Former UConn men's basketball star Emeka Okafor captivates Big East freshmen at orientation

Photo of David Borges
UConn freshmen Yarin Hasson (far left), Donovan Clingan (second from left) and Alex Karaban (far right) form a Husky skyline in New York City with former UConn great Emeka Okafor.

UConn freshmen Yarin Hasson (far left), Donovan Clingan (second from left) and Alex Karaban (far right) form a Husky skyline in New York City with former UConn great Emeka Okafor.

Courtesy of Big East men's basketball

Emeka Okafor balanced books as well as he blocked shots two decades ago, leading the UConn men's basketball team to a national championship, graduating in three years and remaining the program's lone National Player of the Year.

Is it any surprise that Okafor was also a resounding success providing important advice to the Big East's 2022-23 freshman class a couple of weekends ago in New York City?

"He was nothing short of tremendous," Big East executive associate commissioner Stu Jackson noted.

For the past eight years, the league has gathered its incoming freshmen for a weekend in the Big Apple, a sort of orientation of what it means to be a Big East basketball player. When Jackson contacted Okafor, who lives in New York City, to serve as one of the former player panelists, it wasn't exactly a hard sell.

"There was no sell," Jackson pointed out. "Without hesitation, he said he was in."

Okafor seemed to get as much out of it as the young players he met.

"It was cool," he said. "It was a great experience to go there and chat with incoming freshmen. It was nostalgic for me to reminisce about that time. We didn’t have that program when I was a freshman, but being there reminded me of what it was like to be a freshman."

Okafor's main message was to the young players was to "have a plan."

"Everybody has hoop dreams, we all want to make it to the next level and play basketball at some level, professionally," he said. "That is a noble quest, but you’ve got to be prepared to make yourself successful. So, in terms of these first years, make sure you have a plan. You’re essentially working on yourself. You’re working towards your basketball goals, but you’re also working towards other goals as well. Basketball’s not in everybody’s future. You want to make sure that, whether you bounce a ball or not after you leave college, you’ll be fulfilled and happy. The lessons that they’ll learn along the way will prepare them for life. You’ve got to be sure to have some type of plan, some type of intention, and work hard towards that."

Jackson noted that Okafor told the players of his journey from hometown Houston to Storrs, where after the first couple of weeks of official practice he didn't know if he belonged, physically and mentally, amongst a pretty good team.

"Talking to the players, what I felt was most impactful was not only some of the anecdotes and stories he had to tell, but he himself showed his own vulnerability to them," Jackson recalled. "So, it was very relatable for these freshman players, in terms of what they’re about to go through as students and as basketball players."

But don't just take Jackson's word for it. Ask one of the players who was in attendance: Donovan Clingan, UConn's 7-foot-2 freshman via Bristol.

"Hearing from (former) players, Emeka especially, gave us a lot of advice on what to do and how to prepare for our careers, and most importantly, playing in the Big East and in college," Clingan said. "I mean, Emeka was one of the best in his era in college, so hearing it from him was definitely big for me."

One of Okafor's anecdotes that really stuck with Clingan was a story about how Okafor and his roommate, Ben Gordon, worked together to balance each other out on both the basketball court and in the classroom.

"Gordon was heavily into basketball, and Emeka was big in academics," Clingan recalled. "There were times when, before practice, Ben would be getting extra shots up and doing extra work, and Emeka would be doing his schoolwork. He was saying how he (wondered), was he doing something wrong because he's not getting extra shots up? But they would rub off on each other, and Ben would start doing more of his schoolwork, getting better grades academically. And Emeka was taking more time to get more work in, get more shots up."

Okafor was one of three Big East alumni panelists, along with more recent graduates David Duke, the former Providence star, and ex-Creighton standout Marcus Zegarowski.

Not surprisingly, the 6-foot-9 Okafor commanded the room as well as anyone.

"When he spoke, the players’ backs were straight, their ears were perked," Jackson recalled. "They were extremely interested in what all the panelists had to say. To me, that’s the best indicator that we can have about the impact that former Big East players are having on these young men."

Added Okafor: "I think everybody was engaged. There were some good questions about about time management, about routine, about when things get hard, what do you do? The group was very well-engaged and asked very good questions."

'If you need me, I'm here'

Clingan, 6-7 Alex Karaban and recent Israeli addition 6-9 Yarin Hasson were among the 28 student-athletes at the event. The trio posed with Okafor to form an impressive UConn skyline in the midst of the Big Apple.

Okafor had met with them and the rest of the team earlier in the week while visiting the UConn campus with his family.

"They seemed eager, hard-working," Okafor said of this year's UConn team. "I'm paying attention."

He added that he was able to speak with Adama Sanogo, like Okafor a 6-9 star center with African roots and NBA dreams.

"I just talked to him a little bit about managing expectations, more from a leadership standpoint, setting examples," Okafor recalled, "and basically saying, 'Hey man, if you need me, I’m here.' "

Okafor, who last played in the NBA for New Orleans in 2018 and most recently played in Korea in 2019-20, said he hasn't officially retired yet. Lately, he's been doing the "wife-and-two-kids tango" at home, while keeping an eye out for the right opportunity to play overseas.

After the former players' panel, the Big East freshmen visited the new Jackie Robinson Museum in Manhattan, learning about Robinson not only as the player who broke baseball's color barrier but as an activist, businessman and husband. The players also heard from Chrysa Chin, chief player engagement officer for the NBA Players Association, as well as author Alfiee Breland-Noble in a mental health session and Kalimah Johnson on relationship management and safety.

On Sunday, they took part in a media training session conducted by the Big East's digital team, then took a trip to Madison Square Garden, where they heard from Garden executive vice president and general counsel Jamaal Lesane.

"It was a good weekend, it was nice to see everything in New York," Clingan said.

To wrap things up, the freshmen took a tour of the World's Most Famous Arena, where Emeka Okafor did some of his best work and where these players — no doubt encouraged by Okafor's words along the way — someday hope to carve out their own places in Big East history.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges