Reunited In Berkeley
Sam Alajiki and ND Okafor's basketball journeys have taken many twists and turns since beginning in Dundalk, Ireland.
It just so happens to be in Berkeley, California - 5,000 miles away from where those paths started - that the two 19-year-olds are teammates once again.
"Some things are just meant to be," Alajiki said.
When the 2022-23 college basketball season gets underway in November, Cal will carry a roster that features six student-athletes from four different countries outside of the United States, including two Irishmen of Nigerian descent whose friendship extends back a decade to their youths in Dundalk, a town of 39,000 located along the Castletown River on the northeastern coast of Ireland. Their paths through basketball have differed since leaving home – Alajiki at age 17 and Okafor at 16 – but a like-minded interest in Cal brought the two friends back together this summer.
Neither Alajiki, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, nor Okafor, a 6-foot-9 freshman, can recall the first time they met as young boys in Dundalk but it's as likely to have happened during a neighborhood soccer match as it was on the basketball court. Although the pair attended different primary schools, they lived in neighborhoods across the street from one another.
"We'd play soccer and our friend groups interacted with one another all the time; it was probably just organic how we first met," Alajiki said.
While Okafor was raised in Dundalk until leaving to play basketball competitively in Canada at age 16, Alajiki began splitting time between his mother in England and his father in Ireland around the age of 11. It was with the Dundalk Ravens, a local youth basketball club, that their friendship started to develop. Okafor, who played at the club when he wasn't focused on his soccer dreams, remembers Alajiki making appearances when he'd return to Ireland every three to four weeks, often culminating in memories of laughter.
"Sam's energy is through the roof, especially when he was younger and he'd come play basketball at the club," Okafor said. "Whether he's laughing or dancing, Sam is usually doing something to keep positive energy in the room. You can feed off of that energy and it's something I really like about him."
Alajiki's basketball aspirations took flight while living in the English county of Kent, where he was identified by a local coach who encouraged him to put more effort into basketball than soccer. It was a similar experience for Okafor, who despite playing with the Dundalk Ravens club team didn't start taking basketball seriously until three or four years ago when his height advantage became too hard to ignore.
"Soccer was my first love," Okafor said. "I didn't pay much attention to basketball for a long time until I was finally convinced that I could be pretty good at it, because of my height. Once I focused on improving at basketball, I realized how much I enjoyed the sport."
Okafor overpowered opponents with his size and showcased an athleticism that he carried over from soccer during his first year of playing basketball, and soon earned a spot on Ireland's roster at the 2019 U16 European Championships and relocated to Canada to play. The decision to move to Canada sparked a basketball journey that included a stint in Dallas, Texas and most recently two years spent at the NBA Academy Latin America in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where he was identified by Cal head coach Mark Fox and his coaching staff.
By the time Okafor was settling into the NBA Academy, Alajiki was coming off of a breakout junior year spent at Beckley Prep Academy in Mount Hope, West Virginia, that culminated in him signing with the Golden Bears in November, 2020. Alajiki's recruitment process naturally led Fox and his staff to finding Okafor, though both players admit it was far from a guarantee that they'd end up playing together in college. While excited to play with one another in the Blue and Gold, Alajiki and Okafor say they chose Cal for similar, but personal reasons.
"We didn't really talk about playing at the same college until it was very close to becoming a reality," said Alajiki, who finished his prep career at St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey prior to joining the Bears. "Right around the time I arrived at Cal was when ND started to see some bigger recruitment, and I started thinking to myself, 'maybe we can make this work.'"
Okafor echoed Alajiki, emphasizing that his choice to attend Cal was based on the opportunity to attend a top academic university and a result of how Fox and assistant coaches Chris Harriman and Andrew Francis pushed for him during the recruiting process. While Alajiki was consistently in Okafor's ear with positive feedback about the Cal program and university, it was ultimately a personal decision.
"Sam and ND are special young men who have great approaches toward maximizing their basketball dreams," Fox said. "They recognize what they're able to accomplish as Cal student-athletes and are appreciative of the opportunities they have in front of them, both academically and as basketball players."
Just weeks into his freshman year in Berkeley, the well-traveled Okafor is already appreciative of the diverse campus he gets to call a second home.
"I've felt very welcomed from the start, and my classes have already given me the chance to make many friends that I normally wouldn't cross paths with," Okafor said. "I'm quiet by nature, so to already know so many people other than my teammates makes me feel good about choosing to be at Cal."
Entering his second year at Cal, Alajiki – who became the Bears' first All-Pac-12 Freshman Team selection (honorable mention) since the 2016-17 season last year – is eager to capitalize on an offseason of growth in his game and the opportunity to play for Ireland at the 2022 U20 FIBA European Championships in July, when he helped the Irish go 5-1 while averaging 13 points and six rebounds.
Though the duo must wait another two months until they play together in an official game for the first time since 2019, they're confident that their off-the-court chemistry and weeks of offseason preparation with their teammates will translate to a positive result on the court. That chemistry was strengthened during the team's 10-day foreign tour to France, Belgium and Germany on Aug. 12-22, which included games against various professional teams in each country.
"It's great to play with Sam again, especially at a place like Cal," Okafor said. "A couple of guys from Dundalk ending up playing basketball together in Berkeley, California…I'd say that's pretty special."
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