I f you really want to understand me, we gotta start with Air Bud.
See, most people, they know me as a Chicago kid. But when I was three years old? Nah. I was living in Moffett, Oklahoma. Middle of nowhere. Cows, horses, farmers — real, real country. This was around 1999.
And around ’99 … guess what movie had just come out on VHS.
Yup. The original. The all-time classic.
Listen, Air Bud was like … Air Bud was like The Godfather to me as a kid. I’d run that VHS tape back maybe three times a day. A movie about basketball and dogs — two of my favorite things in the world? It didn’t get much better. And while we already had a ball around the house … we didn’t have a dog. So you know I was begging my mom for one all the time.
Then one day, out of nowhere, my mom comes up to me and she says, “Jahlil — guess what’s arriving today?” (Dramatic pause………) “Your puppy. They’re dropping him off later.”
I was going wild. You couldn’t contain me. I remember I was jumping up and down in front of the window, looking out at the street for the car to come. And I can still picture this little old lady, pulling up real slow — and then walking to the front door with this cardboard box.
I see this little Great Dane puppy with its head popping out the top, like, “What’s up?”
And I’m looking back at this puppy … and I’m so excited.
So right on the spot, man, I just blurt out — “This is Hector.”
I don’t even know where it came from.
Turns out Hector was a girl. My bad. But I was so dead-set on the name, and my mom was so cool about everything, that she just let it go. All praise to my mom for letting me embrace my creativity in that situation.
That was my mom, though. She was so fun to be around. It’s hard to find the right words to describe her … but maybe picture Queen Latifah. Every time I see Queen Latifah on TV, I see my mom. Same personality. Same energy.
Just picture growing up in Moffett, Oklahoma, with like 180 people in the whole town — and your mom is telling you, straight up, “You can be anything you want to be. You can be anything you want to be. You can be the first black president.” I was lucky, man. My mom truly believed in me.
She believed in me no matter what.
But then a couple of years later, when I was nine years old … something happened that changed my life. My sister and I, we were just chilling on the couch, watching TV. She’s three years older, so it was always this battle for the remote. She wanted BET. I wanted Animal Planet. After a while, we struck our usual compromise — flipping back and forth during the commercials. Could have been any other day.
All of a sudden, though, my mom starts breathing really hard. Like, really hard. She had been saying she had bronchitis … but you have to remember, I’m nine. I don’t even know what that means.
She keeps breathing harder and harder, and honestly we thought she was playing. She was constantly joking around — never in that manner, but still. I assumed it was one of her jokes. That was just her way, you know? Doing all kinds of stuff to make us laugh. Like I said, she was Queen Latifah.
To try to call her out on her bluff, I threatened to eat her Oreos that were in the kitchen cabinet. That should do it, I figured. But she just kept breathing harder, and harder, and harder. Pretty soon, my sister and I began to realize she wasn’t joking.
It was total shock.
Oh no. This is real. We have to call 911.
I just remember frantically screaming and running for the phone. But the thing was, the phone in our house wasn’t working at the time. So we had to run across the street to our neighbor’s house to call the ambulance.
After that … it’s all kind of a blur. I remember the ambulance finally speeding up to our house. I remember the paramedics ripping her shirt open. I remember them taking her away on the stretcher, and then putting her in the back of the ambulance. I guess I was too young to really know what all of it meant — but when they came, I just remember thinking to myself, Alright, they’re getting her help. This is crazy … but she’ll be O.K.
Then we got to the hospital, and were sitting there for what seemed like hours — until eventually one of the doctors came out to the waiting room. And I’ll never forget how they said it: “She didn’t make it. Your mom … she didn’t make it.”
I had this huge pit in my stomach. I was crying. I was experiencing all of these complex emotions that I had never felt before. And yet the memory that sticks out the most — it’s so simple and specific: I remember going into my mom’s hospital room, and rubbing her hair. Just slowly, gently rubbing her hair. I remember how soft it felt — and how I kept going in and out of the room … back and forth to her, lying there … just looking at her, staying with her, not wanting to leave. I remember how it felt like that was the one thing I could do in that moment to make things better — not leave. Because leaving, you know … that would be accepting that she was gone.
And so I just kept on rubbing her hair.
I stayed pretty much the whole night, until they took me home.
I remember when we got back to the house, me and my sister were there with my two younger brothers … and it all felt empty. It felt so dark.
At some point, I grabbed my basketball and I went outside.
And I just started shooting.
