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Okafor: Young Man With An Old Soul

Fitting the "City of Big Shoulders" and blessed with a 6'11" frame, Jahlil Okafor can't walk quietly through this earth. As part of a deep and balanced Whitney Young Dolphins team that was ranked in the top three nationally by USA Today and MaxPreps, he made sojourns to Ft. Myers, Myrtle Beach, Memphis, and the birthplace of basketball, Springfield, Massachusetts over the past season.

The seventeen year-old Chicagoan has the prototypical size to eventually play the center position at the NBA level. Okafor has a very advanced low-post game for a high school junior. He demonstrates improved conditioning, is more of a positional defender than a pure shot blocker, he has soft hands, and rebounds well in his area. Despite the increased attention and adulation, he hasn't changed his generous spirit. At this year's Penny Hardaway Tournament in Memphis, Okafor gave his MVP trophy to a teammate, whom he felt was more worthy.

This is Part One of a 2-Part Article/Interview.
Click here to read Part Two.

For a variety of reasons, big men have long been regarded as late developers in basketball, but Jahlil Okafor plays with the sense of urgency that can come with the premature loss of a parent. Eight years ago, Jahlil lost his mother to a severe case of bronchitis while living in the tiny town of Moffett, Oklahoma, which borders Arkansas. His father, Chuck, immediately came down from Chicago to help his young son.

We develop different coping skills at various times in our lives. In the days following his mother's death, a third grade Jahlil walked out of his father's hotel room in Fort Smith, Arkansas and wrote a touching poem about his mother and her smile. He would later recite it in front of his school and still remembers the words, as if it were yesterday. To this day, Jahlil, who doesn't write any poetry outside of class, doesn't know how he wrote that poem in the midst of that tragedy.

The loss of a mother can be a crushing blow to an adult, let alone a young child. With the help of a supportive father and an extended family, Jahlil didn't wallow in self-pity. Rather he channeled that energy to embrace life and outwork other kids his age. He chose Whitney Young, a magnet school in Northwestern Chicago that includes the First Lady as an alumna, due to its very strong academic reputation. With a challenging course load, he carries a 3.0 GPA.

With his father and bulwark Chuck as an assistant coach for the Dolphins, Okafor tried to help Whitney Young knock off the reigning kings of Chicago, the Simeon Wolverines this past season. Whitney Young went 27-4 and captured the Chicago city title, the school's first Public League title in fifteen years. For his efforts, the Chicago Sun-Times named Jahlil Okafor as their Player of the Year over his very close friend Jabari Parker, with whom he paired as a lethal one-two duo for the Mac Irvin Fire. Although they are exactly nine months apart, Jabari helped mentor Jahlil a little as he was entering a level of fame and attention that very few young men experience, let alone handle with grace.

A few weeks later, in the Argo sectional, Simeon was able to defeat the Dolphins 69-51 behind a 29 point, 13 rebound performance by Jabari Parker and a concerted effort to contain Whitney Young's talented center, who still finished with 13 points and 5 rebounds. USA Today named both of Chicago's finest, Okafor and Parker, to their prestigious All-USA First-Team. Jahlil averaged nearly twenty-one points, nine rebounds, and three blocks per game this year for the Dolphins. Next season Whitney Young will be the prohibitive favorites to capture both the Chicago city title and the Illinois state title.

Coach Tyrone Slaughter of Whitney Young said of Jahlil, "He can score the basketball, there's no doubt about that. He's become a much better defender this season, he's lost a lot of weight. You know, he's an outstanding post player. In a day when most people in the post like to face the basket and do other things, he really takes great pride in putting his back to the basket. That's the way he scores the basketball. And that's why I said at the beginning he's become a force. When we need a basket, we can just throw him the ball and we expect him to score."

Long-time scout Tom Konchalski of HSBI Report said of Jahlil Okafor, "He has a big, strong frame. He has a superior basketball IQ for a big man. Usually big, young guys don't understand the game as well as he does. He's very intelligent and a nice guy who can be, because of his size, he can be down the road, you know, I'm not saying he's more skilled than Jabari Parker, but because he's 6'10", 260 or 270 or whatever he is, I think he can be an even greater influence on the game than Jabari Parker."

After taking less than a week to recover from the high school season, Jahlil was back in the gym training and competing. In early April, he lead the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program to the Swish 'N Dish Championship in Wisconsin. He was named the co-MVP after notching a pair of double-doubles on the final day en route to the title. He was scheduled to compete in the EYBL in California and Virginia, but suffered a high ankle sprain, which forced him to sit out consecutive weekends in order to recuperate.

