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November 30, 2015

Jahlil Okafor dealing with the pitfalls of growing up in the public eye

Jahlil Okafor probably could have had a better Thanksgiving weekend. As the rest of the Philly sports scene is crumbling, the Sixers’ rookie was, just like on the basketball court, the center of attention.

While the Eagles were getting boat raced by the Lions on Thursday, video surfaced of Okafor involved in a street fight outside of a Boston nightclub in the wee hours of the morning. Then, we learned the incident was the continuation of at least a small pattern: The following day, the Inquirer reported that Okafor had a gun pointed at him outside of a nightclub in Old City in October. Scary stuff. Finally, because most bad things usually come in threes, it was reported by multiple sources that Okafor could be due for a pretty hefty speeding ticket after getting stopped earlier this month. Also, from the Inquirer:

Four sources independently confirmed to The Inquirer the 76ers center was pulled over on the Ben Franklin Bridge around three weeks ago for driving 108 miles per hour. Anything over 40 m.p.h. is considered reckless driving.

(As a quick aside, I don’t know how anyone can build up the speed to go over 100 mph on the Ben. The traffic pattern makes that seem pretty difficult.)

To state the obvious, none of this news is good. As a franchise, you don’t want your 19-year-old third overall pick drinking and partying on the road in Boston like Damon Wayans in Celtic Pride. You don’t want him consistently getting into fights and arguments when he’s out and about like in Roadhouse. You don’t want him driving like a street racer in one of the early Fast and the Furious movies.

Still, what strikes me the most about Okafor’s horrible, awful, no-good holiday weekend are the very real tradeoffs that NBA players are forced to make once they enter the league. On the positive side of things, you are very well compensated for your work. The players and owners will always disagree over the revenue split, but compared to the average person, an NBA salary is a pretty swell deal. In Okafor’s case, he should make around $20 million on his rookie deal alone. Spend that wisely and you are set for life.

He is also very famous, which as we know is a double-edged sword. When Okafor walks into a club in Philly at 6’11”, most people are going to automatically know who he is. Even when he becomes of legal drinking age, it will be much harder for him than the average person to hang out with his group of friends. In many cases, it will be impossible.

That constant attention brings hecklers, which is precisely how the ugly scene early Thursday morning in Boston happens. If that argument is between Murph and Sully, maybe it doesn’t escalate. The footage certainly doesn’t end up on TMZ, though. Such an obvious double standard isn’t fair, but for that reason, Okafor has to walk away from those situations in the future. Even more, he needs to anticipate them before they occur.

Okafor is a kid, and as many have pointed out, the Sixers are a team full of kids. With the way general manager Sam Hinkie has built this team (average age: 22.8), hardly anybody on the roster had been in that situation before this year. Fellow rookie Christian Wood, reportedly with Okafor that night, sure hasn’t. Would more veterans on the team have helped Okafor avoid some of these missteps? It’s hard to know for sure, but possibly.

Kids often learn from mistakes, as well. As Michael Baumann pointed out on Twitter, Cole Hamels once broke his hand in a bar fight at age 21. A decade later, he left Philadelphia as a World Series MVP and an extremely respected member of the community. The same type of normal growth could happen for Okafor, who is a new multimillionaire at 19 years old. I, for one, don’t know what I would have done at 19 with that type of money. It wouldn’t have been perfect, that is for sure.

Okafor tweeted out an apology on Sunday:

It has been quite a trying first month of the Jahlil Okafor era in Philly. The Sixers haven’t won a game and specifically don’t look good when Okafor is on the floor. That surprisingly hasn’t become a major storyline yet, unlike some of his choices off the court.

As an organization, the Sixers have been frequently criticized (sometimes unfairly) for the human element, their handling of personalities. How effective they are dealing with Okafor’s initial speed bumps will prove to be a major test in that department. 

Because when Jahlil Okafor leaves the arena, in many ways he’ll be even more under the microscope. After this week, the attention should only increase.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann