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This week, Okon’s basketball travels take him to a familiar place

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, at 5:12 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 20, 2014, at 6:22 p.m.

Photos

Dominic Okon’s bucket list is a little different than yours.

This one example should underline it properly.

“I’ve been to all of the continents except for Australia and … Antarctica,” Okon said. “And Australia looks amazing. So that’s on my bucket list.”

Okon is in his seventh year as Wichita State’s director of operations for men’s basketball — with coach Gregg Marshall from the start — and his journey to this point has spanned (almost) the entire globe, starting from being raised in a seminary in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria to Wichita, last year’s historic Final Four run and the Shockers’ 27-0 start this season.

Those travels take a turn into Okon’s past this week, when WSU travels to Chicago to take on new MVC member Loyola on Wednesday. Okon played for the Ramblers for his final two college seasons, from 1996 to 1998.

“These guys on the (WSU) team are just such a joy to be around, and they’re a completely different group than what we had last year,” Okon said. “They’re determined to create their own identity. They kind of frown when you bring up last year’s team and that’s been their approach this whole year. That’s the way they’re wired.

“I haven’t been back to Loyola since 1999, when one of my old roommates graduated, but I’ve stayed in touch with (associate athletic director) Carolyn O’Connell and (associate athletic director) Tom Hitcho and I’m looking forward to going back and seeing them, seeing the new facilities and seeing the city again.”

Okon’s worldly ways can be traced to his childhood in the seminary, where his father, Rufus, was the chef. His mother, Margaret, taught at a local elementary school.

“The priests came from all over Europe and the U.S., and the seminary was where they trained the Nigerian priests,” Okon said. “At a very young age I was exposed to people from all over the world and that has had a great influence on who I am today. I want to say I’m good with people and I can relate well because of my background.”

It was also where Okon was introduced to sports – the compound in the seminary had basketball courts, tennis courts, a soccer field and a cricket field. And Okon played them all. But it was in basketball where he shined – by the time he was 14, he was traveling with the Nigerian national team.

He came to the United States in 1993 for college — two years after his father died of kidney failure — and spent one year at Liberty, where he sat out. He played two seasons at Three Rivers (Mo.) Community College and two at Loyola. He was an assistant coach for eight years at Three Rivers and for one year at Liberty before Marshall brought him to Wichita.

Marshall and Okon knew each other through a good friend he played basketball with in Nigeria, Eyo Effiong. Effiong played for Marshall at Winthrop.

“The people I’ve been around in my career, I know I’m fortunate,” Okon said. “Hopefully that continues for me.”

Two years ago, Okon was an assistant coach on the Nigerian national team that became the first in the country’s history to qualify for the Olympics, a rigorous two-month stretch that took them to Venezuela, Brazil and then to London.

Not that he got to enjoy it much. The day after the Nigerians were eliminated by France, he was on a plane back to Wichita to be with his family — wife Monica and sons Jaden and Jordan.

“My son was about to start school that week and I hadn’t seen him the whole summer,” Okon said. “As soon as (the Olympics) were over, my first thought was to get back to my family.

“Nigeria has an association that invites the coaches, and since I was part of the first group of coaches that made the Olympics I feel like I have a good chance of being back (in 2016). It’s a lot of work, but it was worth it.”

Back home, it was back to work for Marshall and the Shockers — a ride that didn’t end until a loss to Louisville in the Final Four in Atlanta.

“Whatever (Marshall) needs done, I do. Whatever I can take off his plate so that he doesn’t have to worry about it, I do,” Okon said. “I set up travel, practices for home and away. I handle all the equipment and team hotels and meals ... I’m there to make things run smoothly.”

Three is a magic number — Wichita State is No. 3 in both college basketball polls. The Shockers (27-0) moved up one spot in the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters. They dropped one spot in the coaches poll administered by USA Today. Syracuse (25-0), the nation’s other unbeaten team, is No. 1 in both polls. Florida (23-2) is No. 2 in both. Arizona is No. 4 in both polls, dropping one spot, after Friday’s loss to Arizona State.

WSU’s No. 3 ranking is its highest in the AP poll since it spent one week at No. 2, in the Dec. 29, 1981 poll.

Baker honored — WSU sophomore Ron Baker was named MVC player of the week. He averaged 22.5 points and 3.5 assists, making 17 of 29 shots, in wins over Southern Illinois and Evansville.

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