Onyeka Okongwu enters the USC locker room and finds her cubby in the far corner. You touch the band around your wrist, black with green letters—NNAMDI OKONGWU # 21, WE WILL NEVER FORGET US—And kisses him. He sits down, shakes hands, closes his eyes and starts praying.
In these moments, Nnamdi, there is his older brother. With him. In his chair, in his locker. On the blackboard, on the door. Inside his sneakers, inside his shirt. Onyeka can feel it. Feel he.
Nnamdi died in 2014 after suffering a head injury from a skateboarding accident. He was 17 years old, himself a promising basketball player.
“I think of him every day,” says Onyeka, now 19. Some days he wants to talk about it. Some days it doesn’t. For him, pain is not something to be overcome, to be crossed. It is constant, motivating and devastating. But when playing basketball, Onyeka feels unable to connect with Nnamdi. Talk with him. Learn from him.
Just like he did as a child, when Nnamdi taught Onyeka how to make the move that became Onyeka’s signature at USC: turn, turn the baseline, crush two-handed. Onyeka remembers the day his brother taught him how to do it, in a gym in Carson, California. Onyeka was 12 years old. Her older brother took weeks to master the move, but Onyeka turned and blushed the ball easily on the first try.
Onyeka smiles, remembering how Nnamdi used to brag with his friends. He used to say to people, “My little brother will be much better than me.“Remember how they looked the same, even played the same way: same silly laugh, same relaxed pace. Remember how they used to dream each in turn by winning a state championship in Chino Hills, then playing at USC, then jumping at the NBA.
When it’s time to leave the locker, Onyeka kisses the band once again, as if to say to her brother: I’m here. I’m right here. I’m here where you wanted me to be.
Okongwu, who passes through “Big O”, takes a chair after a morning workout at the USC in late January. The elbows rest on the knees, making it seem even longer than its 6’9 “frame, 245 pounds and 7’1” wingspan. He is brilliant. Energetic. Smiling. “I’m a gentle giant,” he says laughing. Except on the pitch. There he turns into a wise blocker. He has done so since he was nine years old when he came out of nowhere to hit the shot of a guy so strong that the ball torpedoed in the seventh row. “I hit them with one of these LeBron blocks,” he says.
“I have the mentality of: ‘You won’t mark me on me, whatever you do, ‘”Adds.
Okongwu is agile, coordinated – he can juggle three tennis balls at the same time (he used to play tennis) – and has a magnificent touch around the basket, scoring with a variety of low moves as one of the best men in the nation. He averages 16.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game for the Trojans, which at 22-9 seem like a good bet to make the NCAA tournament but could end it with a win or two in the Pac-12 tournament, which starts on Wednesday. .
Its best resource is its energy. His work ethic. His humility. He was genuinely surprised when he found out that it could be one of the top 10 NBA projects of 2020 in June. He doesn’t talk about the NBA with his family. Not at all. This is partly because of Nnamdi. Because he knows how fast life can change. He could easily not be draft tomorrow. It couldn’t easily be Here, everyone, tomorrow.
His mother, Kate Okongwu, often reminds him that he would be lucky to play for the next 10 years.
Okongwu has been classified nationally as a teenager, but has never been seen as a safe NBA player. His freshman season at Chino Hills High, 2015-2016, was mostly a great defender. Since he was sharing a field with the famous Ball brothers, he rarely touched the ball in attack, except for the dunks in transition. His main role was to bounce, run and block shots. The team remained undefeated and won a state championship.
During the three years that followed, he developed post moves. It has become an offensive force. Cultivated a jump shot. He is now working on his three point radius. “I’m proud of him. He’s always in the gym,” says Lonzo Ball, now with the pelicans. “It has a lot of potential. It has always been able to block shots and has improved over the years.”
This trend will likely continue. “I think he has a chance to stay in the league for a long time,” says Glen Worley, one of his former Compton Magic AAU coaches. “It’s always been a little darkened, and now, this is the first time everyone says” OK, Onyeka can really play. ‘ “
Steve Barron / B / R Hoops
Okongwu still feels a lot of work to do, a lot to prove. “I am not guaranteed anything in life. I really am not,” he says. “And I’m not tripping, because everything happens for a reason.”
Some reasons, he is still looking.
What reason could there be for God to take my brother? He wondered this night after night when he couldn’t stop crying. He once asked his mother, “Mom, Nnamdi was a good boy. Why would it happen he? “
Kate tried to find an answer when there wasn’t one. “Sometimes things just happen,” he managed. “God wants to take some people a little earlier.” She approached him and repeated: “Sometimes things just happen.”
