Okafor's goal: 'Best of all time'


Okafor's goal: 'Best of all time'

Jahlil Okafor has been asked a lot of questions by media, coaches, recruiting analysts and fans since he emerged as one of the most celebrated high school basketball players in the country. But Whitney Young's 6-foot-11, 265-pound center had never been asked anything like this.

Would you rather be (1) the best basketball player who ever played the game, (2) President of the United States or (3) the richest man in the world?

The 16-year-old sophomore didn't hesitate to respond.

"I want to be the best basketball player of all," he said.

"President doesn't appeal to me, all that pressure, people loving you and hating you. And being the richest man doesn't mean you are happy.

"But if I'm the best basketball player, I'd be happy. I would take great joy in it. That's what I want to be."

Okafor said Michael Jordan is the best basketball player he has ever seen. But Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon are the three best big men he has seen. Each of them has been important, influential, motivating and inspirational factors on his life.

"Duncan was so skilled, the first big man I started to watch in fifth grade. People said I looked like him so I started to watch him. Hakeem was so skilled on the block. He had great post moves, what I try to have in my game. Shaq was so dominant on the floor, what I want to be. He overpowered people."

What is so amazing about Okafor is he has accumulated scholarship offers from more major Division I programs and is rated more highly than Simeon's Jabari Parker at the same stage. Yet, like Parker, he remains down-to-earth and grounded with a degree of maturity that turns critics into believers.

"He is the same person he was when he came in as a ninth grader -- except he is three inches taller," Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. "His demeanor and the way he handles himself haven't changed.

"It has to do with his upbringing. His father has done a phenomenal job. He has great values. He is positive, very respectful. What is important to him? Having fun and being able to play. He recognizes the enormity of his skills and the opportunities ahead of him."

Okafor credits his father, his aunts and uncles and his family for keeping him grounded. "They keep me away from all the media and the hoopla. I'm aware of it but my dad keeps me away from it. They make sure I don't get big-headed. My dad tells me: 'The taller they are, the harder they fall.' They try to keep me humble," he said.

He admits he has been awestruck only once, when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski walked unannounced and totally unexpected into Whitney Young's gym at 6:00 a.m. to observe a preseason workout.

"I take everything in stride," Okafor said. "But I was surprised when coach K. came to the school to see me play in open gym at 6 in the morning before the season began. I wasn't expecting him to come. I felt good about myself. I was humble to see him watch me play. No, I wasn't nervous. It was just basketball. I don't get nervous on the court. It said to me that he wants me to go to his program, that he thinks I'm a pretty good player."

But Okafor also admits that it didn't dawn on him that he had a big-time future in the game until he finally defeated his father in a one-on-one duel when he was in eighth grade. His father Chuck, who is 6-foot-5, played at Bowen and Western Arkansas, a Division II school.

"The NBA has always been my main goal," he said. "In third grade, the teacher asked: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I said I want to be a NBA player. In eighth grade, when I started to think I could play in the NBA, there was no doubt in my mind that I could achieve my goals.

"In eighth grade, when I beat my dad 21-8, something I had been trying to do for a long time, it boosted my confidence. I was 6-foot-8 at the time. I couldn't guard him when he went to the rim. He was too strong for me. But, that time, when he went to the rim, I blocked his shots and tried to put a whupping on him. I felt if I could beat my dad I could beat anyone."

Okafor doesn't have to impress anyone anymore. "He is the quintessential post player. He is running the floor on offense much better, from block to block, with a greater level of efficiency. Now he is starting to focus on defense and rebounding, to be more mobile than before," Slaughter said.

He has scholarship offers from Illinois, DePaul, Duke, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa, Connecticut, North Carolina State, Georgetown, Arkansas and...well, the list just keeps getting bigger. Kentucky and Kansas also are expressing interest. Remember, he has two more years to impress recruiters. And he has no timetable.

"I'm not in a hurry. I'm taking it all in, taking my time, making sure I make the right decision," he said. "What am I looking for? I want to go to the NBA. I want to make an impact right away. I want to have great players around me. I want to be Player of the Year and win a national championship. Then I won't stay for another year."

He doesn't take losing lightly. Last year's 16-9 finish, despite injuries to key players and a schedule that would be the envy of an NBA team, Okafor was disappointed that Whitney Young didn't play up to expectations. He vows to bolster his production in 2012-13 and is determined to improve all aspects of his game.

