It was the summer of 2014 when tragedy struck the Okongwu family. Nnamdi Okongwu, a promising 6-foot-9 senior center at Chino Hills, died after sustaining a fatal head injury in a skateboarding accident.
His brother, Onyeka, was 13 and devastated. But he persevered and dedicated himself to making sure his big brother would be proud of him one day. If only Nnamdi could see him now. . . .
There isn't a coach or player in Southern California who didn't praise what they saw this season from the 6-9 Onyeka, a junior who averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots for state Division I champion Chino Hills.
Okongwu was so good that he has been selected The Times' boys' basketball player of the year.
"He's definitely the best player out here," said Fairfax coach Steve Baik, a former coach at Chino Hills. "For him to want to stay at Chino Hills and finish out what his brother started in the face of a lot of challenges and coaching changes is credit to him. He's a phenomenal kid with so much character."
Playing for his third coach in three years, Okongwu became the center of attention. Coach Dennis Latimore decided the ball should go through Okongwu, and he responded by being an offensive threat, an assist man, defensive force and team leader.
"We haven't been the best team in the state but I guess the conversation comes down to do you want to give an award to the player on the best team or give an award to the best player? He's by far the best player," Latimore said.
Opposing coaches had the uncomfortable task of trying to stop him.
"He's a beast," Long Beach Poly coach Shelton Diggs said. "We tripleteamed him and he dunked on us."
What impressed many about Okongwu is the way he handled himself. There were times he'd get hit and bumped but he refused to retaliate. He always respected others. Shaking hands with him afterward became an honor for both coaches and players.
"At the end of the day, I just want to win," he said.
He has improved so much since his freshman year, when he was a starter on Chino Hills' 35-0 team running pick-and-roll plays with Lonzo Ball.
He still has one year to go, with scholarship offers from both UCLA and USC, among others.
"Every game I play for my brother," he said. "I wish he was with me watching, but he's with me in spirit."