Emeka Okafor: For a moment like this

by Dr. Wunmi Akintide

I must acknowledge, up front, that I got some help from two American Music idols in crafting this title The first is Kelly Clarkson an American Idol award winner who, in one split second, of amazing euphoria and excitement had composed a once-in-a-life time lyric titled “For a Moment like this” The second Music Diva that had started so well, but may have fumbled in managing her success probably due to what you might call husband pressure or “Lovingitis”, is our one and only Whitney Houston who, in her prime, had composed and sang her “One Moment in time” which is one of my favorite songs As I ponder what title to give this article, I could not help but draw my inspiration from the two songs. The first, some of you will recall, was simply a Love song from the heart while the second was mainly an inspirational one. I must confess that I got a heavy dose of both Love and inspiration as I reflect on the feat Emeka Okafor of Nigeria has just performed at my alma mater, the great University of Connecticut.

The article is therefore a tribute to excellence and a special congratulatory message to Emeka Okafor, his proud parents and Nigeria, his country of origin, and also to the great University of Connecticut and their Basket Ball Team and Coach, the great Mr. Calloun whose hard work, commitment and outstanding performance and tenacity of purpose, have always brought out the best in his players, making the State University the world center of gravity in College Basket Ball in the Leader of the free World and the new Canaan. The chemistry between the players and their Coach is not only first class, it is equally symptomatic of the mutual respect and understanding between the players themselves who have all come to regard Emeka not only as their Franchise player, but also as their “primus inter pares” You can easily judge that from Emeka’s masterful and unselfish distribution of the ball, as he carries the entire team on his shoulder, so to speak, in their well deserved victory. Only Jason Kidd the Franchise player in the Nets Basket Ball Team or the Great Sharquil O’neal of Lakers, was capable of playing a more dominant, helpful and selfless role that Emeka has played in bringing about the very glorious victory of his team. Which College Basket Ball Teams in America, Men and Women and which parents the world over, would not have craved a moment like the Emeka’s moment in History for their own children? It was simply an amazing feeling that had brought back to me the full impact of the unforgettable tracks and album I have just hinted in my opening paragraph.

I need you to be aware that I am wearing three caps in paying this tribute with all my heart. First and foremost, I am as proud as any Nigerian can be in the rising fortunes of our son, Emeka Okafor who has started his epic journey into the Basket Ball Hall of Fame in America in much the same way like the one and only Akeem Olajuwon,” the Dream” of the Houston Rockets had done is his prime. My second cap comes from the fact that I am also a father with a lot of pride not only in my own children, but also in all successful young kids with accomplishments and talents that are comparable or similar to those of Emeka of Connecticut. I fully believe in the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, and that when a kid is as good and as outstanding as the most valued player in College Basket Ball in this particular year and season, that child, in my opinion, no longer belongs to his own biological parents alone. In that unique sense I share almost the same pride in Emeka as I have always felt for all my kids who have done me proud on many unforgettable moments in my life. President JFK once spoke for the whole world and for all generations of mankind when he had opined that “Failure is, decidedly, an orphan but Success has many a parent” Emeka Okafor has, by that logic, become yours and my child and his success and triumph in his game have become ours as Africans and more importantly as Nigerians abroad without any exemption. I don’t know about you? I, for one will for a long time treasure and cherish that moment and as I make my way to the Storrs Main Campus of the University on Saturday to join in the Celebrations to honor and welcome the victorious Huskies back home to the Constitution State with pomp and pageantry.

Tell me, which father or mother will not be proud of a son like Chukwuemeka with his impeccable character and multiple talents? Emeka, we are told by his proud father, had come to Basket Ball purely by accident or Luck and as widely reported in the American press since Emeka has joined the wonder girl, Diana Taurasi in putting the State University of Connecticut on the World map of Basket Ball again, as the very first citadel of Learning in America to bag the Men and the Women Championship trophies in one and the same year and back to back in the Women’s game. That was a feat meant for the Guineas Book of records, and I am proud as hell that our own son Emeka Okafor of Nigeria was right at the cutting edge of that history-making event, and proving to the world at large, one more time too many, that Nigeria was created by Destiny to be a great country. The tragedy of our Nation is not in our stars, but in our leadership and their lack of vision and commitment to our common good as a people. It was the Romans who once crafted the statement “Mens sana in copore sano” meaning “A healthy mind in a healthy body” thus emphasizing the importance of Sports to healthy living, quite apart from heavy monetary gains that nowadays go along with spectacular performances in Sports all over the world, but most especially in the United States.

