‘He just kind of dominated everybody’: Axel Okongo’s path to Missouri and the one day that changed everything

The 7-footer only played 30 minutes for Missouri this season, but it’s how he found his way to Columbia that stands out.
Axel Okongo dunks a ball during warmups. Photo by Andrew Moore

Axel Okongo arrived in Chicago last April unknown to much of the basketball world. His relative anonymity can’t be seen as too surprising; while his 7-foot stature makes him stand out in a crowd, a center who averaged 2.5 points per game in limited playing time at a junior college will rarely be on the radar of any Division 1 coach.

But Okongo believed in his own ability and borrowed money from his cousin to fly from rural Wyoming to the Windy City to play in front of coaches at the Evan Turner JUCO Showcase.

Brandon Goble helped organize the showcase and is the founder of JUCO Advocate, a service that connects junior college basketball players to four-year college coaches. He had seen Okongo play before and had a hunch he would perform better at the camp than his unspectacular college numbers would suggest.

“Junior college isn’t necessarily built for bigs,” Goble said. “Very often it’s so up-and-down with guys that are 6’4”, 6’5”, that you get a 7-footer, even if he can go, it’s tough to let them get on the floor. So [I] kind of wanted to get him out to Chicago and see him more of an open setting where he could do a little bit more. And he just kind of dominated everybody.”

Goble watched as the French big man ran the floor, blocked shots, finished at the rim and led his team to victory in every game they played. At the end of the scrimmages, the players lined up along the baseline to run a sprint to the end of the court and back.

It was Okongo who made it back to the baseline first, outpacing even the small, quick point guards and athletic wings. Suddenly, after two pedestrian seasons of junior college ball, he was a Division 1 prospect.

“From there it was just taking film and calling coaches and seeing who had a need,” Goble said.

Okongo’s basketball journey started fewer than 10 years earlier in Saacy-sur-Marne, France, a commune of around 2,000 people in the northern part of the country. Basketball has recently gained a foothold in the region, but soccer remains the main sport in the area. Okongo played soccer casually, but when he was 15 he needed a new vice to stay in shape.

“When I was a child, I was a little bit boofy, so I [needed] to lose weight, and so one of my friends said, ‘You tall. Why not try basketball?’” Okongo said. “And I say ‘Ah.’ I just try to play basketball, like I do one practice. I really like it.”

He continued to play for the next three years until it was clear he needed to make a move if he wanted to play at a higher level. His cousin was planning to go to Canada to play at Thetford Prep in Quebec. Okongo jumped on the opportunity to tag along overseas.

Thetford already had a relationship with Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, by way of current Toronto Raptor Chris Boucher, who had played at both schools before finishing his college career at the University of Oregon. Okongo signed to play for the Trappers after one season in Quebec, but didn’t travel to Powell until late 2017 because of problems with his visa.

Okongo made an early impression on his coaches and teammates because of his size. Northwest coach Brian Erickson saw a big, athletic and very raw talent who was eager to become more than just a big body.

“He’s the most coachable kid you can get out there,” Erickson said. “He’d look at you and go ‘Yes coach,’ every time. Plays his heart out. Plays as hard as he can. Having a guy that big being able to run the floor on both ends and being one of the first ones down, beating these guards down that are speedy. You can’t coach it. You can’t coach the kind of work ethic that he has.”

Every day started at 5 a.m. for Okongo, and it wasn’t basketball dragging him out of bed. As part of a work-study program, he worked as a janitor on campus. He started each morning by cleaning the cafeteria and worked until 8 a.m. Practice was at 1 p.m. Between work, practice and class, there wasn’t a lot of time left in the day, not that that was too big of an issue in Powell.

“It’s a really, really, really small town,” Okongo said. “Like, really small. People there are really great. I never had any kind of problem or anything crazy. People there [are] really open-mind[ed]. So [I] did not have any trouble. The only thing is, like I said, is a really small city. We don’t have a lot of things to do. We got a movie theater. I think we got bowling. Like, that’s it.”

The flip side of nothing to do in a four square mile town was that the Northwest basketball team was the main attraction. The players are often fairly well-known throughout the community, and Okongo stood out even more because of his size: 7-footers aren’t exactly common in rural Wyoming. When the team visited local schools, Okongo’s size and affable personality endeared him to the kids.

“These little kids, they see a big 7-footer have to duck his head to get into a door and they’re just amazed,” Erickson said. “And that’s him reading to kids in his accent, they probably didn’t understand a thing he said, but they loved him. They wanted to climb on him. They wanted high-fives. They wanted autographs.”

“One thing about him that is really cool is that he can make friends with just about anyone,” former Northwest guard Mysen McArthur said. “He kinda stands out because he is tall and just the way he interacts with people. He’s very personable, able to talk, funny most of the time, and he’s just very personable.”

It was all part of Okongo’s adjustment to Powell’s society, an adjustment made easier by his outgoing personality. After meeting at a dinner designed to get the international players more comfortable in the U.S., he began spending time with McArthur’s family in Lovell, Wyoming, often coming over for dinner or helping out with chores and projects around the house. He even helped coach McArthur’s brother’s little league team.

“Axel as a coach, he’s like Bobby Knight,” McArthur said, laughing. “There was a few times I had to remind him ‘Hey, you know these kids are fifth-graders. They're not college athletes.’”

After the season, Okongo could have gone back home but decided to stay in Wyoming so he could travel to camps and showcases to be seen by as many coaches as possible. McArthur was more than happy to open his house to him.

Lovell is about 30 minutes from Powell, so every day the two would get into McArthur’s car to make the trip to the basketball facilities. Each day was an hour on the court before another hour lifting weights.

Eventually, McArthur began working full time at a roofing job, so the carless Okongo was left to find his own way to Powell each day. Usually, that meant calling anyone he knew in the area to get a ride to Powell. Taking rides when he could get them, he never had a choice of when to come and go from campus. He often started in the gym at 8 a.m. and didn’t leave until 5 p.m.

“Just his work ethic, and you don’t see a lot of 7-footers that run the floor the way he does,” said Camden Levett, the Northwest women’s basketball coach who often worked individually with Okongo. “He’s a strong kid, worked in the weight room. He just kind of took things into his own hands, to make sure he got recruited to go play at a four-year level.”

After the April showcase in Chicago, it was a waiting game for Okongo. Oregon State and LSU expressed interest, as did Missouri. The offer from the Tigers caught the interest of the Macon, Missouri,.native Levett. Okongo committed in June.

“He was kind of saying that this coach had contacted him, this other coach had contacted him, and Cuonzo Martin at Mizzou. I was actually in my office when his number came up,” Levett said. “And I said ‘Axel, you better take that one.’”

Okongo played 30 minutes for Missouri last year. He attempted two shots from the field and made both of them. It was a quiet season, but Okongo has embraced every opportunity he’s gotten in basketball, dating back long before we wore a Tiger uniform.

“He’s just one of the nicest people, and he’s so grateful and thankful,” Erickson said. “A good word’s probably humble. He’s so humble and grateful for the opportunity that he had.”

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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