Old-Fashioned Way Is Okafor’s Calling Card
Carmelo Anthony can give it back now, OK? Freshmen shouldn’t have it. Kids don’t deserve it.
The mantle of Final Four hero was returned to a more appropriate owner Monday, snatched away by a student who will wear it this spring under his cap and gown.
The tournament’s most outstanding player award went to a guy who stayed at Connecticut long enough to learn how to spell it.
For everything that has gone wrong in college athletics during this long and convoluted school year, it has been slapped with a punctuation mark that represents everything that’s right.
Meet Chukwuemeka Noubuisi Okafor. His first name has been shortened to Emeka, but that’s the only time he has taken the easy way out, graduating in three years while leading Connecticut to a national title Monday in an 82-73 win over Georgia Tech at the Alamodome.
“I’m in awe,” he said later, and that made 45,000 of us.
The score was a fraud. The Huskies could have won by 30. The Yellowjackets threw in a bunch of Hail Hewitts in the final minutes.
The game was a joke. In keeping with the day’s other sports theme, Connecticut was better than Barry Bonds while Georgia Tech was worse than the Dodgers.
Okafor, however, was refreshingly real.
He led all scorers with 24 points, more than Georgia Tech’s three starting inside players combined.
He led all rebounders with 15, more than any teammate.
And afterward, he didn’t want the trophy, didn’t want the net, didn’t even seem to care much for the applause as he paraded around the corner behind a video camera.
What he wanted, was the ball.
The game ended, Okafor threw up his hands in triumph, then made a beeline for teammate Rashad Anderson, who had the final dribble.
Anderson laughed, clutched the ball like a running back, then raced toward the other end of the court.
Okafor gave chase and soon, beneath the confetti and camera flashes and noise, the two men were dancing around each other as if children playing a game of tag.
Okafor being eternally it, he finally wrestled the ball into his giant palms.
Said Anderson: “I was just teasing him. Of course I was going to give him the ball. He’s the one who got us here.”
Said Okafor: “I’m 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, and Rashad is a smart guy. I figured I would get it from him forcefully or some other way. He finally came to his senses.”
You know what was interesting about that quote? Okafor is listed in every media guide as 6 feet, 10 inches. Imagine an athlete on the verge of entering a professional league announcing his real height? Without provocation? Just because it’s the honest thing to do?
“To me, he’s unbelievable,” said Richard Hamilton, the Detroit Piston who was the tournament’s most outstanding player during Connecticut’s last national championship in 1999. “To do all he’s done off the court, and to win a championship too? I mean, come on.”
Thank goodness. This tournament’s top step belongs to players such as him. It was odd last year when Carmelo Anthony became only the third freshman to be voted the tournament’s best.
In recent previous seasons it had gone to old heads such as Maryland’s Juan Dixon, Duke’s Shane Battier, Michigan State’s Mateen Cleeves, and Hamilton.
They were all veterans. For a variety of reasons, they had all stayed in school. That’s the way it should be.
For college athletics to ultimate survive the likes of BCS controversy and stripper scandals, that’s the way it must be.
“Emeka has given me great insight into someone who can focus at the task at hand,” Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said.
Before this weekend, that task involved a 3.76 grade-point average in Finance and a degree after only three years for the NBA-bound junior.
Then came the semifinals against Duke, where Okafor dominated the final minutes for the stunning comeback victory that made Connecticut and its coach look much smarter than rude Mike Krzyzewski.
Was the kid ever ready for Georgia Tech.
“I watched Emeka last night on the bus,” Calhoun said Monday. “I wish I could have taped it for you. He wanted the 24 hours to evaporate so we could tip off.”
Before they did, meeting Tech’s Luke Schenscher at midcourt for the customary pre-game handshake, Okafor was the only one of the 10 players involved who actually looked his opponent in the eye and said, “Good luck.”
Then he was the only one who his opponent could not stop.
He shot fadeaways vaguely reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon. He shot leaners that reminded one of David Robinson. At one point, he leaped across the lane to grab a rebound and dunk it back in like, well, a much skinnier Shaq.
It figured that he kicked Schenscher as if he were an Australian Rules football, outscoring him 14-2 in the second half.
It also figured that when CBS began its trademark “One Shining Moment” on the scoreboard afterward, Okafor was on the ladder cutting down the net.
And when the video ended, it was with a shot of him throwing down that dunk.
“Emeka, I love you,” shouted one red-faced fan, and anybody who loves college basketball would have to agree.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.