Up against the jubilant throng gathered in the side room at Boogalou Restaurant Lounge in Midtown, NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s voice had no chance of being heard through the end of the sentence.
The moment was flush with anticipation, excitement and happiness. Family, friends and teammates of Josh Okogie had descended upon the Midtown establishment Thursday night to celebrate the former Georgia Tech guard’s selection in the NBA draft. Now, two hours after the draft had begun, a WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News cameraman, tipped off by Okogie’s agent, flipped on the lights and began recording. Guests rose from their seats and surrounded Okogie, watching the broadcast on a projection screen at the front of the room.
“With the 20th pick in the 2018 NBA draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select Josh…”
With his parents Pius and Anthonia by his side, Okogie raised his right fist as the room exploded into cheers, screams and whoops, drowning out Silver. Recording the celebration on their phones, the guests converged on Okogie, who ducked his head before re-emerging, grinning uncontrollably. Soon Okogie, typically calm and poised, was overcome with emotion and tears began to flow. He buried his head in the shoulder of a teammate from Shiloh High before slipping out of the club to gather himself outside.
“It’s just the best moment of my life, by far,” Okogie said, his eyes wet with tears and his voice quivering.
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Okogie’s journey to this moment might be traced back to the one when Pius and Anthonia Okogie received green cards to move to the U.S. from Nigeria through a lottery administered by the State Department. Josh was about 3-1/2 years old, Pius said Thursday as the first picks of the draft were being made.
“Two years and nine months,” Anthonia corrected.
In America, their fourth child developed a passion for basketball. In middle school, he woke at 5 a.m. to work on his skills with a trainer before going to school. During holiday breaks, he worked out twice a day.
“He loved basketball,” Pius said. “Apart from school, the next thing is basketball.”
A standout career at Shiloh produced one scholarship offer from an ACC school, Tech. Despite that, he made the ACC all-freshman team in 2017 and earned third-team All-ACC this past season, prompting his decision to leave Tech after two seasons.
A performance at the NBA draft combine pushed him up draft boards, from a possible second-round pick without a discernible standout trait to a first-rounder prized for his athletic ability and relentless effort.
A pastor at Jubilee Christian Church-Redemption Chapel in Stockbridge, Pius said they applied for the green-card lottery in hopes of seeking an adventure. On Thursday, the Okogie family marked the completion of one adventure and the beginning of another with a party that featured a cake in Josh’s image and black and gold T-shirts made for the occasion.
“Look at what is happening (Thursday),” Pius said, incredulous. “We thank God for everything.”
Just before the draft began, Okogie took a seat in a quiet spot in the back of the lounge, encircled by mentors and his agent, Calvin Andrews. Okogie said Andrews reminded him that it would be OK no matter who selected him and also to breathe. Okogie, calm as ever, needed no such prompting. He was asked if he felt weird that this was actually happening.
“No,” he said. “I was planning this in high school.”
Okogie wore a light green coat with a pocket square, a white dress shirt with a plaid bowtie and dark slacks. He wore silver loafers that were studded with what looked like triangular spikes. Perhaps not the ideal footwear for treading through Minneapolis snow drifts, but perfect for a draft party.
“I like to spice things up,” he said.
As Okogie welcomed guests and posed for photos with friends and family, his agent held a hunch that the Timberwolves might be the team that made the call for his client. He was clued in by conversations with team officials around the league when they asked who else was interested in Okogie.
“Every time I said Minnesota, every team said, ‘He’s Thibs’ type of player,’” Andrews said after the pick had been made.
“Thibs” is Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, whose strategies rely heavily on defense and grit.
As the draft unfolded, Okogie sat on a leather bench, pointing his head up at the projection screen. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it. He sat with his hands clasped, joking with Tech walk-on guard Evan Jester, one of several Yellow Jackets players to show up to Boogalou to support Okogie. He checked his phone and nibbled on a plate of nachos with spinach dip.
“I’m not as anxious as I thought I’d be,” he said around pick 15.
If it wasn’t Minnesota at No. 20, Chicago (22), the Los Angeles Lakers (25) and Golden State (28) also showed strong interest. As Minnesota’s pick neared, Andrews was in communication with the Timberwolves. At first he thought it might not happen. As he pressed for an answer, he was told they were still talking. To him, that meant he wasn’t being told no. Finally, confirmation came. Andrews pulled aside Okogie to share the news.
“Congratulations,” he said.
And then the camera lights went on, joyful pandemonium soon ensued and Okogie’s cool completely vanished. As he cooled off outside, he shared a hug with a former AAU coach. Okogie stepped off the sidewalk toward the street between parked cars and doubled over. His aunt wrapped him up in her arms.
“Congratulations, you did it,” Mary Aguebor told her nephew. “God is good.”
There was a stroke of serendipity in his destination, as he will join former Tech star Marcus Georges-Hunt. Former Tech assistant Chad Dollar recruited Okogie from Shiloh with the idea that he could fill Georges-Hunt’s role as a scoring guard. Georges-Hunt graduated in 2016, Okogie followed and, indeed, led the Jackets in scoring. (As is sometimes the way in college basketball, Dollar was no longer there, having left in the changeover from Brian Gregory to Josh Pastner. He now is an assistant at Georgia.) Georges-Hunt and Okogie will reunite in the upper Midwest, two thick-bodied guards from Atlanta with a taste for hard work.
For now, there was a moment to savor, years’ worth of hope and effort having yielded the sweetest of payoffs. A moment so overwhelming that Okogie said he couldn’t even describe how he felt.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just blessed. Thanks to my teammates, my family. I thank the Lord. It’s wonderful right now.”