Jahlil Okafor Is On His Way Up

High-school basketball phenom Jahlil Okafor—a sure-fire NBA lottery pick—is a monster on the court. But to understand what drives him, you have to meet his dad. And know what happened to his mother.

Above: Jahlil Okafor, a senior at Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, is one of the top recruits in the country. Enjoy this animated GIF of the above dunks. Photos: Taylor Castle; Photo Assistants: Kevin Penczak and John Ruzich; Photo Retouching: brnyrk.com

In 18 months, if all goes as expected, Jahlil Okafor will hear his name called as the first pick in the 2015 NBA draft. He will walk across a stage in New York City, shake hands with the commissioner, and don the cap of a team counting on him to be the cornerstone of its future. For this he will be paid handsomely, though not obscenely, not at first: something like $20 million over his first four years, limited only by the rookie salary scale.

He will use part of that money to buy a house for his father, Chukwudi, a marketing rep and basketball coach. He will buy another for his “auntie mom,” Chinyere Okafor-Conley, his dad’s older sister who helped raise Jahlil after his mother died when he was nine. He will also purchase a truck for his father. A red one. “I don’t even know what kind,” says Jahlil. “I just know that ever since I was a kid, my dad has wanted a red truck.”

It’s a future that is tantalizingly close yet conspicuously removed from his present. Because for now, Jahlil is still a senior at Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Still a boy on the verge of manhood, just turning 18 on December 15. Still living with his daddy in a modest two-bedroom apartment on the northwestern edge of the city. Still tasked with doing the dishes every night and keeping the bathroom clean.

Jahlil Okafor
“My deepest fear is losing someone else close to me. That’s something I think about way more than I should.”  Photo: Taylor Castle

A regular kid, in other words, with one notable exception: Jahlil (pronounced Jaw-Leel) is the consensus top high-school basketball prospect in the country—the latest in a recent string of loftily rated Chicago prep-school stars. (Last year it was Simeon’s Jabari Parker, now at Duke. Two years before that: Perspectives Charter’s Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft.) At 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Jahlil has NBA executives salivating over his rare combination of power and finesse. One league executive with 20-plus years of experience told Yahoo Sports last summer that Okafor is “the most skilled high-school center” he’s ever scouted.

“You feel a little anxious, a little nervous,” Jahlil says of being an NBA star in waiting. “A little pressure also, because everybody’s expecting these great things. I think about it often. It’s hard not to. But it’s also kind of exciting. With what everybody’s saying, I can’t wait for it to happen.”

There are, of course, no guarantees. Before he’s eligible for the NBA, Jahlil has this year of high school and at least one at Duke University, which recently won the sweepstakes for his services. Something unforeseen, such as an injury, could derail his path. Jahlil knows that. He worries about it sometimes. But that’s not what keeps him up at night, his mind racing as he lies in his bed, mulling over different scenarios.

“My deepest fear is losing someone else close to me,” he says. “That’s something I think about way more than I should. I’ll be in my room thinking, What if my dad’s not here? Or, if I’m driving: What if I lose my aunt? What if I lose my sister?”

There are two Jahlil Okafors. There is the one you see on the court: all power dunks (he once broke a rim during a game), spin moves, stare downs, and various other displays of domination. “He’s a fierce competitor, with really no regard for the people in the other jersey,” says his Whitney Young coach, Tyrone Slaughter. “It’s like a war to him.”

Advertisement

That competitive fire isn’t limited to game time. “He wants to be first in just about everything,” says teammate Paul White, one of Jahlil’s closest friends. “First in running laps. First one out onto the court. First one done eating. And he’s one of the best trash-talkers I’ve ever been around. He gets in your head, down to your core. Even during practice. It’s like, ‘Oh, damn, man, I’m your teammate.’ ”

That is the Jahlil who led Whitney Young to a city title last year and a top 10 national ranking while becoming the only junior named to USA Today’s high-school All-USA team. The season ended on a disappointing note, though, when his team lost in the state tournament to city rival and eventual champion Simeon, leaving Jahlil devastated. “I turned my phone off for, like, a week,” he says. “Just threw it under my bed. I didn’t feel like talking to anybody.”

