For Teddy Okereafor, VCU was not somewhere he was familiar with. In fact, until recently, he’d never even heard of the school.
“At first I was like, ‘VCU? VCU? I don’t know about VCU,’” he said.
Coming from London, Okereafor was only familiar with national brands of college basketball.
“In England, the big schools get put on TV. The Dukes, the Georgetowns, the UNCs,” he said.
After the Final Four run in 2011 put VCU on the map, he decided it was worth taking his talents to Richmond.
“I came down on my official (visit) and came on a couple unofficial (visits) …I loved the way Coach (Smart) interacted with me – it was just a great feeling to get a Division I scholarship coming from England and having that goal, then accomplishing it — it was amazing.”
But how did he get to this point in the first place?
Okereafor was born in London in the Stratford district, where the most recent summer Olympics were held. In his early childhood, he began playing the most popular sport in the world — soccer. It wasn’t until an influential figure suggested basketball that Okereafor picked it up.
“My stepdad came into my life and my brother started playing basketball, so then I started playing basketball,” he said. “Then I took it seriously at like 11 … and started working on it every day.”
His stepdad, Chris Facey, played basketball in high school, which impressed Okereafor so much that he wanted to follow in his footsteps. What he didn’t know was that he would do something his stepdad never did.
In 2010, the Under-18 (U18) European Championships were being held in Israel. Okereafor was so impressive over the years leading up to it that he was offered a spot on the team. He said the experience was unlike anything he’s encountered before.
“It was amazing. I’ve played a bunch of countries. Not just teams anymore — they’re like whole nations,” he said.
Traveling was something he really enjoyed leading up to the championship and the event itself.
“I’ve been to Austria, I’ve been to Belgium and we played in Israel for the championships. The one thing I love about the sport is it lets me travel. I’ve seen places all over the world that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t play,” Okereafor said.
After conquering the national team, his next goal was within reach.
“I had the dream of coming to America because my stepdad played in America. It was like a goal for me to do the same thing.”
Okereafor transferred to Christchurch School in Virginia in the fall of 2010 for his senior year of high school in order to get recognized by colleges and to take his talents to the next level. His dominant performances continued as he was named the Virginia Prep League Player of the Year after leading his team to the semifinals, while also named First-Team All-State.
He had achieved his first goal in less than a year. Okereafor was a prevalent high school player like his stepdad. Now, he set his sights on bigger and better things, like college basketball.
Catching the eye of Shaka Smart, the offer to play at VCU was on the table and Okereafor took him up on it.
Then came the learning curve — Coach Smart’s HAVOC style of play.
“It (was) hard but enjoyable. He can tell you how to improve and what to do to work on something to make it the best it can be. He lets you make a mistake then gives you a chance to change it and correct it and he’s just all about improving.”
Okereafor’s first season of HAVOC was a difficult one and he didn’t get much playing time because he was a freshman. Although his minutes were limited, he always made the most of his time on the court and wanted to make an impact. One game in particular, he did.
In VCU’s opening game of last year’s CAA tournament, Darius Theus was in foul trouble late in the game against Northeastern. Enter then-freshman Okereafor, who would go on to add eight points and two assists to secure a Rams victory that would lead them to claim their first CAA tournament title since 2009.
Smart knows the potential Okereafor has and wants to help him achieve it by any means necessary. Knowing he will be the future starting point guard, Smart wants Okereafor to hone his skills and utilize them to the best of his abilities.
“He’s got to continue to learn to control the team and run the team while he’s in,” Smart said. “He’s clearly gotten a lot better from last year.”
Theus was in a position similar to Okereafor’s just a few years ago when he was the successor to the leader of the team, so he knows how it feels.
“I remember being that guy looking up to Joey (Rodriguez), looking up to my fellow upperclassmen,” Theus said. “For Teddy, he’s such a great player and he knows the game, he even helps me sometimes.”
Knowing Okereafor will be his successor, Theus treats him as a pupil, training and molding into the most potentially successful player he can be.
“I just try to show him the level of toughness and how to lead his team,” Theus said. “(I tell him), ‘You’re the point guard, you’re the guy. The ball is in your hands for (nearly) 40 minutes of the game.’ I just try to show Teddy that throughout this whole game, you’re the guy who’s running this show, you’ve got to lead your team.”
Even though practices are serious for the team, having Okereafor around for lighthearted fun is something his teammates appreciate.
“He’s got a little accent, so we try to talk like him sometimes. Then we can find him trying to talk like us sometimes; and then there’s times where he doesn’t understand what he’s saying,” Theus said.
With Okereafor’s family back in England, his teammates have also taken on making sure he feels at home while he’s away from home.
“There may be times where Teddy can come home with me and spend time with my family; he may go with Troy (Daniels) sometimes and spend time with his family,” Theus said. “We’re all a family and we have this great bond and even though he’s away from his family in England, right here in Richmond, this is his home.”
With the season already underway, Okereafor hopes to achieve the goals he has set out for this season. One is to add the Atlantic 10 to his list of conquered conferences and add to his “silverware.”
“I want to win that league because in America it’s different, you win a ring. In London, you win a certificate or a little medal, so it’s huge because you get the silverware and everything,” Okereafor said.
The other is to return to the NCAA Tournament, a feat he achieved as a freshman. The joy he felt making it to the Big Dance last season was unlike anything he’s felt before.
“It’s huge. You go from watching it as a kid and saying, ‘I want to play there’ and then you actually do and come onto the court and see the big NCAA sticker on center court and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m here’,” Okereafor said. “The same thing I dreamt about eight years ago, I’m here doing. It’s just amazing, it’s a dream come true.”
His ultimate goal is to follow suit with Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders by making it to the NBA. But for now, Okereafor is focused on his time as a VCU Ram.