Okulaja's Story, Part I

Inside Carolina recently had a chance to talk with former Tar Heel Ademola Okulaja. In the first of our three-part interview, "The Warrior" discusses his pro career. He also touches on his continuing connections with some of his UNC teammates and the lengths he's gone to in order to watch a UNC/Duke game.

Okulaja played at UNC from 1995-99, which included two Final Four trips. He earned First-Team All-ACC honors in 1999 and sits in the UNC record books at No. 10 in career rebounds and No. 9 in career steals.

First of all, tell us a little bit about your pro career after leaving Carolina. Your stint in the NBA, heading overseas, etc.. Fill in the details for us...

Yeah, well, I graduated in 1999 and I didn't get drafted and so I went back for one year to Berlin, to my hometown, and played for that team.

After that, I went to the 76ers training camp and made the team and I was with the team until December when I called Coach [Dean] Smith and told him that it was too hard for me to sit on the bench and not play and that I was too eager and full of energy and drive and I'm not the type of guy who can just sit on the bench and just sit there for a year or two and not do anything. So I talked to Coach Smith and he said that if I'm 100 percent sure then he will call Coach Brown - Larry Brown - and he will ask them to release me. I said "yeah" and we had a conference call and I left for Spain.

It was bittersweet. It was bitter because I left the league, but at the same time it was great because I played in Spain in the First Division and had a great, great season. Then, to make it short, I played in Spain for the next seven years, with different clubs, with FC Barcelona, with Malaga, Valencia - so, all of the top teams in Spain. Then I went and played in Russia for two years and then I came back to Germany and my last season was the first year back in Germany for me playing.

Senior Year: 1998-99 (Getty)
Is it different for someone from Europe, that dream of making the NBA, because it seems like you never looked back though you clearly could have made it, while the guys from America keep coming back and trying to get in the league?

I don't know. I think it is definitely the same. Of course, for Americans there is also the fundamental thing of playing at home, playing in your own country. Not only playing in the best league in the world, of course, but playing at home, playing in your culture, playing where everyone speaks English, where everything is... well, America. It is easier.

Nevertheless, for Europeans, well, for me it was a huge challenge, and also a huge desire. Of course it was also an honor to make the team.

What I forgot to tell you was that after my year in Spain, I went to training camp with San Antonio and it became bittersweet because I signed with Barcelona in the summer, which is one of the best teams in Europe, and exactly a month later I got an offer from the San Antonio Spurs for a two-year deal. Barcelona didn't release me, though, so I couldn't sign.

Of course, this hurts. It hurts because it was a guaranteed two-year deal playing with the San Antonio Spurs, playing with Tim Duncan and all of these great players that were on the team at that time and I could not sign. But, at the same time, it wasn't like I was playing for the Third Division. I was playing with the best European team in one of the best European leagues, so that helped me out in looking at the situation.

Does that make it any easier in your mind knowing that NBA teams did want you and you were thus an NBA-caliber player?

At times. I don't look at it as much because there are a lot of "ifs" and I was never a guy who goes "what if." For example, if I would have stayed with Philadelphia for two more weeks they had the huge trade where they got [Dikembe] Mutumbo; well, maybe I would have been in that trade to Atlanta. Then two years later the GM from Atlanta at the time came up to me at the airport and said, "Ademola, we always wanted you."

There are all these "ifs" and I don't do it because then I would just be reminiscing all the time. All in all though, I think I had a great professional career. I always played in the highest leagues in Europe and I always played with the top teams in Spain. So, looking back, I think it was a good career.

Of course, sometimes you're "ok, NBA" and my belief, and I'm not being arrogant here, but I think I definitely could have played in the NBA and for a lot of players it's being on the right team and the right spot. Now, when I watch the NBA, I see some guys there where I am just like, "Hold up, I would destroy him."

In your heart you know you are an NBA caliber player…

Yeah, of course, I'll always believe that.

For the Carolina fans who haven't been able to follow your pro career as closely as they'd like, tell them first how your game has evolved and then how your life has evolved since your college days.

