STORRS, Conn. - Connecticut center Emeka Okafor is unfazed by the lofty expectations that have been placed on his broad shoulders this season.
“It's not what people say, it’s what you do,” Okafor said. “That’s why I kind of disconnect myself from all that. I still have to prove myself.”
Fans are expecting big things out of UConn, a team so deep in talent that Jim Calhoun could have a daunting 10-man rotation as the Huskies aim for their second NCAA title.
The media has weighed in as well, calling the Huskies the team to beat in 2003-04 and Okafor the player to watch.
On pace to become the best shot blocker in college history, the 6-foot-10 junior has already shattered the Big East record set by Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing almost 20 years ago.
He’s averaged nearly 12 points and 10 rebounds a game in his two years at UConn. His 4.41 shot-block average is the best in the Big East and seventh in NCAA history.
Those accomplishments have gotten him plenty of ink and airtime, especially in this basketball-crazy state. And it’s hard not to sneak a peak at what’s ahead — the NBA and millions of dollars.
But someone else can read all about him. Okafor won’t.
“You can’t pay attention to the clips. When they’re saying good stuff, your head starts to swell,” he said. “When you start reading all the bad stuff about you, next thing you know your game’s slipping.”
The clippings are about the only thing he’s not reading this year. The academic All-American from the Houston area is also on pace to graduate with a degree in finance in just under three years. His celebrity on the court has no bearing in the classroom, he says.
“I’m not treated any differently. I don’t get any extra ‘Okafor’ points on my test or anything,” he said.
His favorite class, the one he took just for fun, was Roman Civilization. The Roman engineering marvels, from roads to aqueducts, were an eye-opener.
“It just blows my mind that they invented some of this stuff with such limited technology compared to what we have now,” he said.
Okafor’s scholastic pace has been as tough to keep up with as his game in the post.
“The trick with Emeka is staying ahead of the curve because he’s so far along in his curriculum,” said Ted Taigan, the team’s faculty academic adviser. “You actually need to think carefully about how to lay it out because there’s so few kids that essentially graduate in five semesters. That’s what he’s done.”
Teammates marvel at his time management. Calhoun, who has coached Rhodes Scholars and many All-Americans, said Okafor is a master at concentrating on what’s before him and screening out any background noise.
“He came equipped with one of the most unique packages that any teacher would love to have,” Calhoun said. “And that’s the ability to take a task, do it fully and beyond and then put it into a compartment and leave it alone.”
His coach calls him a “bright light” at a time when the sport has been beset by scandals, so much so that Division I coaches were required to attend a summit last month to address ethical concerns.
“Certainly, he’s enriched our teams, our coaching staff,” Calhoun said. “We’re a better university because of him.”
This summer Okafor joined roommate Ben Gordon, another All-American, on the USA Basketball team at the Pan Am Games. Gordon, who led the Huskies in scoring last season with 19.5 points a game, said Okafor has found a way to juggle all the balls tossed his way.
“It’s tough for most players,” Gordon said. “Whether it be social life, academics or basketball, he’s got it down pat.”
To understand Okafor’s drive in the classroom is to understand his roots. His parents, Pius and Celestina, left Nigeria in the 1970s for a better life in the United States. Both earned multiple degrees. Pius recently completed his doctorate in pharmacy and Celestina, a former biology teacher, is an operating room nurse.
“I’m really happy for his family,” said Dave Hudek, Okafor’s high school coach. “When he signs his (NBA) contract, he’ll be able to take care of mom and dad and pay for his sister’s education. This kid is so levelheaded, I’d be proud of him if he didn’t accomplish what he did.”
But the NBA is too far away to think about, Okafor said. And so is the Final Four in San Antonio, about a three-hour drive from Okafor’s home in Bellaire, Texas.
He’ll block all that out and concentrate on the upcoming season, one practice, one game and one class at a time.
As Okafor has learned, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
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