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Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016

Priorities of parents help to guide Okafor

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Though college basketball season is now over, I've wanted to mention one final note on the Player of the Year and future NBA star Emeka Okafor of the University of Connecticut. When his parents left war-ravaged Nigeria behind and headed to a better life in the United States, basketball was not on the mind of the young future star or his top cheerleader, his father.

In a lesson for everyone but especially for young black students, Okafor was more interested in academics than sports. In fact, sports were just an excuse for exercise and social activities. It was classroom excellence that took top priority.

And yet despite his thirst for knowledge, it was basketball that drew the attention of sports fans when Okafor first stepped onto a court. Little did the fans know that Okafor was also a top scholar.

Okafor will soon graduate from Connecticut with a 3.8 grade-point average, a degree in finance in just three years and academic All-American honors on his credentials. And the difference between Okafor and thousands of other outstanding black athletes is that Okafor had parents who placed academic success above sports success. And the results are evident.

His mother provided a lesson to all parents of young athletes. "I made him understand academics went first. He would go to school, come home, take a nap, go play and study again. We had rules."

"We had rules." That lesson above all others is the important aspect of Okafor's success both on and off the court. And it's a lesson that should not be lost on all parents regardless of the potential of sports or anything else. Rules set down by parents provide the guiding lesson in life for youngsters.

Too many parents and youngsters point to the adversity they face as some sort of excuse for poor academic performance. They point the finger of blame at society, poverty and a whole host of other excuses. But too often the real problem is a lack of rules and parental involvement.

Okafor's college coach relates a telling story about a recruiting visit to the Okafor home when the young player was still in high school. UConn's coach was one of a long list of coaches wanting to sign Okafor to a college basketball scholarship. But during a home visit, the coach was puzzled by a game Okafor and his father played while they visited in the home.

"It took me a couple of minutes to figure out," said coach Jim Calhoun. "They were competing in a game where they're naming streets from all over the world, I think, and then spelling them, rapid-fire. His father is just like him."

Now granted, perhaps not all parents will have the academic passion of this family. But that's not important. What is important is the active, daily involvement of a parent in the quest for education and knowledge. And it's equally important that academics are placed above sports, regardless of the potential for the future in sports. And no excuses.

Okafor may well advance to stardom in professional basketball. But long before that became a possibility, Okafor was a star in the classroom. And that achievement alone provides a far superior lesson than the hours spent in training for basketball. And it's a lesson that clearly applies to other youngsters.

But more importantly, it's a lesson for parents on priorities. Okafor clearly got it right. But his success can be traced to parents unwilling to take the easy road and make excuses.

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