Then there is the other Jahlil, the one most fans don’t see. This is the one who intentionally keeps his booming bass voice at low volume off the court so that he won’t intimidate people. The one who would rather hole up in his room with Netflix or PlayStation than be out on the street, where he’s recognized more and more. The one who is shy around strangers but unleashes his gravelly cackle around his friends. The one who feels hurt when he’s attacked on Twitter (“I wonder if they would say negative stuff if they realized how nice I am,” he says). The one who fetched water for his AAU teammates while he was sidelined last summer with a twisted ankle. The one who tells his father he loves him every time they get off the phone.

That kind of open affection is rare for a teenage boy, so I ask Jahlil where it comes from. “It’s probably from my mom—appreciating people, not knowing if I will have them the next day.”

 

Jahlil’s father has a home movie to show me. It’s from April 1997, when Jahlil was a toddler. Chukwudi (pronounced Chuh-Koodie, but you can call him Chucky) and Jahlil’s mom, Dacresha Benton, or Dee, were living in Poteau, Oklahoma, enrolled at Carl Albert State College, a two-year school that had offered them both basketball scholarships.

They had met a couple of years earlier when Chucky played at what was then Westark, a junior college in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Dee lived in town. Tall (6-foot-2) and biracial (her mother was white), she had been a basketball star at nearby Roland High School in Oklahoma, but her hoop dreams had been sidetracked by two unexpected occurrences: a blown knee and a baby girl.

The fact that she already had a child didn’t stop Chucky from falling for her. “She had a great personality,” he says. “She was just so playful, and brutally honest. Her soul would touch everybody in the room. I can see it all in Jahlil.”

 

The 45-minute video is like an intimate time capsule: five days in the life of a young couple, never married, struggling to raise two kids while juggling the demands of being student athletes. There are scenes of a 16-month-old Jahlil crawling into bed with his mom and waking her up with a conk on the head from his bottle; of Chucky walking his son home from nursery school and stopping to look at some puppies; of Jahlil, in diapers, dunking on a rim made from a coat hanger his dad bent into a hoop and fastened to a door. “Ghetto basketball,” Chucky says on the video. “Tear the roof down, Jah-Jah.”

Jahlil is at practice this afternoon. Chucky didn’t want him here when we watched the video. He knew it would make him uncomfortable. Even for an outsider, the footage is bittersweet. Here is a couple in a tough situation, still managing to shower their kids with attention and love. It’s impossible not to be moved, especially knowing what’s to come.

 

We are eating dinner on the back patio of a Hooters near the O’Hare neighborhood apartment he and his father share when Jahlil tells me the story. He begins it so matter-of-factly that, at first, I think he must have told it a hundred times.

He was nine when it happened, home watching TV with his sister. His mother was resting nearby. She had been battling bronchitis for a couple of weeks.

They were living in tiny Moffett, Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border, where Dee had grown up and where her mother still lived. Two years earlier, Chucky had moved back to Chicago, where he’d grown up, to work on his bachelor’s degree at Chicago State. Dee had a job as a hotel receptionist in Fort Smith. As a couple, they had been on and off, but by then, 2005, Dee had moved on to another relationship.

Jahlil was extremely close to his mother, who was 29 at the time. “Whenever I saw her, I would give her a big hug,” he says. “She would take me to the basketball court and I would watch her play. She was very strict. She would stress to me being respectful of women. People always credit me for being nice to people, but that was all due to her. She was also really funny, a big jokester.”

Which is why he didn’t realize right away that there was a problem that day. “I remember she started coughing and breathing real heavy, making a weird noise,” says Jahlil. “I thought she was just kidding around. I started tackling her and laughing. I walked to the kitchen and was like, ‘Mom, I’m taking your Oreos,’ because she was always real strict about her Oreos. I expected her to say, ‘Don’t do that.’ But she just kept breathing heavy.”

That’s when Jahlil knew she was in trouble. One of her lungs had collapsed. The phone in the house wasn’t working, so Jahlil and his sister ran to the neighbors to call 911. “We were screaming,” he says. “I remember the ambulance coming and them ripping her shirt open. I remember them taking her away.”

Jahlil and his sister waited at the hospital for word about their mom. “The doctor came out and said she didn’t make it. I just remember crying.”

By now Jahlil’s voice is cracking as he tells the story. “I went into her hospital room. She was lying there. I remember I touched her hair . . .”

