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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Degree of Difficulty

Connecticut's Okafor, on track to graduate as a junior, is All-American on court and in class, but injuries are a concern

March 30, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Emeka Okafor spent enough time in the Arizona State pool taking care of his chronically sore back during the Phoenix Regional that somebody finally told the Connecticut center he was a regular Mark Spitz.

At long last, the Academic All-American who turned down an opportunity to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship was stumped.

"Forgive me," he said later, furrowing his brow and still uncertain. "Spitz?"

Considering Okafor wasn't born until 1982, a decade after Spitz won seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics, the gap in his knowledge is understandable.

"The Michael Jordan of swimming," someone told Okafor, and he repeated the phrase, unlikely to need prompting again.

Because he is the son of Nigerian immigrants and was born in Houston, it's natural for people to draw comparisons between Okafor and Hakeem Olajuwon, who spent all but one year of his college and pro career playing in Houston.

But Okafor is much more David Robinson, a tremendous shot blocker with an increasingly effective offensive game, a princely manner, unusual intelligence and a toothpaste-commercial smile.

"That guy's an MVP, an NBA champion," Okafor said of Robinson. "I have a ways to catch up to him, but I'm honored to be compared to him."

It is not only Okafor's unpredictable back injury that has caused Connecticut concern going into the Final Four. (He sat out two games in the Big East tournament because of back spasms related to a stress fracture, but said his back has been "fine" during the NCAA tournament.)

He also suffered a shoulder "stinger," or minor nerve injury, during the regional final against Alabama on Saturday.

Connecticut received good news Monday when results of an MRI exam on Okafor's neck and right shoulder came back normal, and he was cleared to practice today.

For Okafor, there will be something very final about this Final Four. It will mark the end of his college career.

Only a junior, he'll graduate in May with a degree in finance and a grade-point average close to 3.8.

The plan to turn pro after graduating in three years has been in place since he arrived at Connecticut, and Coach Jim Calhoun has been behind him all the way.

Okafor has done so well, though, that Calhoun and Ted Taigen, an associate professor of biology who is the team's faculty advisor, were among those who encouraged Okafor to apply to be a Rhodes Scholar, the prestigious fellowship Bill Bradley won after an All-America basketball career at Princeton.

Okafor wrestled with the decision, then declined.

"That was a nice thing, but I felt that wasn't really the road I wanted to go down," he said. "It's a big honor, but what would it really do for me? Would I be able to go through with it? I mean, for me, if I got to be a Rhodes Scholar, I'd have to go to Oxford, and I didn't really plan on doing that."

The reason: There is no NBA team in England.

"Not last time I checked," Okafor said with a laugh.

Calhoun calls Okafor, a first-team All-American who led the nation in blocked shots with 4.2 a game and is tied for seventh in NCAA history with 437 in his career, a "once in a lifetime" player and person. (He averaged 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds this season and has been a first-team Academic All-American the last two years.)

"The university has a 30-second public announcement spot that starts, 'Hi, I am Emeka Okafor, Academic All-American,' " Calhoun said.

"In the commercial, it does not mention basketball at all. If the university has seen fit for him to be the poster person for our university as a student-athlete, that tells you what the university thinks of him."

Rice University, in Okafor's hometown of Houston, was brokenhearted when he didn't stay home.

Okafor wanted to go to Stanford but didn't get an offer.

"Yeah. I liked them a lot, but things didn't work out. They didn't have enough scholarships," he said.

Bob Knight came calling too.

"I was surprised. He was a real likable guy," Okafor said. "I expected him to come in throwing chairs around or something. He sat down, told some jokes, made us laugh, made us feel real comfortable."

Okafor chose to go elsewhere

"Um, I don't know. I didn't really feel ... Texas Tech ... um," he said.

Once at Connecticut, he needed little more than 2 1/2 years to complete his academic work. This semester, he is enrolled in only a peer-counseling internship and an invitation-only finance seminar in which students invest a portion of the university's endowment.

"It's a couple of hundred thousand," Okafor said. "We bought Pfizer, Harley-Davidson. I think we ended up getting a little bit of Microsoft."

He entered Connecticut with 10 or 12 credits he earned through high school coursework, and tested out of a business calculus course by taking the book home for a weekend or so of cramming. He got a B, and despite rumors of perfectionism, was pleased with the time-spent-to-grade-earned ratio.

"Nah, I'm reasonable," Okafor said.

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