Column: Fidelis Okereke has been quite the find for King/Drew's basketball team
“Go by him,” Woodland Hills Taft High coach Derrick Taylor shouted to one of his guards dribbling on a fast break against King/Drew in a City Section Open Division playoff game.
The player did exactly as he was told, beating his defender and was headed toward making a layup when 6-foot-6, 240-pound Fidelis Okereke suddenly elevated and swatted the ball away.
Seven times the ending was the same: shot rejected. Sometimes Okereke used two hands; other times it was one. His ability to leap quickly and protect the basket repeatedly caught everyone by surprise.
“I’ll stop anything,” Okereke said.
Okereke, whose parents came here from Nigeria, has become the most dominant basketball player in the City Section. He’s averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks for 22-7 King/Drew, which plays Westchester in the Open Division semifinals Saturday at 6 p.m. at Los Angeles Southwest College.
Okereke has had five triple-doubles this season in points, rebounds and blocks.
He’s done it in only his third year of organized basketball. He’s an example of why coaches still need to check P.E. classes for potential athletes.
King/Drew coach Lloyd Webster remembers spotting Okereke in a P.E. class when he was a freshman.
“I was walking through the lockers,” Webster said. “I was early and he was early. I noticed his physique. I asked one of the kids, ‘Why is a senior with the freshmen in P.E.? ‘
“‘Coach, he’s a ninth-grader, 13 years old.’ I didn’t believe him. I went to the counseling office and saw his birth certificate.”
Webster immediately wanted him to join the basketball team, but he learned Okereke’s father thought he was too young to play high school sports and wanted him to focus on academics, something very important to the Nigerian immigrant community.
Okereke was finally given permission to play as a sophomore. “We convinced the dad he would be a straight-A student and do well in basketball,” Webster said.
Each season, Okereke has become a better player and more passionate about basketball. His only prior experience was in an after-school program.
His development has helped put King/Drew on a historic path. The Golden Eagles won a Division II championship in 2018 and now are part of an Open Division Final Four that includes longtime powers Westchester, Fairfax and Birmingham.
Webster originally told Okereke he thought he could be an NCAA Division II player. Expectations have soared because of his development. His physicality, ability to block shots and improving skills around the basket indicate he isn’t done improving. Now Division I is possible.
“Honestly, I was thinking I’ve really come far,” Okereke said. “People like me sometimes become stagnant. I’ve pushed past every obstacle. It’s really about going past what people expect.”
King/Drew Medical Magnet allows students to work with hospital personnel and has been attractive to parents from Nigeria hoping their children become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. There are six players on the team with Nigerian backgrounds.
“For Nigerians, grades provide a lot for college success,” Okereke said. “America is seen as a fantasy with a bunch of opportunities. You get all A’s, get into a nice college, then a great job to support your mom and dad. That’s what they want at the end for you to be able to support them. That’s why grades are so important to them.”
Okereke has been under strict guidance to keep his grades high to be able to play. He’d be pulled from practice or games if his grade-point average fell below expectations.
Okereke is planning a future that includes basketball.
“I love basketball,” he said. “Even if I’m sore, I don’t care. Basketball is my path now. It takes you to another place when you’re on the court. It keeps your heart going.”