Onyeka will remember every detail of the day Nnamdi died, from the moment he woke up. 6:30 on Tuesday. Nnamdi, 17, had to attend summer school. Chemistry lesson. Onyeka, at the age of 13, remembers being out of his room, going downstairs and leaving. He remembers playing NBA2K, going to Carl’s Jr. down the street, taking a nap, wondering where his brother was. Wondering why when he called, his brother’s phone rang and rang. Must be with his friends.
Onyeka remembers arriving at the hospital, her mother was crying.
“Why are you crying?”
“He had an accident.”
“Will he make it?”
Onyeka knew that her mother wouldn’t have been so direct if she hadn’t really believed that she wouldn’t make it. (She works as a nurse and therefore made more sense than anyone else.) And then Onyeka saw her brother lying on the hospital bed. Remember a scar, a ring around the neck. Remember his brother’s teeth, normally straight, perfect, with a large space in the middle.
How could this happen? Why is this happening? Onyeka started to cry. I couldn’t hear anything.
He still tried to trust his brother. He thought of him as a warrior. The most arrogant boy he had ever met. It would defeat him. Brag later on how he got over this.
But Kate kept telling Onyeka that Nnamdi would not wake up. It wasn’t.
He did not.
Chino Hills High held a candlelight vigil. The basketball team was there, devastated, including Lonzo, who was close to Nnamdi. “That’s it. A week later, that’s it,” says Onyeka. The purpose of all this hurts more. There was nothing he could do to change the outcome. Erase the pain he was feeling. “I would like to cry every day,” says Onyeka. “Just leave for four weeks in a row.”
He walked past Nnamdi’s room and thought, “His room is right Here. Her clothes are right Here. His life was right Here. And now it is not.“He had to accept it, that every sentence he spoke about his brother would now pass.
He would never see him again. Never train again to crush your hands with him. Never get to watch their favorite movies, like the Rush hour series. Never eat their favorite Chinese street food, orange chicken and kung-pao chicken.
“He was suffering so much,” says Kate. “So much pain.”
Onyeka has thought of abandoning the game he loved from the fourth grade. The only reason he started playing was to want to tag along with Nnamdi. Be like him. Be better than him. Then he started falling in love with basketball itself. He would have woken everyone up at home at 6am on game days, too excited to stay under the covers. When Kate went to the gym, she had programmed shortcuts so they would arrive faster. “Take that road!” little Onyeka would have screamed from the back seat.
He had a knack for the game, boxing himself so hard that he was accused of being older, even holding back. In middle school, a school project asked him to write about his dream career. He said his dream was to be an NBA lottery pick.
But without his brother? “I haven’t played basketball for a while,” says Onyeka. “I was like, ‘Do I really want to do this?‘ “
The more Onyeka struggled with that question, the more he realized that his brother wanted him to continue playing. He promised to play for he. Whenever he felt down, he said: Everything will be fine. Be strong. Life goes on. Have faith. “God won’t give you something you can’t handle,” he says.
Chino Hills hugged him as he joined the team. Everyone had known Nnamdi, who played for school. “We all went to him and said, ‘We are your brothers’,” says Andre Ball, a Pepperdine guard and cousin of Lonzo and LaMelo. “We were there for him. It was hard, the first two months after it happened, but when he was on the pitch, he didn’t seem depressed. He shifted gears, like: It’s time to circle“.
The court became a place where he felt connected to his brother, protected by his brother. “Basketball has become his paradise,” says Kate. “It’s where he found his peace, where he found his soul.”
Chino Hills has regularly sent off the teams. But when the season started, Okongwu was still trying to get him up and down the floor. The team ran and ran all the tests. The players had to make it up and down in nine seconds, and Okongwu would continue to lose his mark. The team should run again. But then he started making it. Then he always made it.
He has become a beginner, but still more a role player. “He never complained about anything,” says former teammate Eli Scott, who is now in Loyola Marymount. “He has always been the first in the gym, always staying after taking extra hooks.” He lowered his head, pulled out the box, took the boards, ran to the floor and defended himself as hard as possible.
Photo AP / Rich Pedroncelli
He was similarly on his Compton Magic team, becoming the lonely 14-year-old to start on the U17 team in the history of the program, which produced dozens of NBA players. That’s why he was ready to face some of the best national competitions with Chino Hills that first season.
Remember to face Bam Adebayo, then with High Point Christian Academy and now with Miami Heat. “I’m a skinny freshman,” says Okongwu, “and this guy is muscular. Thanos“He was so nervous. Damn, I’m really going against this guy. What am I going to do? I don’t want to feel embarrassed. Everyone is watching. He said to his teammates, “Help me if you can. He’s a great friend.” He tried to calm down. But Adebayo dominated it.
