Turkish Airlines Euroleague
May 19, 2013
bwin Euroleague Fantasy Challenge
Tel Aviv 2004
Qualifying Rounds 2012
NIKE International Junior Tournament
Berlin basketball, from the heart: Ademola Okulaja
One of Berlin's most successful players ever,
, came to the city at age three from Nigeria with his older brother and their German mother. As a boy, he tried several other sports - handball, swimming, rugby among them – before basketball. "Then I moved to streetball, and that's where I fell in love with the sport," Okulaja recalls. "You're outside. One-on-one, three-on-three, five-on-five. No refs. No rules. It's man against man, and if you're too soft, you sit on the sidelines."
He was never soft. During his out-of-nowhere rise to international prominence, Okulaja earned a spot-on nickname: "The Warrior". It rings truer now than ever as Okulaja battles cancer discovered less than a year ago. But even as he fights the disease himself, Okulaja is also fighting for other patients like him, in particular those at the Children's Cancer Station of the Virchow Hospital Charité in Berlin. Earlier this year, while still in treatment himself, Okulaja was already raising money for the Cancer Station by selling a limited-edition shirt: "The Warrior will be Back". On Thursday, he will join with players from the Final Four teams on an inspiration visit to the children patients at the same hospital.
"It's always been great to help people, especially kids, who are so innocent. Now, after being sick myself, I know exactly what they're going through, so I can feel and talk to them on a totally different level," Okulaja says. "When I say, 'Keep you're head up, you're going to make it', I know what I'm talking about. It's not just something to say. The meaning is there in an honest way and there's something special between us."
Okulaja first played organized basketball rather late, at age 14, but moved quickly through Alba Berlin's youth programs and feeder clubs. "For me, the whole time, it was just fun, going out there and burning energy," he says. "I didn't even know you could make money playing basketball." His first full pro season proved historic as Alba won Germany's first and only European trophy, the 1995 Korac Cup. Before 10,000 fans in Berlin, the 19-year-old Okulaja lifted with deserved pride after playing 20 minutes a game as the youngest finals participant by three years. "I learned a lot from some great teammates," he says.
By the next season, however, Okulaja was gone from Berlin. The legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith had flown over the Atlantic to see him play and soon offered Okulaja a scholarship. "From day one, my mother always pushed me: education first, then sports," Okulaja says. "And she was strict. She said 'Do what you need to do, but school goes first.' She was happy for me making Alba's first team, but in the end she was happier that I got a scholarship to UNC and would get a degree."
Okulaja's success continued as he was named North Carolina’s team MVP in 1999, after his fourth and final season there. Soon, he returned to Europe as a pro, becoming a double-digit scorer in four different countries - Spain, Germany, Italy and Russia - and a medalist at the 2002 World Championships with the German national team. Last summer, however, as the national team readied for its first Olympics in a generation, Okulaja learned that a weeks-old nagging back injury was not the recurrence of a pinched nerve, as he had thought. Instead, a tumor was found to have cracked a vertebrae in his spinal column. Then the tumor was found to be cancerous.
Nine months later, after an operation and chemotherapy that left him bed-ridden for days at a time, The Warrior has come back strong. "I'm not ready to leave early," he says now. "I've got a family and two beautiful kids and they're what I am here for and placed on this earth to do."
On his own, while recovering this winter, Okulaja enrolled in Euroleague Basketball's Master in Sports Marketing and Communication. As such, he is also going home to Berlin for the Final Four as a student, with the rest of the course participants.
"I am not a guy to put my head in the sand and quit," Okulaja says. "That's the reason I am in the marketing course, as something to work on for my future. My mentality is to keep fighting no matter what is thrown in front of me."
Monday, April 27, 2009
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NIKE International Junior Tournament
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2008-09 ALL-EL TEAM, MVP
FINAL FOUR SLIDE SHOW