In one hand, Long Beach State freshman Onyedikachi “Benjamin” Okenwa clenches a basketball, securing it as a child does a toy. His hand is enormous, and he is easily able to grip the ball with his fingers. In the other hand, he holds a small towel, only occasionally and dutifully stepping onto the court of the Walter Pyramid to wipe the dripped sweat of the men’s basketball players who tower over him.
“Sometimes I get to participate in the drill,” he says; sometimes meaning he gets to pass the ball to the players actually engaged in the drill. But most of the time he stands patiently and, except for the appropriate shouts of encouragement, silently on the side of the court until it’s his time to bend to the floor and wipe away more sweat.
“He’s great. Out of all our volunteer managers, he’s probably one of the best,” says team captain Temidayo Yussuf. “I think he’s the best. When he’s here, he’s always 100 percent, 110 percent.”
Okenwa will tell you he always wanted to go to Cal State Long Beach and play basketball there. He doesn’t tell many people about his dream.
“Oh, he never told me that,” Yussuf said, “That’d be dope though if he did.”
He may be quiet, but internally he has no doubts about it, “I will be a college basketball player.
It’s a bold statement considering Long Beach State is a distinguished Division 1 program. Yes, the team, which plays its final game of the regular season Wednesday against UC Riverside, has a losing record overall (13-18) and in the Big West Conference (7-8), but any Division 1 program is chock-full of elite talented players, nearly all of whom were recruited as the best player at their high school.
Okenwa, who didn’t pick up a basketball until the summer before his senior year at Leuzinger High, isn’t what one would call “great” at basketball. To be honest, he really isn’t very good, certainly not Division 1 good. As his high school coach succinctly put it: “Benjie, you have no talent.”
Of course, this is completely beside the point for Okenwa. For him, anything is possible if one puts their mind to it. And his mind is always thinking about basketball. It has been ever since the day a friend dragged him along to watch their high school varsity team practice. Okenwa didn’t want to go because he found the high school players arrogant and intimidating.
“I was so scared. The team was sponsored by Jordan.” He says he was always “more like a book person than a basketball person.”
But his friend who first succeeded in drawing Okenwa to the practice, then dared him to step on the court when practice had concluded.
“I came down from the bleacher, took the basketball in my hands; I fell in love. I fell in love!”
Immediately, Okenwa sought out the basketball coaches, begging to play. He says that he begged to play even on the freshman or junior varsity teams, but one of the assistant coaches said that it was not possible for him to play on a team; any team. Okenwa didn’t take no for an answer. He went to practice with the varsity team and served as a team manager.
“Being on the team, watching them practice, it was heaven and earth for me,” he recalls. All he did was get water for the players and rack the basketballs. For most people, there is no glamour in this position, but for Okenwa, this was an honor. “I loved it I loved it! It was a privilege! It was amazing, I saw the beauty in the game.”
Okenwa would continue to show up to practices and serve the team, practicing with the team when he had the opportunity and on his own when he did not.
“I was with the team every single time. After practice, we’d do drills and stuff. Then I’d go home and practice. I recorded the practice and I would go back and study it.”
But his persistence did not lead to time on the court. All he wanted to do was play for the team, but he didn’t bother the coach with requests to do so, because “he’s the head coach and I have huge respect for him.” But finally, after all his hard work and persistence, he had to know what the coach thought of him.
Telling himself that the coach liked him, loved him, Okenwa asked: “Coach, what makes a good player? Am I that type of player?”
Okenwa says Leuzinger head coach Arturo Jones told him: “Benjie, you have no skill. You have no talent. Basketball is not for you.”
The words would be crushing to most, but Okenwa used them as motivation; in addition to assisting with team practices, he remembers working out at his local gym and dribbling in his backyard every day.
“Every day I came back. Every day I was working,” he says. “I believe I was made for basketball because it comes naturally to me. It came naturally to me.”
Okenwa is athletic. He is over six feet tall and has the long arms of a basketball player. But his shot is awkward, his movements can look uncoordinated and his eyes look at the floor while dribbling. Still, somehow, by the end of the season, he had earned himself a game jersey at Leuzinger, the school that produced NBA superstar, Russell Westbrook.
With a big smile on his face, he remembers, “I wore my jersey. They were clapping for me. They took a picture of me. The same coach who said I couldn’t do it took a picture of me.”
In the final game of the season, Okenwa’s team was playing for a league championship and that same coach put him in the game. He didn’t score, but he finished the game and, in his mind, he was a part of a team victory and a league title, a moment he says he foresaw: “I just trusted my love for the game, my passion for the game, to take me through.”
Okenwa’s story had a happy ending at Leuzinger, but a year later the next chapter of his career has him starting from the bottom again, wiping sweat and racking balls for the Long Beach State team. Although he is not currently playing for Long Beach State, Head Coach Dan Monson recognizes his importance to the team.
“Managers are very necessary,” he said. “It’s like a point guard for your big man, someone has to pass them the ball.”
Okenwa’s service to the team is recognized by the players themselves as well.
“First he came in kinda shy,” teammate Deishaun Booker said, “But we got him to open up. Now he always brings a smile and good energy.”
He says his drive has roots in his Nigerian upbringing.
“African culture is doing things the right way,” he says. “African culture is ‘do it yourself.’ Survival. When nothing is working, do it yourself.
“I feel like God called me to this game. I feel like the universe called me to this game. God made me play basketball because I never wanted to play basketball. And since he brought me to play, he’s going to see me through it.”
When asked what it would take for Okenwa to make the team, Monson emphasized that only two or three non-recruited students had ever walked onto his Long Beach team in 12 years. Monson noted that even when the rare position is available, it will at times be a guard-specific spot and at other times a forward-specific spot, and “he’s got to be the best of those because there’s obviously a lot of students that want to be a part of that.”
And then Monson was blunt about Okenwa’s chances of ever seeing the court: “If I was him, I wouldn’t plan on it.”
Then again, just last Friday, Cal State Fullerton manager Sammy Jones became an internet sensation after scoring an And-1 (basket while being fouled) in the final seconds of a game between Fullerton and Cal Poly.
“I don’t think I’ve smiled that big in a long time,” Jones said after the game.
One can only imagine the smile Okenwa will flash if, in his remaining years in college, his hoop dreams come true.
“I work hard,” he says. “I go to the gym every day. I work hard. Because I made it before, I’ll make it again. History repeats itself. I see my hard work, my dedication to the game. I’ll make it.”
And when he does, he already knows what number he will wear.
“Number 32, it’s Magic Johnson,” he says, smiling. “Flip it over and it’s Michael Jordan.”
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