Lucas: Eternally A Warrior – College of North Carolina Athletics

By Adam Lucas

Check on your friends and family who remember 1990s Carolina basketball. Today was a tough one.

The news that Ademola Okulaja passed away on Tuesday was jarring. To understand how we feel about Ademola Okulaja, you have to understand how we felt about those late 1990s Tar Heel teams. It was just before the internet made highlights ubiquitous. An occasional game was still on the radio only. To see Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison and Okulaja, to fully experience it, you really had to be in the building.

And when you were there, you never knew what you might see. Ed Cota might throw it to Carter off the backboard or Shammond Williams might score 42 against Georgia Tech or Jamison might dominate Duke. Those teams were a mix tape every time they walked in the building.

As mortals in the stands, we immediately realized we could not fly as high as Vince. We knew we could not leap as fast as Antawn. But maybe, just maybe, we could play like Ademola. We could take the big charge. We could get an offensive rebound. We could wait our turn for three years and then become the offensive dynamo as a senior.

We couldn’t, of course. If Okulaja had enrolled at Carolina with anyone other than Jamison and Carter, he would have been an immediate star. But he needed them the same way that they needed him. As he put it when he joined us in the Carolina Insider podcast studio in 2019, when he spent almost an hour on the air and nearly another hour off the air just telling his favorite Carolina basketball stories, “It was a perfect mosaic that was put together.”

The basketball fit was perfect. But so were the personalities. One of the most endearing parts of the 2009 reunion weekend was the way Jamison and Carter and Okulaja met up at the Smith Center…and then immediately went straight to Franklin Street, just the way they had done so many times as undergraduates. “With certain people,” Okulaja said, “you just click.”

Asked why they clicked, Okulaja flashed that personality that made him so fun to watch. “I think it was because we were just really cool guys,” he said, breaking into the wide grin that let you know he didn’t mind poking a little fun at himself. He is forever the fun-loving kid you see at the top of this page. Remember, this was the crew that persuaded Dean Smith–Dean Smith!–to “raise the roof” when cutting down the nets after an ACC championship or regional final victory.

Okulaja was the heartbeat of those teams. In 1997, Carolina played Louisville in the 1997 regional final. The Cardinals rallied to make the game close in the second half, and Smith called timeout. “Well, we’ve had a great season,” he told his team. “I guess Louisville is just too good for us today.”

Okulaja started screaming in the huddle. He was too intent on winning the game and wasn’t going to listen to a concession speech, so he simply drowned out his Hall of Fame head coach. The Tar Heels won, advancing to the Final Four in Smith’s final Tar Heel victory. Okulaja’s fire was a big reason why.

His Carolina ties went far beyond just four basketball seasons. When another teammate, Shammond Williams, got married in 2011, Okulaja traveled from Europe to be there, and then made the short trip from Greenville to Asheville to watch Carolina defeat UNC-Asheville two days after the Carrier Classic. When he came to the United States in 2019, he made certain to visit Atlanta to connect with Carter—then with the Hawks—and Jamison, who came into town just to see his lifelong friends.

Because of his European basketball responsibilities, that 2011 game was one of the very few Tar Heel games Okulaja was able to see in person after his playing career. That’s why today’s Carolina fan may not be as familiar with him as they are some other players from that era; His jersey doesn’t hang in the Smith Center rafters and he (freaking Utah!) wasn’t part of a national championship team. But for those of us who had the privilege of watching him play and hearing Woody Durham enunciate, “A-de-mola O-ku-laja,” he is as vivid as the day he first pulled on that number-13 jersey.

You don’t understand this now, because the footage is grainy, but teams did not play the way those 1997 and 1998 Carolina teams played. It was even a little jarring to Tar Heel fans how much fun that group seemed to have dunking on everyone. Okulaja was sometimes the one doing the dunking, but he was just as often the one making the key pass or the important steal that led to the jam—and then he was enjoying it just as much as the rest of us.

“Ademola was the ultimate glue guy,” said Ed Cota, the point guard on those 1997-99 teams, said on Tuesday afternoon. “He was a true team player and a coach’s dream.”

Okulaja started ahead of Carter for much of the 1995-96 season, and luckily most of us didn’t really understand the internet then, because whether we would have broken it posting about Dean Smith knew what he was doing. By the time he was a senior, Okulaja was a first team All-ACC selection, the perfect testament to the evolution of a four-year Carolina basketball player.

A true citizen of the world, Okulaja isn’t merely someone who is an important part of Tar Heel history. He was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. When it fell, he visited the site with his mother and brother to grab a handful of the relic. There are people mourning across the world today—not just in Chapel Hill—because they were fortunate enough to know Ademola Okulaja.

In 2019, he compared playing for Carolina to being there as the Berlin Wall tumbled. “In the same way, you’re a part of history,” he said. “But you don’t realize you’re a part of history people will still be talking about 100 years down the road. You’re there, but you don’t quite grab (the significance).”

He battled cancer in 2008, at the end of his basketball career, but he beat it. Of course he beat it. Ademola Okulaja did not lose. Ademola Okulaja made game-winning three-pointers at University Hall in Charlottesville and went to two Final Fours and…today, Ademola Okulaja–the same man who did not eat red meat and worked out religiously and was a loving father to two sons- -did.

That simply doesn’t seem possible. Vince and Antawn don’t seem the same without Ademola. Theirs is a trio, always has been.

Ademola Okulaja was 46 years old.

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