The building blocks of Chris Obekpa
As the sun scorched the outdoor court, Chris Obekpa watched his older brother play. Hours passed as Ofu Obekpa and his friends sweated and laughed together during pick-up basketball games played on the hard, dry ground outside their village of Otukpo in Benue State, Nigeria. Chris -- 15 years younger -- followed them and sat on the sidelines, an adolescent waiting his turn.
In 2001, then-23-year-old Ofu moved to the United States to attend the University of Maine at Machias, playing one season of basketball. As the years passed while he was away, one of Ofu's friends began teaching Chris the game. He showed him basic drills, ran with him down their neighborhood's dusty streets and taught him how to lift weights. Soon, Chris joined the pick-up games.
In one of the matchups, Chris spontaneously jumped up and swatted away an opponent's shot. On the next play, he tried again, "but this time, he came and put his elbow right on my chest," Obekpa says, laughing. "But I loved [shot-blocking] the first time I tried, so I kept doing it."
What he couldn't realize then was where that combination of instinct, quickness and purpose would lead him -- from passion plays on the makeshift courts of Nigeria to his current standing as the nation's second-best collegiate shot-blocker for St. John's (Obekpa's 4.4 blocks per game trail Kentucky's Nerlens Noel's 4.6).
Obekpa didn't have access to watch NBA games at home, so Ofu mailed him instructional basketball DVDs and one of Phil Jackson's books. Chris studied and worked, particularly on defense. On one of Ofu's visits home several years later, Chris, then 14 and standing 6-foot-4, suggested a one-on-one matchup.
"I was going for a layup and before I knew it, my ball was on the other side of the court," the 6-2 Ofu says. "I was like, 'Wow, that was insane.' I'd told him to focus on the strengths of his game -- that was definitely one of them."
Their father, Prince Gabriel Obekpa (their family is royalty), stressed education above athletics to all 10 of his children. Most of their friends were more interested in soccer, but as Chris grew and played more basketball, rumors of his talent spread.
In 2008, Chris played for the Nigerian U-16 national team. His coaches began contacting U.S. high schools to see if he might have an opportunity to play in the states. The Obekpa family is Christian and stressed finding a school that practiced Christianity.
Chris arrived in the U.S. in September 2010, living with a host family and enrolling as a junior at Our Savior New American in Centereach, N.Y., a school that often enrolls international students.
The adjustment wasn't too difficult, he says, though he missed his family. The biggest change was "the cold weather -- I can't do the cold," Obekpa says. He was intrigued by American cuisine but avoided fast food and stuck to his favorite staple from home: rice.
"I had never seen him play before," says Pastor Ron Stelzer, the head basketball coach and headmaster at Our Savior New American. "He was kind of raw and had some physical attributes that were positive, but I didn't realize he'd be as phenomenal a shot-blocker as he is. ... Without a doubt, he's the most potent defender around the basket that I've ever had."
By the start of his senior season, several collegiate programs had noticed Obekpa's talent, including St. John's. Coach Steve Lavin remembered one of the first games he watched Obekpa play. "I think he finished the game with 20-plus blocks and one foul -- I'd never seen anything like that in my coaching or broadcasting career," Lavin says. "And it was against a good team."
Obekpa grew to 6-8 and led Our Savior to an 18-3 record. Rivals.com ranked him the No. 15 center in the Class of 2012. After hearing from numerous Division I schools -- UConn, DePaul and UCLA, among others -- Obekpa whittled his suitors down to three: Cincinnati, Oregon and St. John's.
Last spring, a Cincinnati paper predicted the Bearcats won the recruiting battle. But on June 11, 2012, Obekpa tweeted a photo of himself dressed in a St. John's shirt and wearing a Johnnies baseball cap, the St. John's logo on a wall behind him. "Keeping my talent in the MECCA," he wrote.
He'd watched several St. John's games throughout the year and wanted to stay close. And he liked the future teammates and coaching staff he'd met during his recruiting visit. "The first time I met Coach [Lavin], he was funny and nice," Obekpa says. "I thought, 'If he's this nice off the court, he's someone I could work with on the court.'"
Obekpa also realized he'd have a chance to make an impact early. After a strong 2010-11 season led by 10 seniors, 2011-12 was a struggle for the Red Storm. Several key players were declared ineligible, decommitted or transferred, leaving a roster dominated by freshmen. On a more serious note, Lavin was diagnosed with prostate cancer and missed all but four games during the 13-19 season.
Anxious for a better 2012-13, Obekpa's teammates had heard whispers of his shot-blocking prowess. But they were still surprised after witnessing it for the first time.
