CHICAGO — It’s lunchtime on Tuesday in the West Loop.
Four Whitney Young students make the short walk to the Billy Goat Tavern on Madison Street to take advantage of a special that includes the eatery’s famous “cheezborger,” fries and drink for less than $4.
Unbothered by patrons, the students consume their food while talking about their days so far. They’ll soon head back to the highly acclaimed magnet high school to continue their studies.
A block away at the United Center, schoolmate Jahlil Okafor experiences a different, less-anonymous lunch hour. The 6-foot-11 senior is one of 47 McDonald’s All-American boys’ and girls’ basketball players cramped into the Governor’s Room on the arena’s club level. They squished together to hear an address from the event’s director, Douglas Freeland, who explains the absence of the 48th All-American, Curie’s Cliff Alexander, who is at the hospital having his right wrist examined.
It’s one of the few moments in the next 90 minutes in which Okafor, the 2014 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year, won’t have someone tugging at the black Adidas warm-up jacket he’s wearing asking for an interview. Or to pose for a photo. Or inform him there’s somewhere else he needs to be during the media availability.
Having received a scholarship offer in eighth grade from DePaul, Okafor is used to the spotlight.
“He handles all the attention so well, takes it all in stride,” said Chukwudi Okafor, Jahlil’s father. “He told me he’s having the best week of his life.”
The media gauntlet begins with a one-on-one sit-down with a Chicago television station. Okafor talks about his mother, who died when he was 9 years old.
“I just want to make her proud,” Okafor tells the reporter in his booming, deep voice.
Dacresha Lanett Benton died in 2005, a few months before her 30th birthday after a short bout with bronchitis.
“It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Okafor said. “There are no words to describe how bad that was. It was terrible.”
When he committed to Duke during a live show on ESPN in November, Okafor paid tribute to his mom prior to making his announcement. He’s dealt with the unspeakable loss the last nine years, thanks in large part to a close support system headed by his dad, a former college basketball player at West Texas A&M.
“I told him — and still tell him — that’s something you never get over — ever — and he understands that,” Chuk Okafor said. “He takes solace in embracing that. You lose your mom at 9 years old, you don’t get over that.”
Birthdays, Mother’s Day, holidays ... they’re especially tough on Okafor. Even times like now, when he is being feted with honors such as the Morgan Wooten National Player of the Year, MVP of Wednesday’s McDonald’s All-American Game and Mr. Basketball and being ranked as the consensus top-rated player in the 2014 class, not having his mom around stings.
“He’s got family around him, but there’s nothing like having your mother there,” Chuk said. “He’s having the best time of his life, but I know he’s thinking about his mother.”
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Next on the Jahlil Okafor media bonanza is another sit-down with a TV station. This time he is to be joined by the two other All-Americans from Chicagoland — Marian Catholic’s Tyler Ulis and Alexander. With Alexander missing, it’s just Okafor and Ulis, the point guard headed to Kentucky.
“What’s it going to be like playing at the United Center?” they’re asked.
“It’s my first time playing here, there are going to be a lot of emotions,” Okafor answers.
Alexander, the 6-foot-9 power forward headed to Kansas, is a hot topic of conversation. The city has embraced having two elite big men dominating the city and the state. The rivalry between Okafor and Alexander — a healthy one to be sure — has provided some thrills.
“I have the utmost respect for him; that’s like a brother to me,” Okafor said of Alexander, the Naismith National Player of the Year. “It’s been a lot of fun having him in the city. He’s made a huge step as a basketball player.”
In their lone meeting this season, a 69-66 quadruple-overtime victory for Curie in the city championship game that would later be vacated because of eligibility issues, Alexander went for 20 points and 14 rebounds. Okafor had 16 points and three rebounds while battling foul trouble.
“It’s competitive, it makes the games a lot more fun,” Okafor said. “I think we make each other better. He sees me go for 30, the next night he might go for 30. We were texting back and forth this season. He’s going through what I’m going through, so we’re able to talk about it.”