I still recall with pride and nostalgia one of our best military leaders in Nigeria in the early 60s and 70s, the great Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia who as Governor of Bendel, had made Bendel a show piece for Sports in Nigeria and Africa that any of his contemporaries and colleagues could not match. The Afuze magic as a Sports Mecca in Nigeria can be traced back to the great Governor There could possibly have been more of Akeem Olajuwons, more of Emeka Okafors and more of those Nigerian soccer idols like Fashanu and others now scattered over Europe making money in the name of Soccer and ploughing back to our country, some of those dividends in cash and kind and by way of investments in Sports Equipment Industries in Nigeria, thereby helping the nation’s economy to grow. They are also enhancing the Sports Image of our Country in very profound ways, in much the same way like Dikebe Mutombo is doing for the Congo Republic today by building a Medical Center for his people from the several millions he is making in God’s own country. Akeem Olajuwon who comes from a large family in Nigeria is known to have paved the ways for several of his half brothers and sisters to come study and to start making a living in this country quite apart from giving a helping hand to his lucky father in his old age. I am reliably informed Akeem is investing millions in building a Sneaker making Factory in the financial capital of Nigeria. You go to Olajuwon’s Mansion at Sugar Land Estate in Houston, Texas, and you see what Money can do and how Sports can transform a person and a nation. I think we can reasonably expect the same scenario, down the road, from this miracle kid otherwise known as Emeka Okafor.

Not to lose my focus, I told you I am wearing three caps in doing this eulogy for a worthy son of Nigeria. My third cap comes from the fact that I am also a proud alumnus of the University of Connecticut just like Emeka. I graduated in 1976 out of the University’s famous Institute of Public Service located at 1360, Asylum Avenue, out there in Hartford Connecticut with a few other distinguished Nigerians which include a personal friend of mine, who is today the Pro Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council of Adekunle Ajasin University, at Akungba, Akoko in Ondo State, Nigeria. The gentleman, I am talking about, is Dr. Bode Olajumoke now a practicing Attorney and also a member of the Board of Trustees of the ruling PDP Party in Nigeria. Based on my performance at the Institute in 1976, I was offered admission back to the main Campus of the University in 1980 for my post graduate studies in Political Science which I completed in 1983 on an in-service sponsorship by the Federal Public Service of Nigeria. That was years before the great Chinua Achebe, the prolific Nigerian writer and the world famous novelist had joined the same University as Associate Professor of English for many years before retiring back to Nigeria.

I am recalling all these to show that the University and Nigeria have come a long way. The University has played a remarkable part in educating a good number of Nigerians, and changing their life for good in multiple fields of endeavor. I feel a special sense of fulfillment and euphoria in being one of the first few Nigerians to recognize the potential of the University and what it could do for our country, when I later played a part in recommending the University as one of the three major Training Centers in America, offering in-service training to senior Federal public servants in my capacity as Executive Secretary, Staff Development or the Manpower Department of the Federal Ministry of Establishments under the first lady permanent secretary in the Federal Service of Nigeria, the one and only Mrs. Francisca Yetunde Emmanuel. Under the contract that the Federal Government had signed with the University of Connecticut, Arthur D. Little Program in Harvard University, in Boston, Massachusetts, and the University of Pittsburg. A lot of Nigerian public servants and military personnel were privileged to do their post graduate studies in the three Universities under the sponsorship of the Federal Government. I suspect Governor Umar of Kaduna and the late Joseph Garba of blessed memory and a few others may have gone to Harvard years later under a similar contract.

Professor Milton Tenzer of the Public Affairs Department of the University at the time had a unique vision of how the University which had started as an Agriculture Institute before becoming a full fledged University with a student population of more than 25,000 students with multiple Campuses spread all over the state of Connecticut, can work in collaboration with the Manpower Department of the Nigerian Public Service. So the University Management was well aware of the Human Resource and potential of Nigeria probably before Emeka was born. That time-honored collaboration had prepared the grounds for the subsequent emergence of distinguished students like Emeka I am extremely proud to be a part of that vision. That move had attracted a lot of Nigerians and their relatives to see and be aware of the limitless opportunities opened to them at Connecticut. One of such students I cannot forget, was a classmate and a friend of mine named Fabian Obot an ordained pastor from the Olumba Olumba Obu’s Church or Mission in Calabar or Ikot Ekpene area of Nigeria I am sure that Emeka Okafor was recruited on merit to the University by the great Coach, Mr. Calloun on a Sports Scholarship. But Emeka would have been told of so many Nigerian alumni of the University who had left a record of academic and sports excellence, that the young Nigerian could look up to and build upon. The University was home away from home for many Nigerian scholars, and I am delighted the collaboration is producing many more achievers like Emeka Okafor as we speak.

With a 3.8 GPA in Finance, Emeka is far from being a hybrid of beauty and the Beast, if I can use that expression. Emeka is an outstanding Basket Ball player, he is a brilliant student who was destined to distinguish himself in any field of endeavor. He is the type that is often described as an All American kid with the greatest potential and ability and charisma to succeed in life, and to be a wonderful inspiration to younger kids in this country and ours. We all have to thank God for Emeka and his parents for not beating about the bush in finding out their son’s strength, and knowing precisely how to get him a head start that has today made him the envy of all parents and a cynosure of all eyes for all young boys of his age. Most kids of his age bracket embrace Sports probably because they do not have the brain power to go into academics and be very successful at it. Not so with Emeka who could easily have been retained as a graduate assistant in the University preparatory to being offered a job as a Lecturer, because he has got what it takes to excel in his chosen field of Finance and Management. Not to worry, he is definitely going to need the sound education he has acquired in the University, as he gets drafted into the Big League and the multi millionaire club of professional Basket Ball players in the land of opportunities that America has become to the whole world.

