If you were 19, famous and richer than Midas, and you could walk into any bar in America and have women fall all over you, would you just hang out in your apartment watching television and playing video games?
But that’s what some pundits are saying Jahlil Okafor should do.
In case you missed it – and that would have been hard to do, since his exploits have been all over the news – Okafor, the centerpiece of the 76ers’ rebuilding plan (they do have a plan, right?), has gotten into some trouble off the court.
First, a grainy video surfaced that showed Okafor getting into a fight outside a Boston bar after the Sixers had lost to the Celtics and that video was all over the internet. Then it was revealed that Okafor had a couple other dust-ups with The Law.
First, he was clocked at driving 108 miles per hour on one of the bridges that connect Philadelphia with New Jersey, and then we found out he was involved in another altercation outside another club, where allegedly somebody even pointed a gun at him. That’s quite a start to his rookie season and his problems off the court have overshadowed his fine play on the court.
Okafor has been one of the few bright spots for this sad-sack team and he’s already established himself as a candidate for rookie of the year. As for judging Okafor’s off-court problems, well, think back to when you were 19 and some of the knuckleheaded (and maybe even illegal) things you did.
If there’s a difference between Okafor and the rest of us – other than the fame and the money – it is that most of us never had a gun pointed at us. As for mere fist-fighting, well, I’ve always believed a yellow streak is a handy thing to have, and mine has saved me many times over the years – I’d rather be yellow than black and blue.
Okafor is obviously big enough to handle himself, but he’s just as obviously not mature enough. That’s just an observation, not an indictment. If anything, it’s an indictment on the 76ers management, which has failed to give Okafor and their other young players some mature guidance, on or off the court. The Sixers have the youngest team in the league, which is fine for a rebuilding team. But they also need – as recent events have shown – they need direction. They need veteran leadership and players they can look up to and listen to and emulate. And that can’t come from the coach, because most 19-year-olds don’t want to hear lectures from some old guy in a suit.
The refusal of Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie to provide that veteran presence has done a terrible disservice to his young players. They look like a rudderless ship in their games and it’s not a coincidence that seven of their losses have been in games in which they had fourth-quarter leads. There’s a good chance those leads wouldn’t have been lost if the Sixers had a seasoned point guard running the show.
The 76ers’ lack of veteran leadership came into focus on Tuesday night, when they finally won a game, beating the Los Angeles Lakers 103-91. Before the game, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was asked about the Okafor situation and Bryant – who entered the NBA right out of high school – said he was fortunate, because he joined a Lakers team that had those veterans and they helped him adjust to life in the NBA – again, on and off the court.
Bryant pointed out guard Byron Scott as one of those veterans who took a special interest in mentoring him and how much he benefitted from it. The Sixers also honored the late Moses Malone at halftime of Tuesday night’s game, and another Hall-of-Famer, former Sixer Charles Barkley, has talked about how Malone and other veterans like Julius Erving helped him. Barkley said that Malone took him under his wing and taught him how to act like a pro – again, on and off the court – and the head-strong Barkley said that saved him from many mistakes. Okafor doesn’t have that and it’s apparent he needs it.
So, the Sixers announced that their star player will now have a security attachment with him when he goes out and about. But they miss the point – if Okafor had a mentor on the team, someone to show him the ropes, he probably wouldn’t have gotten into the troubles that he has. And he and his team would be better off for it.