MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – From playing tennis in Maidenhead, England to Division I basketball at West Virginia University, James Okonkwo’s path to becoming a Mountaineer is anything but traditional. There’s one member of his family who is at the center of it all: his older brother, Oliver.
James started playing tennis when he was six or seven years old. It was the sport his brother Oliver played which led everyone else in his family, including his parents, to pick up a racket, too.
Okonkwo said he didn’t seriously compete in tennis, but due to his height at a young age, he did go up a few “grades” in competitions. So, after about nine years on the tennis court, he decided to switch to another type of court.
“As I got to my first year of high school in the UK, I switched to basketball and that’s when I started growing rapidly,” Okonkwo said. “Tennis is where I got my hand-eye coordination and footwork from, and most of my agility. I think it was important that I did that before I started playing basketball because I had the fundamentals before I came in.”
Okonkwo said he had a hard serve — one he describes as “devastating” — so maybe that’s also where the power to block shots comes from. While he credits tennis for some of his basketball success, he doesn’t have any regrets about trading in his racket.
“I don’t think I’d be me. I think I’d be a lot skinner if I was a tennis player,” he said. “I don’t think my longevity would be that good because there aren’t many 6-9 tennis players around.”
At that height, it seems like a no-brainer that basketball is a much better fit. Something one of his teachers back home helped him realize.
“He introduced me to basketball. He was an American in the UK which I thought was a little bit weird, but he introduced me to basketball and was a big Philly fan,” Okonkwo said. “That’s when I was aware of American basketball but not so much the means of getting a scholarship.”
The latter was something he learned while watching Oliver go through that process.
“He introduced me to the American market. I wasn’t aware coming here was an option. I was just 16 and playing club basketball,” Okonkwo said. “I did that for three or four years. That’s when my brother went to Iowa University for tennis then I was like oh, I could get a scholarship for this.”
A few years later, that’s exactly what he did.
Okonkwo’s final season of hoops in the UK was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The parents of his teammates used to record the games, so during quarantine, he edited some of his highlights together himself and uploaded them to YouTube.
The coach at Beckley Prep IJN came across Okonkwo’s tape and reached out. By August 2020, he was in Beckley, West Virginia, playing basketball. That’s where Bob Huggins first saw him play.
“That was my only chance to come to the states and I knew I had to take it, and I came to the right state,” Okonkwo said. “Huggs saw me and it’s been wonderful since then.”
There were no AAU or travel teams for Okonkwo to play on when he was first starting his career in the UK. It was just one game per week for his local squad.
Now, he’s entering his second season as a Mountaineer where basketball is his primary focus. Okonkwo said it “would have been nice” to have more opportunities to build his game in the UK, but he knows he’s now at the right place to do just that.
“When it comes to basketball and West Virginia, there’s nowhere else in America or the UK that could prepare me as much as they have here. I came in 218 pounds as a freshman. Skin and bone,” Okonkwo said. “Now, I’m like 235 pounds, 6’9. I’ve grown into my frame a lot more. More athletic. I don’t think anywhere could have done that for me.”
Okonkwo does miss his family back in England, but a few weeks ago when WVU played at Xavier, he was able to reunite with the person who showed him playing college basketball was possible: his brother Oliver, who is now playing tennis at the University of Illinois.