They called him the Warrior because he fought like a warrior for rebounds at the basket and also dived after basketballs at ground level, but that actually sounds too martial for a friendly person like Ademola Okulaja. Rather, I remember his friendly grin, which I often saw as a basketball reporter for the Tagesspiegel.
There was also a lot to smile about for Ademola Okulaja, who was the best player of the Nowitzki era in German basketball – after Dirk Nowitzki. In 1995, the son of a Nigerian and a German mother won the Korac Cup with his hometown club Alba Berlin, the greatest success of a German basketball club to date. The Berliner then went to the University of North Carolina, where he formed a strong trio with later NBA stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.
After his return he became German champion in 2000 with Alba. And in 2002, the 2.06 meter tall small forward, with his slinky running style and explosive jumping power, won the bronze medal with the German national team at the World Championships in Indianapolis.
Once I happened to meet him at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, and since I couldn’t find an exchange office there, he willingly exchanged my Deutschmarks for dollars. He came out of training camp with the San Antonio Spurs, where he had tried again to make the roster for the NBA season. The lack of commitment in the best basketball league in the world and the lack of a foul on Hidayet Türkoglu in the EM semifinals in 2001 are among the few lows in his great basketball career.
Because it was a great European career, including at the top clubs FC Barcelona, Unicaja Malaga, Benetton Treviso and Khimki Moscow. He missed the European Championship silver medal in 2005 due to an injury, but he still made a total of 172 international matches for the German Basketball Association. After the discovery of a spinal cord tumor in 2008, Ademola Okulaja had to interrupt his career. After his recovery, he continued to play basketball, eventually retiring in 2010.
Ademola Okulaja then worked as a basketball commentator and player advisor. He then helped the German internationals Dennis Schröder and Daniel Theis to do what he was denied as a player: an NBA contract. The last time I saw him was three or four years ago in a supermarket in the southwest of Berlin. He joked with his two sons, it became a big purchase, because that’s what he was: a caring father. Earlier this week, Ademola Okulaja died at the age of 46.