A True Achiever
Averaging just 22 minutes of playing time for a basketball team that has underachieved even by UC Irvine’s modest standards, Matt Okoro isn’t going to earn any postseason accolades.
The 6-foot-7 forward has played in anonymity, averaging 4.5 points and 3.1 rebounds a game for a 10-14 team in a senior season in which he has been slowed by an ankle injury.
But were there an award for overcoming personal adversity, Okoro would seem a shoe-in for player of the year.
Abandoned and homeless while a student at Buena Park High, Okoro returned to that school recently for a ceremony in which his basketball uniform number was retired.
Although he hasn’t become the all-star player some projected him to be, he is expected to graduate from UC Irvine this spring with an economics degree. That will make him the first member of his family to earn a college diploma -- and fulfill a pledge he made to himself in his darkest moments.
“Sometimes it’s not always about points, it’s about what you accomplish,” Buena Park Coach Ed Matillo said. “What he has done is set an example for other kids. With what he has gone through, look at what the end result is. That’s what counts.”
Okoro, 21, has never known his father, who is Nigerian. His mother, Robin Jackson, was 16 and unwed in 1982 when Matt was born in Dallas, Ore. Pregnant again about 16 months later, Jackson moved in with friends in Orange County, where other relationships resulted in four more children in the next eight years.
Jackson eventually settled her family in an apartment across the street from Buena Park High. She worked nights, so child-care chores fell to her oldest son, a quiet kid who acted more like a surrogate father than an older brother.
“Matt was up all night making sure that we weren’t running the streets,” his sister, Denacia Okoro, said.
Other family members expressed shame about how the family lived, but Denacia said Matt “never really expressed it too much.”
Barely 13 when he entered Buena Park as a freshman in the fall of 1995, Matt quickly established himself as a good student, particularly in math. Classmates nicknamed him “Bigs” because of his size-14 shoes.
Although he always seemed to have a basketball in his hands, Okoro wasn’t a standout player. “I wasn’t good at all, I was only 5-7,” he said. “We’d have 20-something guys on our freshman team and I’d never get into practice.”
But after two summers practicing on the school’s blacktop courts, Okoro, who had grown to 6 feet 4, caught the attention of coaches.
As a junior, he averaged 12 points and eight rebounds in the first eight games of the 1997-98 season. He set a school record by blocking seven shots in a game.
“He was a great talent, a great rebounder, a great scorer,” said Mike Murphy, coach of Freeway League rival La Habra Sonora. “He was huge, one of the biggest kids in the league.”
At home, though, there were problems that Okoro didn’t want anyone to know about.
Jackson had walked off her job, bills were piling up, and she was selling family furniture to make a few dollars.
“We had no hot water, no electricity,” Okoro said. “We had a broken window downstairs, so there was cold air coming in. We tried to patch it up with tape. We’d wake up at 6 in the morning and it was really cold and you’d have to take a cold shower. It was tough.”
Jackson tried to make do. “The only light we had were candles,” she said. “I was cooking off a grill to feed them. When all the coal was gone, I started using rags to heat up food. We were eating, like, noodles from pots.”
In early January 1998, on the afternoon of a first-place showdown with Sonora, Okoro found the door to the apartment padlocked. Possessions, including his basketball uniform, were gone. The family had been evicted for back rent.
“At that point the bottom dropped out of Matt’s world,” Matillo said.
Okoro never showed up for the game. He helped his mother gather the children and they spent part of the night huddled on a bus bench a few blocks away, trying to stay warm. It was about to rain. Finally, they walked several miles to a shelter in Fullerton.
“We didn’t know where to go, what to do, who to call,” Jackson said.
The next day, Jackson got a motel voucher from a church and Matillo hit up buddies at the Buena Park Police Department for donations totaling $200. School personnel chipped in for the first month of rent on a one-bedroom apartment.
That was nice, but it didn’t last long. Jackson, feeling ill, checked herself into a hospital, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disease. A child protective agency took custody of Okoro and his siblings, placing them in a home for unwanted juveniles.
Okoro’s basketball season was over. Who knew what might come next.
Okoro recalls few details from his high school days. He says he has blocked them out because they are so unpleasant.
“When I went through all of that stuff, I was mad,” he said. “I was mad at my mom. I don’t think it was really my mom’s fault, but I was blaming her.”
His coach visited often, but wondered if Okoro would ever play organized basketball again.
“I told him to hang in there, keep in touch,” Matillo said.
Just before the end of his junior year, Okoro was sent to the Westminster home of Charles and Carol Carothers, who had been foster parents to dozens of children.
At first, only Denacia Okoro and a half-sister had been placed with the Carothers. But Charles Carothers, a retired aerospace engineer with a slow drawl and an intelligent wit, persuaded the agency in charge of the children to give them Matt and a younger half-brother.
Charles Carothers was impressed with Okoro’s interest in math and with how the other children responded to him.
“I’m only 5-9 and Matt is 6-4,” Charles Carothers said. “When he came into my home, if he hadn’t been nice, we couldn’t have gotten along and I wouldn’t have kept him here.”
For the first time, Matt and his siblings had stability.
“He taught me a lot,” Matt said of Charles Carothers. “He’s older, like a father figure to me. I didn’t have that. Besides Coach Matillo, he was the only person I had.”
Charles Carothers bought a computer program for college exams and arrangements were made for Okoro to ride a bus to Buena Park for his senior season.
Things were looking up -- for a few months. Then, on June 30, 1998, Carol Carothers died of a heart attack and the children were temporarily scattered to different homes across Southern California.
Matillo located Okoro in Pasadena and arranged for him to be moved temporarily to Fullerton so that he could attend summer school at Buena Park.
As the school year approached, Okoro wondered if he would ever see his siblings again. But Charles Carothers stepped back into the picture, persuading the agency that the children should be reunited as soon as possible.
Returned to Carothers along with his siblings, Okoro was able to concentrate on school and basketball. As a senior at Buena Park, he established school records with 12 blocked shots in a game, 400 rebounds in his career and career shooting of 65%.
Buena Park won 20 games for the third time in 45 years as Okoro earned All-Southern Section Division II honors and was selected the most valuable player in the Freeway League.
Okoro jumped at Irvine’s scholarship offer because it paid for year-round housing and the campus was close to his family.
In Okoro, Irvine Coach Pat Douglass saw a player with raw athletic ability and ... those big feet, now size-19. “I thought he would grow to 6-9,” Douglass said.
“Did Irvine take a chance on me? Probably,” Okoro said. " .... I was the size of a shooting guard or a small forward playing center.”
Okoro’s career statistics -- 3.9 points and 3.6 rebounds a game -- belie his stature in Irvine’s basketball program.
He hasn’t caught many breaks during his college career, either.
Douglass thought that Okoro might be positioned for a break-out senior season until a stress fracture in August derailed those hopes. “He has not jumped or been able to run like he used to, and that’s what he does best,” Douglass said.
Still, no one around the Irvine program considers his contributions to be anything but inspiring.
Douglass talks about Okoro’s “very positive” and “never selfish” attitude with his teammates. Center Adam Parada, Okoro’s roommate for four years, marvels that few Irvine players know about his background, a tough kind of upbringing that “gave him extra drive to work hard, to make something of himself.”
One of his biggest fans now lives in Santa Ana and says she takes five medications to help control her disease.
Jackson said that she and her son have not been close, but that she was trying to be a better mother. She has been a fixture at Irvine games this year.
“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “Going into the shelter ... and being in foster care, he could have strayed off, but he stayed on the right path.
“I’m sure he’s going to find the right thing to do. I can’t plan out his life, that’s for him to do and decide. He’s a grown man now.”