British Champ Joins P-P Squad

Donald Okpalugo PO ’13 is easily recognizable on the Pomona campus. Standing 6’7” tall and listed at 240 pounds, he has one of the greatest combinations of size and strength that this school has seen in years. Then he speaks. Out comes a pure English accent that almost feels out of place amidst the Claremont sunshine and Southern California slang. It was a long journey that led Okpalugo to play basketball for the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens.Born and raised in Manchester, England, Okpalugo was a pretty typical boy growing up. He played soccer and loved Manchester United with all his heart—He lived right around the corner from their training ground. In the summer before eighth grade, Okpalugo had a gigantic growth spurt that left him much taller than his peers. It was only then, at the ripe old age of 15, that he first played basketball at the suggestion of a family friend.Anyone who has tried to play basketball for the first time can attest that it is surprisingly difficult to get that orange sphere into a 18-inch-diameter ring ten feet above the ground. The experience was no different for Okpalugo. He classifies his level of play as “terrible” at first, but the coach on his club basketball team was helpful, and nurtured Okpalugo’s instant love for the game.After his first season on the court, Okpalugo was faced with a difficult decision. He didn’t have enough time to play both soccer and basketball at the level he wanted. Fortunately for the Pomona-Pitzer basketball team, he chose his newfound love instead of the old flame and dedicated himself to basketball.Okpalugo idolized Scottie Pippen. Playing for the England Junior National Team, he split time between the small forward and power forward positions, attempting to emulate his favorite player. He also got to enjoy some of the perks that come with being a national team player. Playing for his country at the U-20 European Championships in Bulgaria, the team had a day off from practice. So like any good team, they decided to take a trip to a local water park to strengthen the team’s chemistry. They had no idea how good this trip would be for morale. Bulgarian women are not shy, and many of the ladies at the water park were enjoying the summer sun while topless. This experience is probably the best reason why Okpalugo wants to play professionally in Europe after his time at Pomona.After learning the game in England, Okpalugo came to the land that gave birth to basketball, attending Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts for his final two years of high school. At Deerfield, he was able to return to playing both basketball and soccer, while determining where he wanted to go to college. Okpalugo was recruited by a number of schools, including Cornell, Harvard, Columbia, Pomona, and Davidson. One of his good friends from his early days of club basketball at Deerfield, Andrew Lovedale, played at Davidson—his name might be familiar to those who watched Davidson nearly go to the Final Four in 2008. Once while playing pick-up ball, Lovedale caught Okpalugo in the face with an errant elbow, breaking the future Sagehen’s nose. While many Division I schools recruited Okpalugo, he had his heart set on Pomona. He wanted to have more time to focus on his studies than a Division I college program would allow. However, it seemed that he wasn’t going to get to go to his dream school, as he was initially wait-listed at Pomona. Prepared to attend Cornell, Okpalugo got off the wait-list in June and saw it as “an opportunity [he] could not pass up.”Okpalugo’s adjustment to life in California was not smooth at first, but he seems to be getting comfortable. The culture shock of coming from Deerfield to Pomona was greater than the shock he had experienced leaving England. The weather here turned Okpalugo into a self-described insomniac for his first two months in California, because he didn’t know how to sleep when it was Inland-Empire hot outside. He also found himself questioning the accuracy of the admission office’s portrayal of Pomona.However, Okpalugo has adapted to life at Pomona, with some help from the basketball team. He appreciates how friendly and welcoming all the upperclassmen on the basketball team have been to him and the other freshmen.Teammate Adam Chaimowitz PO ’10 said, “The upperclassmen were awesome when I was in my first two years here. I think we are all a really tight group and it is easy to be welcoming when you like the guys you practice and play with every day.”Okpalugo’s experience shows that the tradition of excellent team chemistry has continued for the Sagehens. He also gave a glimpse into the engine that drives this team: Coach Charles Katsiaficas.Okpalugo said, “There is nobody on earth that I am more afraid of than Coach Kat when he is mad.”This statement is shocking when you consider that Okpalugo is nearly a full foot taller than his coach. However, when Katsiaficas gets after a player, that player remembers it and does everything in his power to not let it happen again.It’s not just the fear of a tongue lashing that has helped Okpalugo develop his game this year. Coach Katsiaficas has done an excellent job of giving Okpalugo a defined role and the confidence to perform it. Okpalugo has been playing the role of sixth man recently, and judging from his increased minutes, he has been performing his duties well. This improvement has been noticed by his teammates.Chaimowitz noted, “[Okpalugo’s] offensive game inside is getting better and he is starting to make better decisions as to when to be aggressive and try to take his man versus pass it out to a teammate with a good look from the outside.”If Okpalugo continues to develop and Coach Katsiaficas keeps him hungry, he could become the SCIAC Karl Malone, a bruising presence inside who can work from mid-range as well.

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