Parenting a Potential Star Athlete

Today’s New York Times has two articles in its sports section, each featuring a talented young Black male basketball player with NBA dreams. Jahlil Okafor, a 17 year old high school junior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago who stands at 6 feet 11 inches, is considered the top high school player in national rankings. He was offered a college scholarship when he was in the 8th grade, and now the best college coaches in the country are all offering scholarships. His story, found here, is one of hard work, focus, composure under pressure, and grace.

Some measure of that grace, composure and determination was born of tragedy: At 11, he watched his mother collapse and ultimately succumb to complications of bronchitis. He coped with this loss by burying himself in basketball, shooting outdoors for hours on end to avoid thinking about his mom. Fortunately, his father, Chukwudi Okafor, a former college basketball player (as was his wife), who works as an assistant for his son’s high school team, has been there every step of the way to guide him with respect to basketball and life in general. When Jahlil couldn’t find classmates and friends to play with him in the neighborhood because he was too tall and by his own admission “super competitive”, his father took him to neighboring courts and watched him play with the older players. While the elder Okafor has always encouraged his son’s ambitions, he didn’t push. As Jahlil explained, “He might tell me a few things, like put some more arc on your shot. But he wasnt coaching me, making me do push-ups every night, or anything like that.” His father confirmed that he doesn’t want his son to get lost in the all-encompassing world of basketball. He elaborated: “As far as coaches, media, recruiting? He doesn’t owe anyone anything, and I tell him that all the time.” Jahlil is a good student with an interest in British Literature, who blogs about his basketball recruiting experience for USA Today.

Years away from any college recruiter’s grasp is fifth grader Julian Newman, an 11-year-old, 4 feet 5 inch young man who plays with on his Orlando Florida school’s high school varsity team. He began this season on the middle school team, but was promoted to varsity when he scored first 69, then 91 points in games. Since joining the varsity squad he has led the team, which is coached by his father Jamie, from being at the bottom of its low-level league to dominance, with an 18-5 record. As the article found here details, Julian, whose basketball YouTube clips have attracted over a million viewers and interest from around the world, is obsessed with improving his skills. He sinks 100 free throws, 200 floaters and 200 jump shots every day, which can easily take three hours or more. Julian does not recall ever taking off more than two straight days from this regimen. His parents Jamie and Vivian Newman, who met when they were point guards for their rival Orlando high schools, consider Jamie a self driven prodigy. They describe him as a straight A student, motivated to study by their requirement of “homework before hoops” (although this has led him to rush through homework at recess so that he could get to the court after school).

Julian’s father, like Jahlil’s dad, saw the athletic potential in his son early and encouraged it. He gave his son regulation sized balls at age 3 and encouraged him to play against older boys in recreational leagues. While Julian’s chances at a professional career on the court can’t be predicted, both because of his age and his genetic makeup (with parents standing 5 foot 6 inches and 5 feet even, he is not expected to grow to 6 feet), this does not diminish his father’s hoop dreams. Says the proud father about his son: “He can do stuff that Chris Paul and Derrick Rose can’t.” Jamie has no plans to leave his job as coach of the high school team. And notwithstanding his strong interest in Jamie’s development as a player, he intends to keep his son at the school with him. His rationale: “if you can play, you can play. If it’s right for you academically and socially, by all means, stay there”.

Two young basketball players with great potential in the sport. Two fathers who have mentored their sons from an early age about the process of pursuing excellence. While it would have been good to learn more about their academic interests and focus in these articles, it appears that both boys are thus far on track to achieve on both sides of the student-athlete equation. I must confess that I wince a bit to read of a father entertaining thoughts of an NBA career for his 11-year-old, and hope that his zealous support of his son’s obsession doesn’t cloud his judgment with respect to his son’s academic and athletic potential. But it is insightful to view how both men have dealt with the challenges (and benefits) of raising sons with early signs of prodigious talent. And I have to say, it is great to read about these boys being guided by their strong, focused and loving fathers. GCP readers, how do you help your sons manage their sports superstar aspirations (regardless of their talent) and keep their eyes on the academic prize?? Details, please!

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