As Okafor gets up from his interview, his three future Duke teammates — Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Justice Winslow — yell from five sections away on the 200 level of the United Center. They want Okafor to join them for a taped question-and-answer session with the three McDonald’s All-Americans who will play for the Blue Devils’ arch-rival North Carolina.
“I know those North Carolina guys, grew up playing against most of them, so that’s going to make the rivalry that much more fun,” Okafor said.
The seven future Tobacco Road rivals ham it up for the camera, trading barbs and talking trash. This is when you remember, despite all the attention and acclaim Okafor has received, he’s still a kid.
“He still plays video games, I have to get on him to wash the dishes or his room might get extra dirty because he didn’t have time to clean it, so you still keep an eye on that stuff,” Chuk said. “That’s still my baby, though.”
The bond between father and son has always been tight, though it grew stronger after the death of Okafor’s mom. Anyone who’s spent time around them in recent years can clearly see it. It’s not uncommon for the 270-pound Okafor and his 6-foot-6 father to embrace, share a kiss and say to one another, “I love you.”
“Rarely do you see that kind of affection amongst male athletes and African-American males,” Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. “It’s obvious that he has a profound respect for his father and his father has a profound respect for his son. We live in a society now where kids and families lose the grip on who’s the parent and who’s the child, but they have that and it’s a positive relationship.”
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After Okafor disappeared to appear on camera for the Duke-Carolina spot, a McDonald’s media relations representative runs around asking, “Where’s Jahlil?”
She finds him and informs him there’s a McDonald’s obligation for him, just as another member of the media asks, “Jah, can we just get two minutes?”
“I have to go do something for the McDonald’s people,” he reluctantly tells them.
He feels bad, he wants to be accommodating to everyone.
Slaughter met Okafor when he was an imposing 6-foot-5 seventh-grader.
“Coach taught me to humanize myself. I was kind of quiet and I was sectioned off a lot; people wouldn’t talk to me and I wouldn’t talk to them,” Okafor said. “I needed to be nice, be kind and everything works a little bit easier when people want to see you have success and achieve your goals because you’re a good person.”
The basketball accolades, the TV appearances and the newspaper clippings are nice, but what really puts a smile on the face of Okafor, his dad and his coach is when someone compliments the genuine, respectful young man.
“Basketball kind of overshadows the person he is. When someone says ‘Your son is a great kid’ or ‘I just love hanging around Jahlil,’ that’s the most gratifying part of it,” Chuk said.
“He’s never looked down on anybody. Everybody is the same to him and it doesn’t really matter. He’s just a good wholesome young man and I’ve enjoyed being around him the last four years,” Slaughter said.
After fulfilling his McDonald’s obligation, Okafor returns to the area where most of the media is congregated to get back to that reporter who asked for two minutes of his time. It’s a fun interview where Okafor exaggerates his viewing habits.
“If it’s on Netflix, I’ve probably seen it,” he says. The latest titles in his cue? “Scandal” and “Friday Night Lights” are personal favorites at the moment.
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Next for Okafor is at least one season at Duke, where he will join forces with Jones, with whom he’s developed a close bond playing with the USA Basketball program. The two decided through the recruiting process they wanted to play together in college and made their announcements simultaneously in November.
“We were just similar. Off the court we just started hanging out more,” said Jones, a point guard from Apple Valley, Minn. “We got along really well and it just started from there and we’ve been great friends ever since.”
The future Blue Devils spent much of the week at the McDonald’s All-American Game together. In the hotels and at the public appearances, they were inseparable. At Monday night’s Powerade Jam Fest, they teamed to help Allen win the slam dunk championship. Winslow was on the floor in the corner taking pictures and video, and Jones presented Allen with a Duke throwback Jason Williams jersey to complete his final dunk in which he jumped over Okafor, who was wearing a Duke ball cap, for the win.
“It’s a unique thing they have and it’s going to be special,” Chuk said.
“I can’t wait to get down to Duke. I’ve got three people I’m really close with coming with me and I know some people already there, so I can’t wait,” Okafor said. “And I know my dad is going to be there as much as he can, he’s never going to be too far behind.”
And like they were in Chicago all week, the cameras and microphones won’t be too far behind, either.