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Jahlil Okafor of Young slam dunks during the Chicago Elite Classic at the UIC Pavilion. | Patrick Gleason~For Sun-Times Media
Watching Jahlil Okafor fly through the air with the basketball or execute a spinning post move with blinding quickness, one might not be surprised to learn he has an origin story straight out of a comic book.
That’s how good the Young junior was this season—comparisons with a superhero don’t seem out of order. College-bound players like Benet’s 6-9 Sean O’Mara, guys that dominated ranked teams all season long, found themselves humbled by Okafor’s extraordinary skills.
Okafor needed to be every bit that spectacular in order to wrench Sun-Times Player of the Year honors away from last year’s winner, Simeon senior Jabari Parker.
Parker has three state titles, one city title, a Player of the Year award and a Sports Illustrated cover on his resume, but his season got off to a slow start due to a foot injury and he was never fully able to recapture last season’s brilliance.
“We are really close so I think Jabari will be happy for me,” Okafor said. “He wants to win the state championship, that’s what he really wants. If we beat them in the state tournament, that’s what would hurt him most.”
Okafor led Young to the city title this season and was featured on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Sports section last week, so he’s slowly beginning to reel in a Parker-like level of hype and attention.
With a strong 6-11 frame and above-average athletic ability, Okafor was always destined to be a solid basketball player. He wouldn’t necessarily have become the nation’s next phenom though, not without the drive, the need for distraction instilled by a personal tragedy back in Moffett, Okla.
Okafor was born in Fort Smith, Ark. and grew up in Moffett, his mother’s hometown. When he was nine years old his mother, Dacresha Lanett Benton, passed away from bronchitis complications.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Okafor said. “Watching my mother on the couch pass, taking her to the hospital and realizing it was too late. Then two days passed and I was in my room in the dark, not wanting to do anything.
“I finally just went outside and shot some shots. I forgot everything. I was out there a couple of hours and the street lights came on. I realized I hadn’t thought about anything but basketball the whole time. The second I went inside I thought about my mom.”
Okafor’s father, Chukwudi, bought him a basketball rim every year on his birthday. From a homemade wire-hanger taped to the wall to a Jordan Jammer and finally the real thing, basketball was always a major presence in his life. But Okafor says he would never have become the player he is today without his mother’s death.
“I’m positive,” Okafor said. “Without that happening I would never have put in the time required. I don’t know how hard other people work, but I know how hard I work. I don’t think I would have done so much so young if not for that.”
Chukwudi Okafor says the loss made his son stronger in every way possible, and gave him a more mature outlook on life.
“He appreciates things that other kids his age don’t. Every morning before he goes to school he says ‘Daddy, I love you,’” Chukwudi Okafor said. “His mother had a huge impact on his personality in those first years of his life. She was the nicest, kindest person in the world and that is in him now. It’s strange, but after she was gone he just grew up overnight.”
After his mother died, Okafor moved to Chicago to live with his father. Chukwudi Okafor grew up on the South Side, attended Bowen High School and went on to play basketball at West Texas A&M.
“I know Chicago can be a beautiful place, but at the same time certain environments can make it an ugly place,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “I never wanted my son to see that, to deal with the South Side of Chicago.
“We lived on the outskirts of Chicago so he could get the best possible education,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “I didn’t let him go to [CPS basketball powerhouse elementary school] Robert Black, I put him in Rosemont elementary, that’s more of a model society. It’s the same thing at Young. It’s not all black or all white or all Hispanic.”
The Okafors live near the Cumberland Blue Line stop, a 40-minute train ride away from Young. Chukwudi Okafor hoped his children would attend Young long before his son harbored any hopes of basketball stardom.
“At a lot of schools in Chicago it’s not cool to be smart,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “So it’s easy to conform to what the masses want. I wanted him to go a school where he would be accepted. Growing up I had a girlfriend that went to Young and the opportunities she had and the education always intrigued me. I just always knew it was the best school in the city.”
It wasn’t a hard sell.
“He was sold as soon as he visited and saw what the school had to offer,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “He got in the car and said ‘Daddy, I’m going to be a Dolphin.’”
Young plays a national schedule, which allowed Okafor to play a number of games in front of the national talent evaluators this winter. It paid off handsomely, as the two major recruiting websites, Scout and Rivals, both moved Okafor to the top spot in the national rankings for the class of 2014.
Okafor is considered Chicago’s best big man in a generation, the best since Thornwood’s Eddy Curry.
“He has improved every year,” Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. “He literally improves every week, every day. I think every year he has looked at an area of deficiency and turned it into a strength.”
Okafor wasn’t much of a shot blocker his first two seasons, so that became a focus this year.
“If you look at the city championship game he had a couple of huge blocks at crucial parts of the ball game,” Slaughter said. “He talked about it, he committed to doing it and it ultimately ended up in us winning basketball games.”
It’s a long way from Moffett to the pinnacle of Chicago high school basketball, but Chukwudi Okafor had large expectations for his son right from the start.
“The name Jahlil stands for little god,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “He was my first son, he had such an impact on my life that the name just seemed to fit.”
Okafor wasn’t even six feet tall that day he realized that basketball could take his mind off his troubles. He couldn’t know what those solitary hours on the court, trying to take his mind off his loss would lead to.
“I think about her before every big game,” Okafor said. “Not every single game, but always before the big moments.”