It may not be appropriate for me to end this tribute without going back to memory lane to try and reappraise what Life could have been for this icon of a young man if he had he never left the shores of our country. There are many of our young kids in Nigeria today who can kill to get the same kind of opportunities that Emeka has been blessed with, which is precisely what I am celebrating in this tribute. In a country where Sports has only become the only area of progress in our country and probably the only glue now holding our fragile union together. You never see our countrymen openly identify with our country except on occasions when our National Football Teams have made some inroads into some world Championships or when some of our major Music idols make us proud through their wonderful music which has captured the attention of the world in very profound ways. If you discount those two sectors, all you hear about Nigeria are stories of woes and frustrations galore in our Government and national political leadership. The other area is Religion and Faith for many in our country would tell you, were it not for the grace of God and Allah, the geographical expression called Nigeria would never have survived this long, given all the adversities the country has faced from 1914, and more importantly from 1960. That we are still able to call ourselves one Nation under God is in of itself, a miracle, if you ask me. Emeka Okafor may well be a part of that miracle in his own little way. Praise God, Amen.

The major tribes namely the Hausa/Fulani, the Yorubas and the Ndigbos are all at each others throat . You will think the minorities in the country will be different. They are not. The only things that unite us today are just the two areas I have mentioned here. If our leaders are more sensitive to our collective needs as a people, they would have sought to reinforce the common grounds or what we all seem to agree on, and to use that as a stepping stone to start addressing the bigger issues that divides us. Sports is decidedly one of those issues that unite us. Any rational President or Leader in our country would not fail to see that and to capitalize on it to the extent possible just like some of them are now using Alleluyah and Insha Allah to consolidate our country in some ways. I only hope they are not going to overplay their hands, because Nigeria, for all her religious fanatics, here and there, is still a secular country by Law.

I can tell you there are hundreds if not thousands of Emeka Okafors in all the nook and corners of our country from Port Harcourt to Baga on Lake Chad and from Abakpa Nike to Girei or Potiskum. The talents all abound in all these places. You can tell from the number of Nigerian Soccer players now playing professional soccer in different football Clubs in Europe and other places around the world. You can see they all come from all parts of Nigeria, even though majority of them come from the South East, the South West and the South/South, We do occasionally find talents from the North as well. I am not sure, if individuals like Haruna Ilerika and names like Babangida are Nigerians just out to play games with their names, in order to get some special favors. I have to believe some of them have come from the North of the River Niger. My point, here, is that talents are not just limited to the southern segment of our country and they clearly defy quota. I remember that the late Usman Katsina the first Military Governor of Northern Nigeria under General Gowon in the early 60s was a big talent in Polo and he did represent the country in several tournaments. Just like you hear of the late Rex Akpofure, the first Nigerian Principal of Kings College who was, at one time, the captain of the Nigerian Cricket team. There were also names like Onibokun and Lawrence Awopegba in Tennis. Mike Okpalla in Wrestling, Hogan Kid Bassey our first World Boxing champion and Dick Ihetu Tiger our first Middle Weight Boxing Champion, not to talk of famous Soccer idols like Thunder Teslim Balogun, The great Onyeawunna, the great Okwudili, the great Dejo Fayemi, the great Omoakaechi, the great Segun Odegbami and so many others that time and space may not permit me to mention in any detail in this tribute.

Can you imagine how many more Emeka Okafors are right now rotting away in a huge country of 130 million people in your own neck of the woods in Odi, Ifite Oraifite, Ngbidi, Umuahia Ibeku, in the South east or Imeri, Idoani, Amurin, Mogunyanje, Zion Pepper, Obe Jedo, Igbo Nla, ijaw Arogbo, Agbagada all in Ilaje Ese-Odo in Ondo State not to talk of Gwagwalada, Okene, Birnin Kebbi, Argungu, Gusau, Shagari, Girei, Saki Ibiam, Gboko, in the old North or Buguma, Ogoni, Elemealesa, Okrika and so many hamlets and villages in our country. The only thing they need for their emancipation from poverty, disease, and human degradation are more opportunities to be all they can be like their country man in Connecticut who has now tipped the scale of wealth and fame in the new Canaan. How on Earth can we not all hope for more of the Emeka moments for all our children around the world?

All I can say, without any fear of contradiction, is that the older generation of Nigerian Sports men in their own right have all prepared the way for the emergence of the latest sensation in Basket Ball that we are all very proud of today. I pray for one shining moment like this in my own family. Wouldn’t you?

I say hearty congratulations to Emeka and his parents and wish them God’s speed and long life and prosperity. And to the younger ones coming behind, I say you too can fly, if you try.

I rest my case.

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