GFA’s Okeke thrives in leap from Nigeria to life in U.S.
Looking up at the sky as planes would fly across the overcrowded streets of Lagos, Nigeria, a young Sunday Okeke pondered what it would be like to be on one of them.
Little did he know a sport he never dreamed of playing would be his ticket to the United States and a future he couldn’t possibly fathom.
Now standing six-foot-eight, Okeke is a rising star on the basketball court for Greens Farms Academy and appears to be headed to a Division I college to chase a dream. Except the dream isn’t only on the court.
“I want to be a psychologist,” said Okeke, almost matter-of-factly. “I want to help people. I’ve seen people go through a lot and would love to help them, share my story and show them they can do anything in the future.”
The youngest of five who spent his childhood in a metropolis of close to 20 million people, Okeke grew up playing soccer and idolized the greats from the continent. In the classroom he was a good student and both of parents worked around the clock to provide food on the table.
He spent the first eight years of his life with his parents, but moved in with his older brother — who runs a small electricity business outside the big city — on his ninth birthday in an economic move to help split the costs from his mother and father.
“It was like growing up in New York,” Okeke explained. “There are people bumping into you all the time and crime going on. You had to pick your friends carefully; I learned a lot from my parents, siblings and friends to keep pushing forward.”
Though Okeke excelled at soccer, he kept growing in height. So much that a coach suggested he pick up a basketball. More than skeptical at first, Okeke eventually yielded.
“He said you’re too tall for soccer, why don’t you play basketball,” Okeke said. “For like a year he kept badgering me; I went to the court one day and he taught me the game. He gave me sneakers and shorts; I started playing and realized this was interesting.”
In the blink of an eye the wheels were in motion for a life-changing move.
Soon after stepping onto the court for the first time, Okeke met a man from Pennsylvania who recorded a video of his low post moves and uploaded it to YouTube. The film was eventually seen by Greens Farms Academy coach Doug Scott.
“The internet has made the world a smaller place and it’s amazing the relationships you have,” said Scott, who has more than a quarter century of coaching experience. “The first foreign player I brought in was about 12 years ago; now we get emails from foreign players a couple of times per week.”
Okeke then attended a camp in Nigeria — dubbed the Warlords Academy — where the most athletic big men are hoarded and showcased for schools across the globe. A bright student, Okeke’s opportunities stretched to almost any institution. Once Scott saw footage of the talented athlete an interview was set up on Skype.
After completing the admissions process and gaining acceptance to the prestigious school, there was one more hurdle to climb: finding a host family to take him in and welcome him into their home.
Enter the Litts.
With a pair of daughters attending GFA at the time, Michele and Michael Litt agreed to take Okeke in as a third child. What started as a host arrangement, it quickly morphed into something completely different. He refers to them as mom and dad and they are his legal guardians.
“Our daughter (Nicole) came home and told us about this opportunity,” said Michele Litt. “We looked at each other as a family and thought this would be a great opportunity. We had the room in our home and realized it could be amazing.”
Okeke was ready to take flight for the first time. With only his clothes and a few belongings in a bag, he began his journey halfway around the world and into another dimension. In order to help deal with the life-changing move, Okeke found motivation from a unique source.
“I was scared at first but I watched this movie Coach Carter,” said Okeke, referring to the 2005 film about a basketball coach who went above and beyond to stand up for his players. “What the coach was doing for his kids; telling them it’s not all about basketball. Basketball is good, but if I could get a degree in college it’s an opportunity to be someone in the future.”
The Litts greeted Okeke at the airport with a big poster and took him back to their home in Darien.
“I always tell people that it was a great leap of faith on both his and our part,” Michele Litt said. “If you had the chance to change someone’s life (for the better), wouldn’t you take it?”
With a solid home foundation in place, Okeke was free to focus on learning the game that would help him accomplish his goals. As he didn’t have much experience on the court, he entered a crash course that included the most basic of basketball skills.
“We have a very fundamental buildup process here,” Scott said. “We make it pretty simple; we spend two years trying to develop his inside low post game and we’ll spend the last two years developing his perimeter skills.”
He spent the first few months of life in America honing his craft in summer league and took summer classes at GFA to get a head start. He also had to put on weight — who arrived in the United States at 165 pounds and now weighs 240 — to prepare for the physical nature of playing in the frontcourt.
On the court, Okeke and the Dragons have tasted nothing but success.
GFA has won the last three New England Class C championships by stressing a team concept that exploits matchups. All five Dragons on the court are usually capable of making plays and Okeke is no different.
“He has a high motor,” Scott said. “He’s a force; I think the reason why colleges fall in love with him is because they see how hard he’s working and he’s everywhere in terms of impacting the game.”
Okeke suffered a minor knee injury and missed several games to start the season. The Dragons were put in an early hole but have since climbed out and are now 6-7 with the stretch run ahead.
Okeke also stars on the AAU circuit — for New Heights, a team based in Harlem, New York — and competed at the AAU national tournament in Las Vegas over the summer.
Okeke is following in the footsteps of Sean Obi, who also immigrated to the United States from Nigeria and graduated from GFA in 2012. After a stellar season at Rice University, Obi — who stands six-foot-nine — transferred to Duke and sat out the 2014-15 season. Obi has worked with Okeke in the offseason on his skills.
“After my freshman year he helped me to play better defense,” Okeke said. “Whenever he comes around, (assistant coach) Peter Deutsch makes us work out together in the post. I like to learn from Sean because he has experience.”
Okeke is now just like any high school junior in Fairfield County. He has a license and drives a car, takes family trips and has his entire future in front of him. He is currently being recruited by Ivy League and Pac-12 schools to ply his trade and prepare for the next.
The sky is now the limit for the talented individual on and off the court.
“I think he came here very mature,” Michele Litt said. “Now I’ve seen him become a leader in our family as being the oldest child left in the house. He also understands what he wants in his career; beyond coming here and playing basketball, he really wants to make a difference.”