When Jahlil Okafor was nine years old his mother was diagnosed with bronchitis. One of her lungs collapsed two weeks later, and she died. A service was held in the gym of the elementary school in Moffett, Okla., where Okafor lived with his mother. At the memorial, Okafor, wearing a bright blue shirt, stood and recited from memory a poem he wrote.
My mother is very special, very helpful.
She cares, she shares.
I miss her and I will always be with her.
She had a smile that shined more than the sun.
I’m happy to be her son.
Last week Okafor, a 6-foot-11 junior called by many the best high school basketball player in the nation, sat in his coach’s office at Whitney Young High School. He towered behind a desk littered with envelopes addressed to him from colleges like UCLA, Duke, and Kentucky. He recited the poem, again from memory, then added: “I’ll never forget those words.”
Jabari Parker made national news Thursday by announcing his intention to attend Duke, leaving Chicago—and the nation—to salivate over Okafor, the city’s next basketball prodigy. Parker, he of the Mormon faith and NBA-ready game, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated this spring. But Okafor may already be the better player, possessing a tap dancer’s footwork in a giant’s body. He is nimble, skilled, and menacing in the post. And like Parker, he, too, is a young man difficult to define by any jump shot or box score.
Okafor does not sound like a teenager. His voice is deep and his conversation thoughtful. He raised the subject of his mother unasked, and he came across in an interview as someone comfortable with his burgeoning fame.
“He has an old soul,” Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said.
Okafor, who turned 17 last week, has been in the national spotlight since the eighth grade when he received a much publicized scholarship offer from DePaul. The overture turned out to be illegal, but soon letters arrived at his Rosemont elementary school from more colleges with offers for the 13-year-old who was already inching toward seven feet tall and dunking with ease.
“It was a combination of feeling lucky and it being a little weird,” Okafor said of the early attention. “But I didn’t feel pressure because my dad, my family they told me I could stop playing anytime.”
Okafor never considered a future without basketball, and his freshman year he was invited to try out for the USA Development National Team. He made it, and last summer he was named MVP at the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship, helping Team USA to a gold medal in Lithuania. He is being courted by the nation’s top programs. He has Roy Williams’ direct phone number—and those of a few other coaches, one imagines.
“He told me only two people in Chicago have that number,” Okafor said of Williams. “Me and Michael Jordan.”
At Whitney Young Friday night, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Illinois’s John Groce were on hand (coaches from Michigan State, North Carolina, and Kentucky have also attended practices this season) to see Okafor bully an overmatched team from Westinghouse.
Okafor opened the game by skying for an offensive rebound and dunking the ball all in one motion. He ran the floor, finished fast breaks, and threw his weight around in the paint with a dizzying combination of power and polished moves. Later, he stepped back and drained a three-pointer. Whitney Young led 41-16 at halftime.
“Every day I have the opportunity to see him do something he’s never done before,” Slaughter said.
Okafor spent his early childhood shuttling between Moffett, a small town with a population of 127 located on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, where his mother lived, and Chicago, where his father, Chukwudi, lives. After his mother’s death, Okafor moved with his father to the South Side, and then to Rosemont. The family, which includes Okafor’s older sister and two younger brothers, moved to the North Side so Okafor could attend Whitney Young.
Chukwudi stands 6-foot-5 but without the same bulk of his son. He attended Bowen High School in South Chicago, played power forward at West Texas A&M, and is now a now an assistant coach at Whitney Young and on his son’s AAU team. Chukwudi has five siblings in the Chicago-area, all pitching in to help fill the void of the mother Okafor lost. There are Sunday dinners and church outings and, Slaughter noted, a visible closeness in the family.
“Jahlil and his dad kiss each other,” Slaughter said. “I marvel because I have a daughter and she won’t let me kiss her in public. Especially in the African-American community, it’s something we should all aspire to.”
After a game last week at Douglas High School, a young fan asked a team manager for Okafor’s autograph. When the message was delivered in the locker room, Okafor asked his coach if he could return to the court, and snaked his way through the postgame throng to deliver the autograph.
“He understands tomorrow’s not promised,” Chukwudi said. “Basketball, study, or just walking out of the house saying, ‘Dad I love you, son I love you,’—that’s what losing a loved one does.”
Okafor started a blog for USA Today this fall, detailing life as a sought-after recruit, but also as a teenager with a favorite TV show (“Pretty Little Liars”) and a fashion sense (he wore all white shell toe Adidas shoes on the first day of school). In one post, he chronicled his visit to Duke, and in others he wrote openly about his dialogue with the various high profile coaches after him. About John Calipari of Kentucky, he told me: “He knows he’s the man, but doesn’t show it.”
In the blog, Okafor calls Parker “my guy” and even mentions that the two once discussed attending an overlooked school together and lifting it to glory. I asked if they had considered DePaul.
“We were thinking even lower, like a juco somewhere,” Okafor said. “But it was mostly a joke.”
No Chicago schools made Parker’s final list, and it seems unlikely Okafor will stay home for college, either, given the caliber of schools he will choose from. But for this year, Chicago will be treated to two of the finest high school basketball players in its history, and, as Slaughter said, two young men worth rooting for.
“It’s not just great for the Public League, but for the City of Chicago,” Slaughter said. “We’re at a moment we may never see again where we have two players who are so brilliantly poised to do great things not just for sports but outside of sports. Because they’re good people, and basketball is just the vehicle for what they can do.”
Chukwudi recently had a home movie transferred from VHS to DVD. The grainy pictures show Okafor’s older sister’s fourth birthday party. Just a year old, Okafor dunks a small basketball on a rim made from an old hanger affixed to a door. The whole family, including Okafor’s mother, is together. Chukwudi called it “a good thing to remember.”
“All the great things happening to me, I’m fortunate,” Okafor said. “Before I go out for big events, I pray to her. Basketball takes some of the pain away from missing my mom so much, but I also feel like I always have somebody watching my back.”