I don’t know why … I just did. We had an old basketball hoop outside the house, and I shot on it all night. I was on autopilot — and I didn’t stop. For months, pretty much, I didn’t stop. That was like … that was my sanctuary out there.
Then the year after my mom passed, our family got split up. I went to Chicago to live with my dad, and my sister stayed behind to live with my grandma. Going from Moffett, Oklahoma to the South Side of Chicago was … well, it was exactly what you’d think. I had visited Chicago a few times before in the summer — but this time it was for real. It was permanent. It was pretty mind-blowing for a nine-year-old kid. I don’t know why this sticks out to me, but I just remember getting there and thinking, “Man, what’s up with all these cars?”
That was a tough time. It was hard for my sister and me not to beat ourselves up about what happened. It was hard not to think, If only we’d known Mom wasn’t joking. If only we’d gotten to the phone sooner.
I blamed myself — for years.
My dad, though, man … my dad was my rock. Hasn’t always been perfect — but after my mom passed, he was the rock that held everything together.
When I needed him most, my dad stepped up.
It’s funny, because, when I first got to Chicago, all of the dudes from the neighborhood were laughing and telling me the exact same thing: “Yo — your dad,” they’d say. “Your pops! You don’t even know. You can’t even imagine how this guy changed!”
I started picking up little stories here and there. I guess my dad was pretty wild back in his younger days. He was doing his thing in the streets. I heard a few fight stories. Heard a few … you know what, let’s leave it at that.
But when I was born, it had this big impact on him. And by the time I came to live with him, it’s like he was a different man. He had completely changed. My dad tells me all the time, you know, “Jahlil, you changed my life more than I changed yours.” That’s hard for me to imagine, though — because he’s been everything to me.
The two of us lived in my aunt’s house with my aunt, her kids and my uncle, all together on 59th and Lawndale. My dad and I slept in the basement. The TV was down there — so I’d go to bed every night, and my old man would be up playing Madden with my uncle. They’d play until all hours. And they’re both super, super competitive, so of course they’d be betting on the games — and I’d wake up at like 1 a.m. to the sound of them screaming at the TV, screaming at each other, screaming at the ref for pass interference or whatever. I’d have to sleep with a fan on, just to drown them out. To this day I still sleep with a fan next to my bed because of the memory of those two old dudes playing Madden ’06.
At school, I know “being the new kid” always sucks. But man … in the fifth grade I was like six feet tall. That probably sounds cool to some people. To me, though, it was about the last thing from cool. I didn’t like all the attention it brought. Everybody always asked me how old I was … and I actually started lying about my age because I got so tired of people looking at me funny. Like — when I was 11, I’d say I was 15. Anytime my aunt was around, she’d bust me for it. “Jahlil, why you lying? He’s 11! The boy is 11!” But I just didn’t want the attention.
I remember I used to grow out of clothes so fast that it was a problem. My dad couldn’t keep up, so he’d give me his old stuff. In the sixth grade, I needed new basketball shoes, so he went into his closet and he was like, “Here. These’ll work.”
They were the high-top Air Force 1s. The originals. Like, the ’80s joints.
I was playing in those all season. I had no idea. I thought they were basketball shoes. People were looking at me like I was crazy.
I owe so much to my dad. Really, I do. He was the one who pushed me every day. We used to play one-on-one, and I’m telling you — it was no mercy. This dude is 6′ 5″, 250, and he’d be bodying a 12-year-old kid. If you think I’m exaggerating, nah, I got the receipts. There’s this home movie we have from when I was about two years old, of me struggling to put up a shot with one of those little plastic basketballs. And right as I finally get it over my head and I’m ready to shoot — Dad swoops into the frame and swats the shit out of me.
And then he starts laughing.
That’s my dad right there.
I was like 0–400 lifetime against him. I had never beat him once.
Until the eighth grade. That’s when my dad — well, he was still 6′ 5″, 250. But now I was 6′ 8″, 250.
He’s wincing if he’s reading this, but that’s cool. It was maybe the greatest day of my life. We were at the open gym at Rosemont Elementary, playing some one-on-one. And it just … I don’t really know, it just happened. Wasn’t even close.
I beat him good, 11–5.
And it’s so funny, man, because he’s sitting there after, and I mean — he’s just shocked. Just straight-up shocked. Talking about how he wants to run it back. Talking about me calling soft fouls. Talking crazy about how he thinks he got screwed.
So we run it back.
I beat him again.
He’ll deny it to this day, but he was seriously — seriously! — pissed. Even after I’d beaten him back-to-back, he wanted to run it a third time.