The next time they matched? “I wasn’t going to do it,” says Okongwu, who remembers having 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. It continued to rise in high pressure situations, with rooms running out, as people came to watch the balls play. “He’s a great player to play with,” says LaMelo Ball, a projected lottery choice again this year. “Block the shots. He runs in the lane. I really enjoyed playing with him.”
Okongwu would do the little things that mattered, like a dunk that changes momentum or deflects a critical pass. “People don’t understand how instrumental Onyeka has been, from the beginning of the season until the end,” says Steve Baik, former Chino Hills manager. “If” O “weren’t there, we wouldn’t even get close to that dream season. Not even close.”
After the 2015-16 season, the Balls left: Lonzo for UCLA, LaMelo for Lithuania. Many thought that Chino Hills was doomed. They would sing: “WHERE IS LA-MEL-O! WHERE IS LA-MEL-O!” during the games. Some wondered if Okongwu would leave school. But he didn’t.
“I wouldn’t have left my city. I wouldn’t have left my people,” he says.
Okongwu had the chance to get involved in the offense, to become more of a hit-blocker. Newly hired coach Dennis Latimore came and taught him the post moves, helped develop his footwork around the basket. They would do Mikan exercises, leave steps, spin rounds, blows. Over and over.
“I don’t think he was comfortable dominating the game,” says Latimore, “so what our coaching staff was trying to introduce him to was the second year: ‘It’s time for you to be the man. You have to do a step forward. You must be the man now. “”
Okongwu ended his career as a three-time state champion and twice awarded with Mr. Basketball in California. Yet it has not yet been selected as an All-American McDonald’s. Some wondered if he would have been good enough at the university level. “I think it’s one of the biggest junctions in the history of McDonald’s selection,” says Etop Udo-Ema, founder and director of Compton Magic.
Latimore went to the Okongwu history lesson on the day the rosters were announced to deliver the news. “Hey, coach, don’t worry,” said Okongwu. “I know my worth.” Latimore knew Okongwu was deeply annoying, but the coach was impressed with how mature, how wise he was. Which had bigger goals. Okongwu told him that his goal that year was to get other players on the team’s scholarships.
He also knew he had achieved his other main goal: to win government bonds that Nnamdi had never achieved.
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press
“I hope Nnamdi is proud of what I’m doing,” Onyeka said to his mother.
She smiled. “I think he would be very, very proud of you.”
At USC, Okongwu emerged immediately as the team’s top scorer and bouncer, starting his college career with two double 20-point double points and scoring 33 in his fifth game. But his trainers say it has even more potential. Assistant coach Eric Mobley often works with him in post moves. When a defender interrupts Okongwu, he usually likes to make a move before finishing. “I’m more like: run the boy. Alone to run it’s over, “says Mobley.
Okongwu is faster than many of his opponents. He has a quick first step and is able to maneuver the defenders with his speed. He has the ability to shoot the three but he doesn’t do much in the offense of the USC. However, shoot the jumpers until late at night. “Even the night before the game days,” says roommate Isaiah Mobley ahead.
Okongwu will have to stretch the floor a little to the next level. “He is exceptional on the track and can make a 15 to 17 foot shot,” says USC head coach Andy Enfield.
His former trainers tell him to enjoy this moment. Enjoy how far you have come. “It’s a great example of what you do when you keep working, keep playing hard and now you have a chance to be a lottery pick,” says Worley.
Steve Barron / B / R Hoops
However, Onyeka and her mother still don’t really believe in advertising. They just want to honor Nnamdi. There is a picture of him in the living room near the front door. Onyeka has a ritual in which she has to knock on the photo before leaving the house.
The pain brought him and his mother closer. Often they go shopping at Walmart together, with Kate making Onyeka take the items off the top shelf, despite being 6 feet herself. He pushes the trolley for her too.
So they go home and watch its highlights together. “Why did you shoot the ball? You must be strong with the ball!” she says, criticizing her moves.
When he is not with her, he writes to her: How are you? Are you OK? Where are you? She does the same with him. “I am 19 years old and still have a curfew because she is still so scared. Anything can happen,” says Okongwu.
But as he watches him play, he feels a little more comfortable. He takes his usual place behind the board and watches how he throws himself off the field, noticing how much he looks like his brother on one side. Especially when he turns, he turns the baseline and throws the flattened two-handed.
She smiles. Look up. It’s true. Nnamdi always said how big his little brother would become.
Mirin Fader is a personal writer for B / R Mag. He wrote for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Whisk. His work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.