"Last season was very frustrating. We played great teams. We could have easily won all the games we lost but we made minor mistakes and turnovers and missed free throws," he recalled.

"It taught me that you must expect the unexpected, that I have to take a huge role when players are hurt. I'm a lot more serious this year. I want to average 13 or more rebounds and 5-6 blocks per game. I want to block a lot more shots than last year. My scoring will come. I can score on the block whenever I want to. I'm focusing on defense.

"To me, basketball is a lot of fun. I don't see it as a job now. I see it as being my job of the future. I take it seriously. My dad says when I don't want to play basketball I can stop. He will support me no matter what. If I didn't play basketball, what would I do? I'd like to be a veterinarian. I like animals a lot. I used to have a Great Dane. And I always watched the movie Lion King. But basketball is something I want to do now."

After seeing Jabari Parker on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Okafor added another goal to his list.

"I'm happy for him. I would like it to happen to me," he said. "My family warns me that there are a lot of bad temptations out there in the world. I don't know what to expect. I know I have to make the right choice."

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.

“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”

There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.

There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.

“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”

After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.

This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.

Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.

“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.

“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”

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As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.

The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Positives were difficult to find in last Thursday’s 26-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. So maybe the place to look for improvement lies in just getting rid of a few negatives.

As far as positives, Leonard Floyd would be the obvious one, with two sacks, one a strip and fumble recovery for a TD. Ka’Deem Carey would be another, with 10 carries for 48 yards, his second straight game with high-impact running; Jordan Howard has been shackled for two weeks, so the Bears have needed another backfield-committee member contributing. Jeremy Langford may have trouble finding work when he comes back from his ankle injury.

But negatives have far outweighed positives, which is how you get to 1-6. Fixing three of those will go a long way toward improving their chances against a Minnesota Vikings team that appeared eminently beatable in losing at Philadelphia on Sunday:

Stop the penalty hemorrhaging

For the third straight game the Bears had 10 penalties walked off against them. This "streak" started after eight infractions in the win over Detroit. The 10 in Green Bay cost the Bears 108 yards in a game where their offense netted just 189. Seven of the penalties were charged to the defense, six of which gave the Packers first downs.

The three offensive penalties were mental. A wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) lined up offsides. The quarterback (Matt Barkley) drew a delay flag. An offensive lineman (Ted Larsen) was illegally downfield.

All of which point to a discipline problem getting worse, not better. Whether the fault lies with players losing focus or coaches not instilling a mindset is a debate, but meaningless if the problem is not addressed. “There were a lot of penalties out there,” said cornerback De’Vante Bausby, who committed three of those penalties. “We had a good scheme and plan but we just didn’t finish in the second half as a group.”

Stop the dinking

While Brian Hoyer replacing Jay Cutler scaled back the downfield element of the offense, the loss of an emerging Kevin White should not be understated. The de facto rookie may not have gotten in the end zone but he was leading the team in receptions before he suffered a broken leg in the win over Detroit.

Since the loss of White, however, the offense has shrunk. The Bears averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt through four games with White. Without White the average is 7.0, and that is including the blip in Indianapolis, which stands as a complete anomaly. The average was 5.9 in the Jacksonville loss and 5.0 in Green Bay.

Hoyer’s ball-security orientation has been a positive, but also a limiting factor. Cutler last year had one of the best ball-security seasons of his career, yet the offense was able to average 7.5 yards per attempt.

The Bears scored two of their three rushing touchdowns in games with White, who may not yet be the field-stretcher his 4.35 speed but the prospect of White arguably made for a more threatening offense than even with the contributions of Cam Meredith.

Stop the Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have suffered injuries at a rate like the Bears’ but have overcome them. Until Sunday in Philadelphia, when the Eagles sacked Sam Bradford six times and hit him more than a dozen other times. The Vikings never sacked Carson Wentz, who wasn’t special but was good enough while Minnesota was self-destructing.

The Vikings have beaten the Bears the last three times they’ve met, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, which is also the last time the Bears started 1-6. And the Bears have lost three straight.

The Bears were able to end the first three-game skid by focusing on one game: the Lions. The result was shutting down a very good offense, the lowest yardage-allowed (263) of the season and the firmest commitment to the run game (29) attempts.

Morale inside the locker room can only be revived by a win. One game. This game.