Bob Lutz: Semi Ojeleye becomes record holder with unassuming attitude

03/16/2013 4:04 PM

03/16/2013 4:05 PM

What can you say about Ottawa senior basketball player Semi Ojeleye that he hasn’t said about himself?

Almost everything, as it turns out. Because Ojeleye, who this season set the Kansas high school record for points in a season (952) and a career (2,763), almost always refuses to talk about himself.

He didn’t go to The Eagle’s All-State team picture this year, even though it was taken about 50 minutes from his house. He had missed three days of school because of the Class 4A tournament and was trying to get caught up.

He opted not to be interviewed for this column, fearful of taking too much of the spotlight away from his teammates, Ottawa coach Jon McKowen said.

“He’s very quiet, very quiet,’’ said Ottawa point guard Dallas Natt. “He doesn’t speak of his talent or how great he is.’’

Natt, who considers Ojeleye his best friend, didn’t even find out his buddy was going to Duke until he saw it posted by another friend on Twitter.

A kid from Ottawa goes to Duke, you’d think he’d look for a mountain top from which to scream.

Not Ojeleye, a powerful 6-foot-8, 215-pound player whose powerful body has plenty of room for a massive ego. But the power of his will is stronger.

“He just wants to hang low,’’ said McKowen, Ottawa’s coach the past six years when explaining why Ojeleye declined an interview. “He goes to Duke in three months. He’s just working out now, keeping his head down. He’s a very humble person and doesn’t really like individual attention, to be truthful about it.’’

When a player averages 38.1 points for a 25-0 team that knocks off Highland Park in the Class 4A championship game in front of a scoot-close crowd of nearly 7,000 in Salina, individual attention swarms like a thousand angry bees.

Ojeleye had been a starter on three Ottawa teams that came up one game short of winning state titles before the Cyclones finally broke through a week ago.

“Semi’s reaction was that he had the biggest smile I’ve ever seen in my life from him,’’ McKowen said. “It was truly the only thing he could do to finish off his career. He broke five state records in high school with more individual accomplishments than he ever wanted. But he wanted this state title so bad for his teammates.’’

Ojeleye has nowhere to hide, of course, in Ottawa, where he’s Elvis with his combination of talent, fame and reclusiveness. The Cyclones’ basketball championship was their first since 1971, when Steve Grogan – previously the city’s most adorned and adored athletic figure – was the point guard.

Grogan, of course, was better known for football and later was the quarterback for Kansas State and the New England Patriots.

“People in town still talk about that ’71 team and how talented those guys were,’’ McKowen said.

Now there’s something more contemporary to discuss. Ojeleye and Co. formed a team for the history books.

“I moved here from Gardner when I was a freshman and I couldn’t believe it when I first saw Semi,’’ Natt said. “I couldn’t believe he was a freshman in high school. I asked him to show me his driver’s license to prove it. He was so big and to play with him has just been incredible.’’

Natt said Ojeleye is a nurturing teammate, one who unselfishly shares the basketball and conveys a calmness that spreads like a fog to Ottawa’s other players.

“He has such great poise,’’ Natt said. “You can never shake that kid. He’s a great guy who loves God and is the first one in the classroom and the gym and the last one out of both. He’s always studying. He’s a straight-A student who is going to Duke to play basketball. Who doesn’t want those things in life?’’

Ojeleye never seriously considered Kansas, even though Lawrence is 25 miles up the road. He did have a connection with former KU assistant Danny Manning, but after Manning left to be the coach at Tulsa last spring, the possibility of becoming a Jayhawk disappeared.

When word got out in September that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was coming to Ottawa to visit Ojeleye, the townspeople got excited.

“But everybody was very, very respectful that it was about Semi,’’ McKowen said. “We didn’t want to make it a parade. And we’ve had a lot of Division I coaches come through to recruit Semi. Obviously, Coach K is an amazing person.’’

With a college choice made, Ojeleye could focus on helping Ottawa win that elusive state title. Few thought the Cyclones could do it against a Highland Park that was a 5A power before dropping a class because of declining enrollment.

But Ottawa pulled it off in Ojeleye’s final high school game. It was a storybook finish, but now the book could close. Not only is Ojeleye finished with his Cyclones career, but so are eight other seniors.

“Semi’s the most recognizable person in town,’’ McKowen said. “Definitely more than the mayor. And everybody has the same view of Semi, that he’s a great person.’’

And the best player, surely, McKowen will ever coach.

“Well, there’s a good possibility of that,’’ he said. “But now there are about a thousand kids in town who think they’re gonna be the next Semi.’’

Kids who watched Ojeleye with eyes wide and jaws dropped now want to be him.

“He’s created a lot of dreamers,’’ McKowen said.

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