comet on Sunday, March ’04.


Emeka Okafor’s team under Coach Calhoun did win the College tournament in 2004 by beating Georgia Tech.  Emeka was picked 2nd overall by Charlotte.  He now struts his stuff for New Orleans of the NBA.



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