So we run it back again. And I beat him again.
And man, I sprinted out the gym after that, and then all the way home — had to tell my aunt, my uncle, my cousins, my friends, the whole neighborhood. I was literally calling people on the phone, like, “I did it! He’s done!”
But I also remember, when my dad got home, and my uncle was busting him about it … he said something that still sticks with me to this day.
He said, “I got beat by a pro.”
That meant a lot to me. I still get chills when I think about it. My dad, man — he really has always believed that I was going to do special things.
And maybe he got a little carried away with it at times. People reading this, they’ll think I’m making this up — but again, I got the receipts. Right around when those one-on-one games happened, my dad started emailing all of these top colleges. I’m talking he started emailing them cold. Like, he didn’t even have the coaches’ emails or anything. He’d just go on the school websites, and click the CONTACT link or whatever — and then he’d hit them up about this “phenom” from Chicago.
No stats. No YouTube clips. Nothing. Just like….
Subject: Jahlil Okafor Should Be On Your Radar RIGHT NOW!!!
From: Chukwudi Okafor
He did this with Georgetown … Kentucky … Duke. All the top programs. If you’re an AD at any of these schools, you can probably search your inbox from 2009 and you’ve got a hype email from Chucky Okafor.
At the time? I was so embarrassed about it. But now, honestly, I think it’s amazing. And the crazy thing is, I actually think it maybe kind of worked. Because one morning — just some random day out of the blue, when I’m still an eighth grader, right as I’m getting out of bed — my phone starts blowing up.
My friend texts me, “Yo what? Ur on ESPN!”
I was like, “Stop playing.”
He’s like, “No, you’re really on ESPN. Turn on TV.”
I turn on ESPN … and they’re talking about this eighth grader … getting offered a hoops scholarship … by DePaul University.
And that eighth grader was me.
Seriously. I mean, it was amazing. But it was also really weird — because I was then immediately introduced to the negativity that comes with it. I went on ESPN.com later that day and made the mistake of going down to the comments section. And man….
“This is ridiculous. What if he’s a thug?? What if he’s a gang-banger?? This is all hype!! He doesn’t deserve it.”
You know, that kind of stuff. It wasn’t all negative, of course. But it just opened my eyes up to the world a little bit. And while I didn’t respond to any of it — the person it really bothered was my aunt. She was a teacher, and she was the one who made sure that I was doing my homework from school every day (plus some extra homework on the side, just from her). And I swear — I think she used to comment back to all the haters from, like, these random burner accounts. “No! I hear he’s a very well-rounded young man,” stuff like that.
That’s my family. They’re … special, man. My mom, my dad, my aunt, everyone — they always have had my back.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
So it should go without saying that this past year has been as hard on them as it’s been on me. I’m sure you all saw my dad wearing a FREE JAH shirt at the Sixers’ game. But that’s just him being him, you know? That’s just … my family being my family.
And as for this season, what can I say? In a word … (well, in a few words, but go ahead and pick any one) … it’s been uncomfortable. It’s been frustrating. It’s been confusing, emotional, complicated.
It’s been all that.
I just wanted to play basketball — that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. But I didn’t fit into Philly’s plans. And I totally understood why Coach couldn’t play me. They’re trying to build those guys into a playoff contender — and I wasn’t going to be there when that happened. So it didn’t make sense for them to have me in the rotation.
But, man, it’s still tough. And you still want to play.
It was like everybody knew I was gone … and we were all just waiting for it to happen.
First, I thought I was going to get traded over the summer. And then I thought I was going to get traded in the preseason. And both times, for whatever reason, it never went down. But I know this league is a complicated business — and that trades can take time. So I really just tried to stay patient … and handle my situation as professionally as I could.
Part of handling the situation professionally, I decided, was making sure that whatever team in the league did end up trading for me — they were getting themselves the best possible version of Jahlil Okafor. That meant going through some very real, very honest reflection about my strengths and weaknesses, both on and off the court. And it meant growing up fast — into a professional that I knew I could be proud of.
As a player, I recognized some key areas in my game that needed work. One, I’ve gotta improve on defense — improve both my physical quickness and my mental discipline. Two, I have to rebound better — maintain smarter positioning, be more aggressive on the jump. And three, I want to be the type of player who makes his teammates better — whether that’s by gaining confidence as a passer, or getting more comfortable spacing the floor, or even just being a supportive guy in the huddle. I’ve been working hard, and I’ll continue to work hard, to make those things happen.
