20 Feb 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
CHINO HILLS >> The team doesn’t get the cyber-traffic it once did.
Instead, it just clicks.
On Saturday, Onyeka Okongwu and Chino Hills will play for a Southern Section Division 1 championship.
In the following weeks they will likely go after a state championship. They won both last season, much to the surprise of those who only followed the Huskies as if they were Modern Family, as if LaVar Ball and Lonzo and LiAngelo and LaMelo had taken all the balls and gone home.
Instead Okongwu is finishing his fourth year as an All-American at a public high school. That makes him a 6-foot-9 national monument.
“Of course it’s my hometown school,” Okongwu said Tuesday, just before Chino Hills continued preparation for Saturday’s game at Cal Baptist against Santa Margarita. “My younger brother is on the team. My older brother played here. It’s the community I live in. I wasn’t going to leave.”
Okongwu has also signed up to play at USC next year, along with Santa Margarita’s Max Agbonkpolo and Rancho Christian’s Isaiah Mobley, whose club plays Sierra Canyon in the Open Division championship. “I visited there and it just felt like home,” Okongwu said.
His older brother Nnamdi was a forerunner of Chino Hills’ YouTube years. He led the Huskies to the CIF finals in 2014. On July 15 that year, Nnamdi fell off a skateboard and onto his head. He was airlifted to a hospital in Colton and passed away three days later. Chino Hills held a candlelight vigil in the football stadium.
So Onyeka takes comfort in familiarity. He likes normalcy, too.
He was a freshman in 2016 when the Balls blasted their way into the national cortex. Lonzo obviously had a 25-year-old game and 30-year-old brain, but LiAngelo piled up the points, and LaMelo was a hooping Michael Jackson, controlling a basketball that seemed as big as he was.
LaVar churned out the Big Baller merchandise and insisted that Chino Hills basketball was a family subsidiary. Huskies’ games became the place to be, if you could get in. They won 60 consecutive games and were undefeated in 2015-16.
Lured by the show, people would eventually notice the big kid in the lane, knocking would-be layups into the front rows, snatching the rebounds, helping the stars be stars. That was Okongwu, as a freshman. All of that promise has been kept.
“It’s hard to say what he’s done better this year,” said Dennis Latimore, the second-year coach, “because he’s so consistent. He shoots 70 percent from the field, 80 percent from the free-throw line. He scored 28 a game last year and 26 this year, because we’ve had other guys step up. Maybe you’d want him to be a more vocal leader, but that’s about it.”
Okongwu laughed when he was asked how quickly the four years have passed. Actually the first two years were on a different planet. Lonzo Ball’s national player of the year trophy gleams in the administration office. Otherwise, the Balls have left no trace.
Steve Baik and Stephan Gillings were nominally the coaches then. For them, all the winning was about as much fun as eczema. LaVar Ball squawked when Latimore got the job and predicted ruin for the Huskies. He also withdrew Melo, Okongwu’s classmate, who played professionally in Lithuania and is now at SPIRE Academy, in Geneva, Ohio, awaiting a butterfly’s chance at the pros.
Gelo was one of the Shanghai Three at UCLA, was suspended, and turned pro as well. His G League aspirations were unfulfilled. He recently talked of playing in London.
Okongwu says he talks to Melo occasionally, “mostly about social stuff, not basketball.” He talks to Lonzo “rarely” and Gelo “never.”
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section”]“To be honest, I was just a freshman back then and all I wanted to do was play basketball,” he said. “I didn’t care about the spotlight. When Coach (Latimore) came in, it was good for us because it was more like college basketball. Before, we just ran LaVar’s system.”
“They trapped, didn’t want to play defense, and shot 3s,” said Latimore, who played at Arizona and Notre Dame. “That works if you have superior talent, and Eli Scott (now at Loyola Marymount) is pulling down 20 rebounds a game. Otherwise you have to work harder, practice harder, be accountable, be careful with your language, even something like just being on time. Some guys struggled with that. Some didn’t want to be coached. It’s a work in progress.”
For now, Latimore still finds it useful to remind the guys that no one expected life without Ball.
“People expected we were going to fall down,” Okongwu said. “I don’t know why they did. I was still here.”