In the summer of 2017, multiskilled forward David Okeke announced his arrival on the international scene. He took Italy to the final of the U19 World Chamionships, where Squadra Azzurra lost to an impressive Canadian team marshalled by RJ Barret. In the final, Okeke’s statistics of 14 points and 11 rebounds made him a standout player of the tournament, not too dissimilar to Barret who helped himself to 18 points .12 rebounds and 4 assists.
While Barret became 3rd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and joined the New York Knicks after just one year at Duke, Okeke on other hand embarked on building his career via the European route playing with Auxilium Torino. Okeke’s decision seemed to be completely vindicated when both coach Paolo Galbiati and predecessor legendary Larry Brown started to use the young forward quite extensively in both the Italian League and 7 Days Eurocup. Arguably Okeke’s best performance was against the mighty Zenith St Petersburg with Okeke scoring 9 points on January 10th 2018.
As a result of his rapidly emerging notoriety it was only natural that pilgrimages of NBA scouts attended Okeke’s games and his reputation started to grow immensely on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the situation was about to take a new and dramatic turn. A couple of days after facing Zenith a routine heath check showed abnormal irregularities in David’s heartbeat. The diagnosis was by equal measure simple and brutal, an immediate break from all training and competitions.
David started an almost two year long period of hibernation with almost all forms of training forbidden. Numerous consultations with leading cardiologists could not solve the problem. The reoccurring doctors’ advice sounded unanimously depressing – stay away from sport!
After two years, all hope of basketball stardom seemed to be disappearing very fast, a cardiac clinic in Turin offered a last chance of a return to normality. In February this year they performed two ablation procedures which finally cured David’s heart irregularities. He was free to play again and resume his dream.
Future Stars caught up with David Okeke to reminisce on his amazing journey from immense elation to deepest despair to newly found hope.
There is no more important issue than your health and the state of your heart. Are you completely healthy and ready to play?
Yes, I am completely healthy. I had a couple of check ups after the surgeries and I’m completely ok and ready to start playing properly again. It has been a month since the last surgery and everything seems to be right.
Lets go back to the U19 World Championship when you were a true star of the Italian team which finished as runner up. How important was this tournament for you?
It was very important for me because we could play against top players from all over the world and beat them. We made a real statement and the world started to know me. Yes in the final we lost to Canada which had RJ Barret who since then signed with New York Knicks, but we also beat some great teams on our way there. It was a great tournament for my career and for entire Italian basketball. I personally benefited very much from playing against players like RJ Barret and the competition was a big step for my career.
After the World Championship things went even better for you. You started to play really serious minutes at senior level for Auxilium Torino in both the Italian League and 7 Days Eurocup. You must have been having the time of your life and a very optimistic outlook about your future.
I was a very hot property then. Coach Galbiati gave me a lot of minutes and more importantly found a real role for me. He had a great confidence in me and very often I was responsible for defending the best players on the opposite team which built me very quickly as a player. Of course playing in Eurocup made me well known around Europe and created a lot of interest in me. On top of that, a lot of NBA scouts were attending our games. I had no direct contact from any NBA clubs but my agent very often was telling me that various NBA scouts were present at my games. That has never distracted me though. I knew that I need to focus on basketball and play really tough and if I do that really good things will happen to me. Including a career in the NBA. I remember these times very fondly, this was a great time for me.
Did you think then that maybe within year or so you could be in the NBA?
I was so focused on playing for Fiat that I couldn’t think about anything else. Of course the NBA was a dream but I always realised how much more I needed to learn before I could be able to make such a move.
The world seemed to be your oyster and suddenly everything came to a sudden dramatic halt. Describe the moment when you found out that there was a serious problem with your heart and how did you react to this news?
It was a massive shock for me. I was always healthy and never had any medical issues. I felt completely fine at the time, ready for the next training and next game. The doctor found out about my heart problem during the routine medical check-up. All of a sudden I was told that I have an irregular heartbeat and I need to take a break for several months. Could you imagine that one day I’m a super healthy teenager ready to play against the best players in Europe and the next day I must stop doing everything. I was in a state of shock and didn’t know what to do. Initially I was advised to stop playing for six months and see whether there will be any changes after this period. There weren’t any changes so there was another period of six months of inactivity and then after that, another. That’s how we got to the decision about surgeries in the cardiac clinic in Torino after 2 years.
How did you find the strength to cope with this situation?
It was a nightmare for me. I really didn’t know what to think. I had no idea when I will return to playing basketball and whether I will ever play basketball again. The uncertainty was the worst. My mood was changing constantly. One day I was full of optimism and certain that my body will heal itself or someone will find medicine for me and the other days I was reaching bottom of depression. I never had a constant level of my emotions. Always ups and downs. The greatest help I was receiving from my family and my agent Simone Lusini. After talking to them I was always positive and finding new levels of optimism. It was actually their decision that we should go for ablation procedure which solved the problem.
Were you allowed to do any training during that period?
At the beginning I was allowed to do some very light training. Maybe some very light aerobic or something like that. But later on when we found out that there was no real improvement I was told that I need to stop everything. It was really tough for me. That was when I was at the lowest point. Probably the worst thing was that I have never displayed any symptoms and I felt really strong and energetic. I was thinking myself that I’m ready to play and asked everyone else why they are stopping me from playing. Of course, now I realise that I was completely wrong and I had a real problem. There were some very confusing times for me
How did the club support you at this time?
The club stood by me during this time. I was on the contract and as an injured player I was paid during that period. My club, family and agent were vey important to me during this period.
Hopefully the most dramatic period in your career is already behind you. So what is the plan for the immediate future?
I will take me some time to get to my normal shape. Step by step I need to get my body together. After such a period of inactivity you are losing your timing and reaction time but I hope that will come back very soon. I can’t say precisely how long it will take. Maybe a month, the fact that I’m still young will help me. Hopefully it will not be that long, I’m still very young. I have not made any decisions where I want to play. I need to sit down with my agent Simone and decide which club will be the best for me. Definitely this must be a situation where the coaching staff will believe in me and allow me to really contribute to the team.
Is your NBA dream still alive?
Well you know, these two years have made me more mentally strong and gave me more determination to pursue my dreams. It also gave me a different perspective on life. It was a lesson for me. I understand much better what is important, what is not. Which people are important and good for me and which are not. I also understand how little time I have got to make my dreams a reality and how quickly things can change. So maybe sometime in the future I will make it to the NBA, but now I need to find a club where I can rebuild myself and continue to learn.
We wish you all the best