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Young basketball’s Jahlil Okafor earns Sun-Times Player of the Year

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Updated: March 1, 2013 8:33PM

Watching Jahlil Okafor fly through the air with the basketball or execute a spinning post move with blinding quickness, one might not be surprised to learn he has an origin story straight out of a comic book.

The Young junior was so good this season that comparisons to a superhero don’t seem out of order. College-bound players such as Benet’s 6-9 Sean O’Mara, guys who dominated on ranked teams all season, found themselves humbled by Okafor’s extraordinary skills.

Okafor needed to be every bit that spectacular to wrench away Sun-Times Player of the Year honors from last year’s winner, Simeon senior Jabari Parker.

Parker has three state titles, one city title, a Player of the Year award and a Sports Illustrated cover on his resume, but his season got off to a slow start because of a foot injury and he was never fully able to recapture last season’s brilliance.

“We are really close, so I think Jabari will be happy for me,” Okafor said. “He wants to win the state championship, that’s what he really wants. If we beat [Simeon] in the state tournament, that’s what would hurt him most.”

Okafor led Young to the city title this season and was featured on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Sports section last week, so he’s slowly beginning to reel in a Parker-like level of hype and attention.

With a strong 6-11 frame and above-average athletic ability, Okafor was destined to be a solid basketball player. He wouldn’t necessarily have become the nation’s next phenom without the drive and the need for distraction instilled by a personal tragedy in Moffett, Okla.

Okafor was born in Fort Smith, Ark., and grew up in Moffett, his mother’s hometown. When he was 9 years old, his mother, Dacresha Lanett Benton, passed away from bronchitis complications.

“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Okafor said. “Watching my mother on the couch pass, taking her to the hospital and realizing it was too late. Then two days passed, and I was in my room in the dark, not wanting to do anything.

“I finally just went outside and shot some shots. I forgot everything. I was out there a couple of hours, and the street lights came on. I realized I hadn’t thought about anything but basketball the whole time. The second I went inside, I thought about my mom.”

Okafor’s father, Chukwudi, bought him a basketball rim every year on his birthday. From a homemade wire-hanger taped to the wall to a Jordan Jammer and finally the real thing, basketball was always a major presence in his life. But Okafor says he would never have become the player he is today without his mother’s death.

“I’m positive,” Okafor said. “Without that happening, I would never have put in the time required. I don’t know how hard other people work, but I know how hard I work. I don’t think I would have done so much so young if not for that.”

Chukwudi Okafor says the loss made his son stronger in every way possible, and gave him a more mature outlook on life.

“He appreciates things that other kids his age don’t. Every morning before he goes to school he says ‘Daddy, I love you,’ ’’ Chukwudi Okafor said. “His mother had a huge impact on his personality in those first years of his life. She was the nicest, kindest person in the world and that is in him now. It’s strange, but after she was gone, he just grew up overnight.”

After his mother died, Okafor moved to Chicago to live with his father. Chukwudi Okafor grew up on the South Side, attended Bowen and played basketball at West Texas A&M.

“I know Chicago can be a beautiful place, but at the same time certain environments can make it an ugly place,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “I never wanted my son to see that, to deal with the South Side of Chicago.

The Okafors live near the Cumberland Blue Line stop, a 40-minute train ride from Young. Chukwudi Okafor hoped his children would attend Young long before his son harbored any hopes of basketball stardom.

“At a lot of schools in Chicago it’s not cool to be smart,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “So it’s easy to conform to what the masses want. I wanted him to go a school where he would be accepted. Growing up I had a girlfriend that went to Young and the opportunities she had and the education always intrigued me. I just always knew it was the best school in the city.”

It wasn’t a hard sell.

“[Jahlil] was sold as soon as he visited and saw what the school had to offer,” Chukwudi Okafor said. “He got in the car and said ‘Daddy, I’m going to be a Dolphin.’ ’’

It’s a long way from Moffett to the pinnacle of Chicago high school basketball.

Okafor wasn’t even six feet tall that day he realized that basketball could take his mind off his troubles. He couldn’t know what those solitary hours on the court, trying to take his mind off his loss would lead to.

“I think about her before every big game,” Okafor said. “Not every single game, but always before the big moments.”

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