He lowers his head and cups his face with his giant right hand. “I’m sorry. This is my first time talking this descriptive about my mother.”

The pain never really goes away, does it?

“Uh-uh,” he says.

Does he want to continue later?

“I can finish,” he says, lifting his head and wiping away tears. “I rubbed her hair. I remember it was supersoft. I kept going in and out of the room, looking at her, like 30 minutes at a time, not wanting to leave. I was there pretty much the whole night. It didn’t seem real to me. I was heartbroken.”

For years he beat himself up for not reacting sooner. “It happened right in front of me,” he says. “I’ve put myself in her shoes, thinking about what she must have been thinking: I’m suffering and he’s just looking at me, laughing.”

Has he finally been able to stop blaming himself? He’s silent for a few seconds before he answers. “Yeah. But even now I still have to think, What if I could have known right off the bat that she wasn’t playing? She would still be here.”

 

After his mother’s death, Jahlil moved to Chicago to live with his dad, while his sister stayed behind with their grandmother. Even when they were apart, father and son had kept a strong bond. Chucky used to call Jahlil every day after school. They always ended the conversation the same way.

“Who loves you more than your daddy?” Chucky would ask.

“Nobody,” Jahlil would say.

Chucky describes his parenting style as a cross between Cliff Huxtable and Furious Styles, the philosopher-disciplinarian from the film Boyz n the Hood. (On Chucky’s phone, Jahlil’s calls come up “The Prince,” a reference to a Styles line: “You the prince. And I’m the king.”) “He is kind of the opposite of me,” says Jahlil. “People say I’m more mellow. He does a lot of goofy things. If I’m with a bunch of my friends, he’ll come in and Dougie—you know, the dance. And at games, people know him as the crazy loud guy.”

About a year after his son arrived, Chucky moved them to Rosemont, on the outskirts of the city, far from the tough South Chicago streets of his childhood. (They later moved back into Chicago, just over the border, so that Jahlil could attend Whitney Young.) “A lot of the flaws I had in my life,” says Chucky, “those are situations I never want Jahlil to have to be in.”

Like Jahlil, Chucky lost his mother at an early age. She died from breast cancer when he was 18 months old. He was raised by his single father, a Nigerian immigrant. Chucky had been, in the words of one of his sisters, a “roughneck.” At 13, he was caught driving a car he and some other boys had stolen. Later, he hustled drugs. He bounced around to five high schools in three years, mostly because he kept getting expelled for fighting. At one point he lived in a group home for troubled kids.

And though the 6-foot-5 Chucky dreamed of playing basketball professionally and was all-city at Bowen High School his senior year, he proved to be his own worst obstacle. He was kicked off the Westark team for using a stolen credit card, kicked off at Carl Albert for getting into a fight with a neighbor, and kicked off at West Texas A&M after only one game for disobeying the coach. “I finally came to the realization that I can’t take authority,” he says.

By the time Jahlil arrived in Chicago, Chucky had gotten his life straightened out. He was working as a doorman at an Edgewater condominium and had earned a bachelor’s in curriculum and instruction at Chicago State. Later, he’d add a master’s in instructional technology from an online program at American InterContinental University. (At 38, he now works as an assistant coach at Whitney Young and as a rep for World Ventures, a travel marketing company.)

Jahlil, tall for his age, had wanted to be an NBA player for as long as he could remember, and after moving in with his dad, he began to concentrate on basketball even more. His AAU team—he continued to play on a squad in Arkansas with his friends while spending summers with his grandmother—won three age-group national championships in four years. Chucky helped him further refine his game. He bought him a pair of weighted training shoes and put him through footwork and agility drills. He had him running in the pool to improve his strength. And then there were the countless games of one-on-one.

“He would always beat me, but he was helping me,” says Jahlil. “Like, he would block my shot and tell me to use my other hand.” Explains Chucky: “My thing was, anything I had a weakness in, I didn’t want him to have. I couldn’t shoot with my left until I was in college. And you see Jahlil now: He’s got a left hand.”

