If not for COVID-19, it’s likely that AK Okereke would have received serious looks for a Division-I basketball scholarship.
Just ask those who watched the 6-foot-7 forward play.
“I think everyone was sleeping on him,” said Demetrius Porter, who coached Okereke in AAU basketball.
“No pandemic, he would probably have several Division-I offers.”
The unique thing about Okereke, who led the Clovis North boys’ basketball team to the Central Section Open Division playoffs last season, was that he didn’t need his on-court talent to gain admittance into America’s prestigious universities.
A 4.72 GPA in the classroom made Okereke a valedictorian and helped him earn acceptance letters from Notre Dame, Cornell and UCLA. Hours spent in the gym were followed by more hours working on homework from his AP and honors classes.
“It was school, then practice right after, then church after that, and coming home to eat, shower, and do homework after that,” Okereke said. “[The scholarships] were a dream come true, really. The long nights staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. getting projects done, pushing myself… once I opened up those acceptance letters, I realized it was all worth it.”
Okereke balanced a busy academic life with a starring role on the court. He became the Broncos’ top scorer his senior year, a result of his new, more aggressive offensive approach.
“What I think changed with him is that he became a lot more aggressive at shooting the three,” said Clovis North boys’ basketball head coach Tony Amundsen. “His sophomore year, he was trying to fit in with the team, so he would get his baskets where he could, going to the rim and rarely shooting threes. Then his junior year, I was begging him to shoot more because I knew he could shoot the ball.”
Enter Porter and the Elite Basketball Organization, also known as EBO, who approached Okereke about joining their AAU team after his junior season.
AK agreed, and Porter turned him into a confident scorer by surrounding him with other talented Central Valley hoopers.
“It had to be kind of like a sink or swim situation,” Porter said. “You can’t take a day off when you’re going against A.J. George every day. You can’t take a day off when you’re going against Jaden Geron. You’ll get embarrassed.”
Okereke said it was “a tough start” but he built chemistry with his new teammates, and EBO held its own on the tournament circuit.
“We were going to Arizona,” Okereke said. “We were going to Utah, playing the top competition. It was a grind there, because we were playing against Division-I athletes. Coming back here, I was like, ‘If I can score on them, I can definitely score on these guys.’”
Okereke averaged 22.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game his senior year. He saved his best for the last game of his high school career, recording 39 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and six blocks in a state playoff loss to then-state No.7 Chaminade
Unfortunately for AK, his big season coincided with a period where recruits struggled to get noticed by colleges, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s so many college players that are in the transfer portal, and that narrowed his chances of finding a place because these Division-I teams are picking up kids from other colleges that are transferring,” Amundsen said. “The COVID year has been tough on the 2021 class.”
Thus, Okereke plans to attend Cornell without a basketball scholarship, but with a major in economics in mind. His love for basketball is still there, but those who know AK realize he is bound for more than basketball.
Porter said he told the EBO team: “All you guys have NBA dreams and it’s cool. But AK is going to either make it to the NBA, or he’s going to be owning y’all in the NBA, because that’s how smart he is.”