"We were scrimmaging this summer and someone had a clear lane to the layup and out of nowhere, you see these long arms blocking it and sending the ball down the court," says sophomore starter Phil Greene IV. "I was like, 'Oh wow, it's going to be fun this year.'"
In St. John's first 19 games, Obekpa blocked 87 shots, averaging 4.58 per game. He tied the St. John's single-season record (76) in only 15 games and, with 101 through Saturday, could possibly double that record before the season's conclusion. The NCAA single-season record is 207, held by David Robinson. In 2011-12, Anthony Davis set a freshman record of 186. Obekpa has a chance to break both.
On Dec. 8 in a home game against Fordham, Obekpa set another school record, blocking 11 shots (one short of tying the Big East record). In the postgame news conference, Fordham coach Tom Pecora was asked about Obekpa's performance.
"Obviously, he's a defensive force," Pecora said. "We showed tape of him. We said if you bring it to the rim soft, he's going to go get it. And you know, he did. He is a very talented shot-blocker."
And despite starting the game at a later age than many of today's Division I players, he has a high basketball IQ. "I was taken right away by his basketball intellect in terms of his judgment and choices on the floor," Lavin says. "Chris is a high-level processor."
Throughout the season, Obekpa has flip-flopped between the No. 1 and No. 2 spots as the nation's top shot-blocker with Noel. Noel, ranked as the top center in the Class of 2012 by Rivals.com, was more highly recruited than Obekpa, who, despite standing 6-9, has a 7-5 wingspan. The 19-year-old has appeared in every game for the Red Storm, one of only two freshmen to do so.
Perhaps even more unique, he prefers focusing on defense, on setting screens for his teammates and on passing the ball. "I think 99 percent of players of his generation are focused on offense, scoring points and working on individual moves with the ball in their hands," Lavin says. "Chris is a throwback, a Nate Thurmond or a Bill Russell who takes such great pride on the defensive side of the court."
He's also become a crowd favorite. During home games, a portion of the student section often holds up a poster with Obekpa's face on it each time he tallies another block, forming a line of images much like when baseball fans track a pitcher's strikeouts with a row of "K" signs.
Obekpa has several nicknames, including "The GameChanger." The moniker is so popular that St. John's is printing T-shirts to sell in bookstores and online with the word "#GameChanger" and an image of a hand -- presumably Obekpa's.
Ofu Obekpa, who lives in Atlanta and has attended several St. John's games this season, has another nickname for his brother: O-block-pa.
"He knows when to stay down and how to time shot blocks perfectly," Greene says. "He catches it right at its peak and blocks it. You think you have a clear lane and he comes out of nowhere."
Obekpa meditates before every game for 10 minutes, which he says helps him focus. He also watches film of former and current NBA players -- Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Serge Ibaka and Hakeem Olajuwon -- and tries to emulate their play.
On Jan. 14, after averaging 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 rejections in two games, Obekpa was named the Big East rookie of the week. Despite their young starting lineup of freshmen and sophomores, the Red Storm are off to a solid 15-8 start, thanks in large part to the defensive prowess of Obekpa.
Lavin says that he hasn't noticed teams changing their offense when facing Obekpa; rather, they try to get him into foul trouble. Still, "he closes down or opens very quickly around the basket area, like a cloud blocking out the sunshine -- a skyscraper that comes across the lane," Lavin says. "His sense for when to help and his instincts are aspects that are difficult to teach. They're innate, and he has them. ... The physical gifts in terms of his length, his nimble feet and his sense of timing, to understand when and how to block shots, distinguishes him from any player I've ever coached."
Obekpa has also improved offensively of late, hitting key jump shots in three important wins. He's a work in progress at the free throw line, hitting 11-for-35 (32 percent) on the season.
Off the court, Obekpa cracks jokes and smiles often. His roommate, Greene, who says Obekpa was so quiet on his recruiting visit that he'd only nod his head in response to questions, says Obekpa is now one of the more outgoing team members. He loves to watch action movies and Johnny Depp films. Obekpa orders so often from a neighboring Chinese restaurant that they have his order memorized, and he loves the food trucks often parked on New York City's streets.
Obekpa says he'd like to play in the NBA one day. But for now, he's focused on this season and returning the Johnnies to the NCAA tournament. (St. John's lost to Gonzaga in the first round of the Big Dance in 2011; prior to that, the Red Storm's last tournament trip was in 2002.) And he might have more records to break -- Obekpa is determined to best his personal record of blocked shots in a game (20).
"I love the feeling after blocking the shot," Obekpa says. "It's the way you feel when you dunk on someone -- you feel accomplished and with that block, you just stopped a basket and that could maybe win a game."
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