My game changed a whole lot in that at Carolina I was a stopper. I had a lot of pride in my defense and that was always first. That didn't totally change, it was the case a little bit, but when I came to Europe, especially after I left Philadelphia, my scoring went up dramatically. When I came back to Spain my first year, I averaged 20 and 8, so you know those are some good numbers I believe for Spain or anywhere.

So you were then an offensive go-to guy.

Exactly. Most of the teams that I played on, I was always the No. 1 or 2 scoring option, where at Carolina I was always sometimes three, four or five. I never regret that.

I wasn't looking for that, but when I came to Spain I talked to my first coach and it was funny because all season we barely talked and the first discussion we had the only thing he told me was, "Ademola, I've been watching you through your whole college [career]. Go out there and play."

Just go out there and play. That was all he said and that is what any player likes to hear. From then on, I've almost always averaged around a double-double. It was just great. Of course, I also still played defense. A lot of times I played against the better player of the opponent's team. But, at times the coach wanted me to save my energy more for the offensive side of the court. It changed quite a bit.

Playing for the German National team - what did that mean to you?

Of course, it's an honor always to represent your country. But not only that, just to be considered in the top 12 players in all of your country that you are coming from.

EuroBasket 2007 (Getty)
Germany is not known for its basketball, more its tennis and soccer. Still, just knowing that you are one of the top 12 players in your country and then also not only being on the team, but being one of the leaders and also a top scorer and rebounder over so many years also is a great honor.

Do you still follow UNC hoops at all?

As much as I can. Unfortunately, and I'm quite mad, in Europe they barely show any college games. And if they show them they are at 2 or 4 a.m. and usually I have practice the next morning and I try to save some energy for the kids. My brother, one time, there was a Carolina/Duke game, I think last year, he was watching it on TV and he put it on a webcam and I watched it on my computer through Skype over here in Germany. The picture wasn't the greatest, but my brother helped me out with the commentators and I watched the game. It was real good.

That is dedication.

Unfortunately, it is seldom that I can do it, but I wish I could follow it more. I'm definitely not as close as Shammond Williams, who watches or sees every game.

You mentioned Shammond. Who do you keep in contact with of the guys that you played with or the people that you were around at Carolina?

A whole lot with Shammond because he is over here in Spain and then with Makhtar N'Diaye occasionally and also with Vince [Carter] and Antawn [Jamison], but again their schedule is different than Shammond's or Mak's because they are superstars and I understand that.

They have a totally different schedule so we speak as often as we can. Sometimes it is only once or twice a year, but for example, Antawn had his preseason games over here in Berlin so I drove to Berlin and watched him. We hung out for a day or two; I watched the game. He then flew back to the States, I drove home. It was great to see him. His family was there, my mom was there and everybody knows each other so we had a blast.

When was the last time you were back in Chapel Hill? Was it just after college?

Right after college I went there every year, but then it got less and less because of my pro career. Because we played in the finals and semifinals, which in Europe were pretty late, and then after that the National Team started and we only had a couple of days off. I think it was two years ago. Maybe two or three years ago, because last summer I couldn't because my wife was pregnant. In fact, the last two summers I couldn't because my wife was pregnant and I couldn't go. So I think it was three years ago.

Tell us a little bit about your family: about your wife, about your kids and where you guys live?

I have a lovely wife, Michaela-Oretha and two young sons. Adeisaiya is 20 months and Adenoah is six months. They are 14 months apart and right now it is the best thing ever because I play in Bamberg in the south of Germany so I live here in Bamberg, but, of course I am a Berliner so whenever I have the chance I go home to Berlin. And whenever I am finished with basketball I am straight back to Berlin.

Is that where your house is and the rest of your life so to speak?

Yeah, that is where I grew up. That is where all of my friends are. My mom is there so, yeah, everything is there.

Tomorrow, in Part II, Okulaja discusses the serious health concerns that have put a temporary halt to his hoops career.

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