The breaths came more easily Tuesday for Francis Okoro. The Normal West High School basketball star could exhale. The only weight on his shoulders was from the backpack that hung from his 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame.
Okoro ended an intense recruiting process late Monday night by committing to Oregon, choosing the Ducks over his other two finalists, Illinois and Purdue.
It dates back to when Okoro was in eighth grade, a year before arriving in Bloomington-Normal. He didn’t think of himself as a basketball player back then, certainly not a future 4-star college recruit.
Yet, he saw Oregon play on television under head coach Dana Altman. It stuck with him.
“I watched them and they’ve been playing the same style (ever since),” Okoro said, shortly before heading to Spanish class. “They’ve been with this coach, they’ve been with this style. I know what they do. I’m sure that they do this.
“I don’t want to go to a school where I have to adjust. I want to go to a school where I’m a fit. What they do is what I love. I felt like I’m a great fit for them.”
It meant making difficult phone calls earlier Monday. Okoro had to inform coaches he had built relationships with during his recruitment, Illinois’ Brad Underwood and Purdue’s Matt Painter, that he was not coming to their schools.
A lot of things come easily to the gifted Okoro. Nothing about those conversations was easy.
“It was really hard,” he said. “I respect those coaches. I respect every coach who recruited me.”
If you haven’t met Okoro, he’s the respectful type. During his first tournament in a West uniform, as a sophomore in 2016, he was handed a cup of water on the bench by a special needs team manager.
Okoro cupped his large hand around the manager’s head, looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you.”
Respect means a lot to him and he has plenty for Altman. As others speculated Monday night why Okoro chose Oregon, Altman didn’t have to wonder.
Okoro made sure of that.
While Ducks assistant Mike Mennenga, a Rantoul native, was the primary recruiter — “He was on my phone like five times a day,” Okoro said — Altman first made contact during Okoro’s sophomore year.
“We talked and he told me why he wanted me in terms of what he thinks I can do and how he sees me playing in college and how long he sees me playing in college,” Okoro said. “He said the same thing from day one. It was a consistent message.
“He’s someone I believe can help me. I told him, ‘I believe you. I trust you can help me get to my goals. I’m going to come and be in everything. I’m going to play the role you want me to play. I’m going to be a good player for you.’ ”
How’s that for a commitment? It must have had Altman ready to break into a victory dance.
The connection between the two seems genuine, real. Altman was at Normal West twice during the recruiting process. Mennenga was at open gyms, practices, games. Okoro took a visit to Oregon and felt at home 2,100 miles away.
West coach Brian Cupples considers Altman a good fit personally for Okoro, saying, “He’s kind of a laid-back guy. I’m sure he can get excited, but I think he is really going to develop him.”
So does Okoro, who said of Altman, “He understands his players.”
“What I love about him is he doesn’t do stuff with anger,” Okoro said. “He does stuff to make the player understand why you have to do this. He lets you know when you’re not working. Some coaches will just cut you off. He’ll let you know.
“There was a game I watched them and a guy shot an air ball. He called him over and he was like, “OK, you have to keep shooting.’ Stuff like that makes you have confidence in a coach.”
If it sounds like Okoro can’t wait to get there, you’re right. He stopped short of saying he will reclassify so he can move from the class of 2019 to 2018, but the route to get there is clear.
It would involve some online classes to get the necessary credits.
“If I do great in those classes, then I can go,” Okoro said.
“We had that talk once, and I think he needs to go,” Cupples said. “I’ve always said defensively and rebounding and athletically, he’s there. It’s going to be a matter of continuing to develop offensively and just the instincts to play offense.
“People forget he’s only played organized basketball for three or four years and he’s going to Oregon. That says a lot about his potential. If there’s a scholarship sitting there for you and you have the credits, I think you have to go.”
Then, before heading to teach his next class, Cupples added, “There’s nothing more we can do for him physically. The high school game really can’t do anything else for him physically.”
If this is Okoro’s final year at West, and likely it is, he will remember his time fondly. He moved to Bloomington-Normal as a freshman to live with his aunt and uncle, Nweze and Emeka Nnawke, and became eligible to play as a sophomore.
He will tell you it has been a “really positive” ride.
“West is a place where I got a chance to make relationships, especially with teachers,” Okoro said. “A lot of teachers have helped me a lot and helped me improve academically. I know some teachers I can go to when I have a problem and they are going to help me. That really means a lot to me.
“I’ve had a chance to walk in the hallway freely without anybody harassing me. I got a chance to come to school every day and just stay focused. I never got into any trouble. I’m proud of the years I’ve had at West. Everybody at West has tried to help me one way or the other. Every student was open to talk to me. I love everything out here.”
He loves Oregon too. The world knows it now.
“A huge relief,” he called it.
The wait, and weight, are gone.