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Jonesboro's Okeke on a new level

Basketball didn’t come easy to Cardinals' big man, but that’s changed

Photo by Derrick Mahone
Once cut from his middle school team, Jonesboro’s Chukedubem Okeke has emerged as a college prospect the last couple years.

Photo by Derrick Mahone Once cut from his middle school team, Jonesboro’s Chukedubem Okeke has emerged as a college prospect the last couple years.

Chukedubem “Duby” Okeke’s love for the game is the reason why he didn’t quit when he easily could have.

It would seem easy for a 6-foot-6 athlete to make the basketball team. But Okeke dealt with a tall dose of harsh reality when he tried out for M.D. Roberts Middle School’s eighth-grade squad — and was turned away.

When Okeke got to Jonesboro and made the freshman team, he would like to say it was because he had vastly improved.

The truth is, though, he may have been extended a little grace.

“I wouldn’t say I really got that much better from eighth to ninth grade,” said Okeke, who is gearing up for just his fourth year of playing organized basketball. “I maybe improved a little bit, but coach Chris McCord, the freshman coach at the time, is really why I’m here. Really, Jonesboro just gave me a chance.”

Despite limited experiences in competitive play, the 6-foot-8, 220-pound rising senior — who says he patterns his game after NBA players Amar’e Stoudamire and Serge Ibaka — said he’s always had the game in his heart, even if it wasn’t his first love.

He got his early basketball fix by playing street ball and pick-up games, while playing on his middle school’s football team.

That is until some parental influence caused him to make a change.

“It was kind of because of my mom,” said Okeke of why he made the switch. “She would get on me about how dangerous football is, so I just decided I’d leave it alone. I could’ve probably been a wide receiver or a good defensive end. Sometimes I wish I stuck with it a little bit, but I’m focused on basketball now.”

It is that focus that has put a smile on Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman’s face for the last three years as he has watched Okeke grow from a raw talent to a potentially elite player.

“By far, he is the most athletic big man in the state of Georgia,” Maehlman said. “His development has been unbelievable — probably more than any other player I’ve had in my 14 years of coaching.”

Okeke belongs to a class of eight seniors that Maehlman calls “sons.” They make up the core of a Jonesboro squad that went 26-5 last season, including an appearance in the 2012 final four. And though Okeke’s rise has been a quiet one, Maehlman says his importance to the Cardinals’ success definitely cannot be ignored.

“Duby doesn’t get a lot of attention. Most of the time all you hear about is our guards,” Maehlman said. “But we would not nearly be as successful without him. If you take him away from last year’s team, we might’ve won 20 games, but we won’t go as far in the playoffs. He is by far the key to our team.”

And after a junior season where he averaged 14 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks a game, the scariest thing for Southern Crescent coaches is that Okeke perhaps hasn’t even tapped the beginning of his potential yet.

“I don’t even think he understands how good he could be,” Maehlman said. “Once he gets to college and has more time to dedicate to the weight room and basketball, he has a chance athletically to play on the next level.”

North Carolina State, George Mason, Nebraska and Seattle University are among the Division I schools beginning to take notice of Okeke’s potential. Okeke said Appalachian State may be the first to offer. Once the season starts, Maehlman expects more.

And although Okeke’s relationship with basketball may have started off on the wrong foot, he now feels comfortable with his hoops love affair.

“I just want more of the game,” Okeke said. “After my career here at Jonesboro, I’ll just be trying to find ways to be involved with basketball in any way possible.”