Earlier this month in Dallas, the much anticipated Twin Towers of 6'11 Jahlil Okafor and 6'10" Cliff Alexander were unveiled at the Dallas leg of Nike's EYBL. Although the team split the four games in Texas, Jahlil registered four double-doubles, averaging seventeen points on a blistering 74.3% shooting and nearly twelve rebounds per game. The following weekend, the well-traveled Windy City duo then enjoyed a weekend of basketball in Miami with Adidas Nations.

On Saturday morning, Jahlil, who regularly wears Nike's LeBrons for ankle support, opted for the Hyperdunks. Early in the first half of a game against the All-Ohio Red, the rising senior felt the shooting pain of a re-injury to his high ankle sprain. He didn't play again for the remainder of the weekend, but cheered on his Mac Irvin teammates and is expected to make a full recovery.

A lot of people had Memorial Day parties this weekend, but few had more basketball talent in attendance than at Debbie Jones' house. On Sunday night, Jahlil Okafor, walking with a gentle limp, was able to celebrate Memorial Day weekend at the home of Tyus Jones with fellow USA Basketball teammates Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Joel Berry, and Larry Austin as well as Coach Don Showalter.

Starting on June 14 in Colorado Springs, CO, Jahlil will join Justise Winslow as one of only two rising high school seniors competing for a spot on the USA Basketball U-19 team, which is looking to capture the FIBA U-19 World Championship in Prague, Czech Republic. This is far from Okafor's first international experience. The Chicagoland product won the MVP and earned a gold medal at last summer's FIBA U-17 World Championship in Lithuania. In 2011, Jahlil and Jabari Parker helped lead the USA Basketball team to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas in Cancun, Mexico and visited Chichen Itza.

Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said, "There's no question that playing with that kind of coaching and the caliber of player who's playing against those guys day in and day out builds on your confidence. When you're good and gifted and then you add the confidence, it helps you go out and play. So I think that anybody who would suggest somehow that USA Basketball does not help is fooling themselves. I absolutely commend what they do. In fact, we encourage it. Our guys feel privileged to be able to play in that."

Coach Don Showalter, his head coach of USA Basketball, said of Jahlil this weekend, "You know, he's a true post player. A lot of guys his size don't like to play in the post, but he plays in the post. He's got great footwork around the basket and he's extremely bright. He's extremely coachable. He's going to be a very good one. Both he and Tyus have very bright futures ahead."

It was on that trip last year to Lithuania where Jahlil and his roommate Tyus Jones, a skilled, dynamic, and cerebral 6'2" point guard from Apple Valley, Minnesota, decided that they enjoyed each other's company enough to attend the same university. The big man and point guard duo instantly became the most coveted package deal in the country. Last October, they shared a trip to Durham, where they enjoyed a front row seat to the Countdown to Craziness event at Duke University and caught an exciting football game between arch-rivals Duke and UNC.

Despite the temporary separation, Tyus Jones said of their relationship and bond, "We're still real close. We talk all of the time…On the court, I think everybody knows that he's the most dominant player in the country without a doubt. Everybody knows what he can do. But off the court, we really bonded because he's a really great young man…He's got a great support system. He was raised the right way and I think that's why..what we have in common, because I was raised the same way."

In April, Chuck Okafor invited five schools into his home for visits: Baylor, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Mr. Okafor said, "It was good because it was not so formal. It wasn't so awkward. It felt like we were comfortable and in more control. It was good for Jahlil because he felt he could ask any question that he wants and then pay attention to their statements. All of the visits were good. All of them were special in their own special way. It shouldn't be stressful and that was the whole point."

Jahlil will cut down on his long list of suitors very shortly. Mr. Okafor said, "The first and most important thing that I'm looking for is where do I feel most comfortable taking my son. That's the most critical thing. I think that'll be a deciding factor. Who do I trust sending my kid? Who do I trust with my son? That's most important thing for me."

Chuck Okafor said of his son, "He's extremely humble, extremely hard working, and he hasn't changed at all. He's had trials and tribulations and overcame them. I think what he's done, with what he's gone through, is simply amazing. You have one of the greatest stories here that has yet to be told. Once it's completed and people realize it, they'll know just how special he is. He's never used it as an excuse to go off and act crazy. He's 6'11" or 7' and it's just beautiful to see him interact with kids and to just treat everybody with kindness. It makes me very proud."

When asked about his legacy, Jahlil said, "You know, I just want them to see me as a kind young man. Well, I won't be a young man forever, but hopefully a kind man. Someone who has always been kind and never changed, never let anything change me."

In a one-on-one interview in the hallway of the High Performance Academy in Eagan, Minnesota, Jahlil Okafor spoke with me about a variety of topics, including his in-home visits, his relationships with Tyus and Justise, and the influence of each of his parents.

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