When Jahlil committed to Duke in November, it was a national story. Video: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

It wasn’t until eighth grade that Jahlil, already 6-foot-8, finally beat his dad. “I remember him getting mad and saying I fouled him,” says Jahlil. “We were out there arguing while we were playing.” Recalls Chucky: “I came home and told my brothers, ‘Yeah, he got me. But I got beat by a pro.’ ”

When it came time to think high schools, Chucky had Whitney Young in mind from the start. Growing up, he had admired it as the place the smart kids went. But Chucky wanted to make sure his son felt comfortable there, so he arranged a meeting with Coach Slaughter.

Slaughter had never heard of Jahlil, in part because he had been playing outside the Midwest AAU circuit, so he had one of his coaches put the kid through some drills. “He was palming balls off the ground. Making every shot. Completing every drill they threw at him,” says Chucky. “I remember watching Ty’s reaction. He was just shocked.”

 

That wasn’t the only thing about Jahlil that made Slaughter’s jaw drop. The summer before he started at Whitney Young, Jahlil played for the coach’s AAU team. “We went to nationals in Orlando and stayed in a house,” recalls Slaughter. “That first night, Jahlil comes downstairs and grabs a mixing bowl. He takes the cereal, pours it in the mixing bowl, then pours in a half gallon of milk. I told his father, ‘I don’t know how the fuck you feed him. It’s unbelievable.’ ”

When Jahlil was in junior high, Chucky would e-mail college coaches, telling them to put his son on their radar. But he didn’t get any traction until a DePaul assistant happened to catch one of Jahlil’s eighth-grade games. He reported what he saw to the university’s head coach at the time, Tracy Webster, who invited father and son to a game. “He was like, ‘Man, I’ll sign you right now,’ ” recalls Chucky. “I didn’t take it seriously. Then the next day it’s on ESPN: ‘DePaul makes offer to eight grader.’ Everybody started taking notice after that.”

Advertisement

Though Jahlil came to Whitney Young as something of a celebrity, he played behind center Thomas Hamilton Jr. as a freshman. But the next year, after Hamilton got injured, Jahlil showed what he could do, putting up a stellar 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. Last year, as a junior, he averaged 20 points and nine rebounds as he led the team to a 27–4 record and a national ranking that reached as high as No. 2.

In an era when big men like to roam the perimeter, Jahlil is a throwback: a back-to-basket center who dominates in the post. But he’s coveted not just for his sheer size and power. He is a deft passer, and with his spin moves and shot fakes, he’s drawn comparisons to Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon.

When I ask Chucky how he’s been able to keep his son grounded amid all the attention, he rebuffs the question. “Some things I don’t even want to take credit for. That’s just him. That’s just who he is. He knows right from wrong, and 96 percent of the time he’s going to do right.”

Chucky can remember being called to school only once: Jahlil was in fifth grade and got into a fight with a boy who called him a nigger. “The parental side of me had to explain to Jahlil you can’t lose your emotions like that,” says Chucky. “But in my head I was happy Jahlil smacked him.”

 

When you are Jahlil Okafor, there’s no shortage of suitors—college coaches who flock to your games and practices; who text and call you multiple times a week just to check in; who send you Photoshopped images of you shaking hands with the NBA commissioner (as Baylor did); who name their dog after you (as an assistant at Ohio State did).

If you were a coach making an in-home visit to the Okafors last spring, you couldn’t escape without having your photo taken doing “the look-away”—a family tradition of never staring directly at the camera. The result: unintentionally hilarious images of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kansas’s Bill Self, and other college royalty striking arms-crossed B-boy poses next to a grinning Chucky. To keep the mood relaxed, Chucky would also stock up on Heinekens and order in Giordano’s. “I just figured it would be cool to have Coach K in my house drinking a beer with me,” he says.

Jahlil and Chucky with various coaches
Jahlil and his father, Chucky, with Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski (bottom photos) and coach Bill Self of the University of Kansas (top photos). Photo: Courtesy of the Okafor family

“Typical of my dad,” says Jahlil, with a roll of his eyes. “He didn’t want it to be too stressful for me. I think that was his way of showing you can enjoy it.”

With a prize prospect like Jahlil, the pressure is actually on the coaches. And any miscue can cost them. One coach begged Jahlil to save his job by coming to his school. (Big turnoff.) Another made disparaging remarks about his rivals. (Jahlil stopped returning his messages.) In perhaps the biggest stumble, one told Jahlil to pass along best wishes to his mom on Mother’s Day. (“Obviously, they don’t know anything about me,” Jahlil told his dad.)