I also recognized that maturing as a person would be just as important. I know I have to move past being one of those young guys who’s making dumb mistakes. I have to become the kind of person who’s “the bigger person” — who walks away from the bad situations, and doesn’t make excuses. And I’ve been working hard, and I’ll continue to work hard, to make those things happen too.
Basically, I just wanted to do everything in my power to make sure that the organization trading for me — they got a warrior and a leader. To make sure they got a player with the type of game that helps teams go deep into the playoffs. And to make sure they got what my family, friends and I have always envisioned me becoming: a franchise cornerstone.
Another big thing for me, as all the trade stuff was going down, was that I really didn’t want to be a cancer. Didn’t want to be a distraction. Which is why I tried my best to just sort of stay out the way. But honestly, I mean, no matter how hard you try — a situation like that? It’s going to be awkward. There’s just no way around it.
Those guys, they’re getting hyped up to play some big nationally televised game. And I’m sitting there in a suit … dying inside. Dying to throw a jersey on. Dying to lace up a pair. Dying to have a basketball back in my hands. Because all of these years later, still, being on that court playing ball … whether it’s our driveway in Oklahoma, or the open gym at Rosemont Elementary, or an NBA arena … that’s still my sanctuary. Ever since I was nine years old, you know, that’s … where I go.
And then it all gets taken away, and, man — what can you do?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
Like I said, my instinct was to not be a distraction. To just handle the situation quietly, in the most graceful way possible. But then you hear what they’re saying about you — Jahlil is passive, or Jahlil looks checked out, or whatever — and you get into this weird position. Because now, suddenly, you’re wondering, “Hang on. Am I being too quiet?”
It’s like you can’t win. But I still just tried to be a professional about it, and let the rest take care of itself. Some people might’ve taken that as me not caring about basketball. As me seeming detached from the game. But that could not be further from the truth.
You can say what you want about my first few seasons in the league. And I know I have plenty to work on if I’m going to be that all-around player on both ends. But I also really am a chill guy … that really is just my nature. And my being chill — that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going crazy not playing. It was killing me not to play. I love the game.
And at the end of the day, I love all those guys on the Sixers, too. Those guys in that locker room … they’re my brothers. They’ve worked so hard to get to where they are now, and I wish them nothing but the best. I mean, even the Sixers front office, all love to them, because they were transparent with me the whole while — and that’s really about all you can ask for in this business. All love to everyone in Philly, forever.
But at the same time … it is what it is. And when I found out that I’d been traded to Brooklyn — it was pretty much the best feeling in the world.
It’s actually kind of funny, though, because how I found out about the trade — it was almost the exact same situation as when I found out I was being recruited in the eighth grade. You know, when I got that text from my boy saying I was on ESPN. Just came out of nowhere.
I was sitting around … and a friend texted me, “Congrats.”
I was like, “Congrats on what?”
He said, “You got traded.”
I was skeptical, honestly, since at this point a trade had been “about to happen” so many times. But I hit Google … typed my name … and there was the tweet.
Okafor to Brooklyn.
Man. Brooklyn. Clean slate. I’d been waiting so long for that moment.
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images
I know, since I’ve been out all this time, that I still have a lot of work to do. I still have to work my way back into game shape. (Working out, no matter how hard you go, is way, way different from playing an NBA game.) I still have to keep up with my good habits. (When I was in limbo with the Sixers, I switched to a plant-based diet in order to get my body right. I also started doing yoga almost every day — which is no joke when you’re 6′ 11″, man.) But more than anything, I’ve started to ask myself some tough questions about what it means to grow up. About what it means to be thankful, in a way that counts, for this new beginning — for this chance to be back at my sanctuary.
About what it means to be back playing ball.
It’s funny, now, putting down all of these memories and things — how stuff has a habit of connecting in places where maybe you didn’t fully know it at first.
When I was growing up in the middle of nowhere, my mom used to tell me, “You can be anything, Jahlil. You can be anything. You can be the first black president.”
And then after she passed, I moved in with my dad — and he believed in me so much that he was randomly emailing Duke about how they had to give me a look in the eighth grade.
Jahlil Okafor Should Be On Your Radar RIGHT NOW!!!
Of course, I ended up going to Duke.
And we ended up winning the national title.
And guess what? We ended up going to the White House — and meeting President Obama.
I know that would make my mom really proud. I may not have become the first black president….
But I worked hard, and I believed in myself. And then I climbed my way up the ladder, and I shook his hand.