In mid-November he settled on Duke. “It came down to it being Coach K and the brand name of Duke, being part of that legacy,” he says. He made his decision in conjunction with another top prospect, Tyus Jones, a point guard from Minnesota. The two had bonded playing on U.S. national teams together and decided to make themselves a package deal. “He’s like a brother to me,” explains Jahlil. “But also, I want to win.”

Before he heads to Durham, North Carolina, next fall, Jahlil has some unfinished business in Chicago. Last year’s state tournament loss is still fresh in his mind. He had one of his poorer outings of the year that game, managing only 13 points, while Simeon’s star, Jabari Parker, his friend and AAU teammate, outshined him, scoring 29.

That memory is one reason Jahlil has come back this season in better condition than ever. “He’s a hellacious worker,” says Slaughter. “He’s replaced a lot of baby fat with muscle.” Continued below

 

His skills have also improved, thanks to his having played last summer on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Prague. One of only three 17-year-olds picked for that squad and competing against some of the best young talent on the planet, Jahlil averaged 11 points and five rebounds in just 14 minutes a game and was named to the all-tournament first team. “His confidence is at an entirely different level,” says Slaughter.

Says Jahlil: “My expectations are higher than everybody else’s. They are expecting me to be the No. 1 draft pick. But I’m hoping to be one of the best players to ever play.” It’s not arrogance. It’s ambition. “In basketball or school or anything else I do, I like being successful just to make my dad proud.”

 

If you watch Jahlil right before a game, you will see his mouth moving. He’s not singing the words to the national anthem. He’s not talking to himself. He’s whispering to his mother. “I’ll just tell her, ‘Let’s go, Mom. I’m ready.’ I think of her as my wings on the court, my extra step.”

Through basketball, he has found a way to grieve. “I think it’s his escape,” says his aunt Chinyere, the principal at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy on Chicago’s West Side. “I think it lets him focus on something else for a while. I know it does. We’ve talked about it.”

Chucky says, “He will never be OK. I told him that the day his mom died: ‘You will never get over this. So that’s not something you need to try to do.’ ”

I ask Chucky if losing his own mother better prepared him to help his son. He considers this for a long time before answering. “When I was at Chicago State, I took a psychology class, and I did a paper on the difference between a son being raised without his mom and a son raised without his pop. Like, I learned that the mom is really the emotional side, and that’s the first person the child goes to with secrets. So from that paper, I understood some things about myself, and that showed me I had to do some extra things in raising Jahlil.”

Advertisement

Such as? “Being more communicative, being open with my emotions. And just always being very supportive. No matter what Jahlil did, not just sports, I was the same loud, obnoxious dad who is gonna come embarrass you.” He’s not exaggerating. In junior high, Jahlil was on the crew of a school musical, and when he came out during intermission to move a spotlight, Chucky stood and clapped wildly.

What’s his biggest fear when it comes to Jahlil?

“Disappointment at any level,” he says. “Not just at basketball, but in life in general.”

I ask him if he knows how Jahlil answered that question.

“Uh-uh,” he says.

I tell him what Jahlil told me, about how he worries—obsesses, really—about the possibility of losing someone else.

Chucky stares back at me. And for what feels like the first time in all of our conversations, he says nothing in response. He doesn’t have to. I can see it in his face.

You can do everything in your power to prepare your son for the NBA, everything in your power to equip him for life, but you can never ease all of his burdens. Some things he must carry alone.

Share

comments
8 months ago
Posted by bluedevils13

Bluedevil fan for life here, that was an awesome article about Jahlil's life. Particularly his childhood and upbringing and how he's matured and grown from tragedy an early age. Loved it, 5 stars

7 months ago
Posted by 4kids

Very disappointed in this article. Whitney Young students have to test to get in, they don't "interview". In fact they got into trouble 4 -5 years ago for abusing their principal discretion privileges. I know first hand, it is a very rigorous school, which is supposed to have high academic standards. Would have been a great article if you bragged about how well he is doing academically while balancing this basketball career. Unfortunately, in my opinion based on this article, this poor kid is going to be another "star" athlete statistic: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/07/us/ncaa-athletes-reading-scores/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

Submit your comment