Elie Okobo: 5531 Miles Away from Home to Chase NBA Dream
That’s how far 20-year-old Elie Okobo had to travel as he left his family in Bordeaux, France to chase his NBA dreams in the United States.
Basketball is a family tradition in the Okobo household as his father, Yves Okobo, played professionally in France and was the first to introduce Elie to the game.
“I was like three or four years old with my dad,” Okobo said. “I was going to his practices when I was a baby. I was just working out on the side. He gave me cones and everything and I would just work.”
While basketball is often just a hobby for most youngsters, for Okobo, it was already a lifestyle. The father and son bonded throughout his childhood over the sport and whether it was watching him play professionally or learning everything he had to offer, Elie’s dream was always to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to do everything like him,” Okobo said. “I just started basketball really early and I never stopped. I never tried to play soccer or other things, just basketball.”
Okobo’s main focus was to play professionally in France before ultimately discovering the excitement of the NBA in 2006. When he was nine years old, the flash of a young LeBron James and the French connection to Tony Parker instantly glued Okobo to the television.
Due to the time difference, a game played on Friday night wouldn’t air in France until the following morning. While most kids wake up to watch Saturday morning cartoons, Okobo arose bright and early to catch the latest NBA action.
“I remember on Saturdays when I was a kid, the game from Friday night was on TV in the morning,” Okobo said. “I was watching the NBA. I wanted to watch LeBron so bad because LeBron was my favorite player. I was watching the Cavaliers. It was like 9:00 AM. I was waking up, 'Oh the NBA is on this morning.' That was my first memory.”
After watching an NBA game, Okobo prepared each week to compete in a youth basketball game of his own later that day. This became a regular Saturday routine for Okobo, as he continued to improve his skills on the court by watching the best players on the planet from the other side of the world.
While Okobo was well on his was to playing professionally in France as a teenager, the possibility of traveling overseas to play in the NBA was beginning to shape into a reality.
“I was seeing how fast I was growing, how fast I was improving at basketball,” Okobo said. “When I started playing pro I was young, but I was already a pro. That was my first goal. I was a pro early, so why not try to make it to the NBA?”
Okobo played professionally in his hometown of Bordeaux before leaving his family and friends at 16 years old to join Espoir Pau-Lacq-Orthez in the LNB Espoir youth league.
“I moved over there and was living in a big building with all the athletes,” Okobo said. “I moved early from my parent's house.”
That move changed his career, as Okobo enjoyed a breakout season in 2017-18 and put his name on the map as an NBA prospect. Okobo earned LNB All-Star honors as he helped lead Pau-Orthez to the eight-seed.
On April 11, 2018, Okobo officially declared for the NBA Draft, but his overseas action continued. He scored a career-high 44 points in Game 1 of the playoffs with Pau-Orthez, giving his draft stock one final push before the Suns ultimately took him 31st overall a week and a half later.
While Okobo and his family were just getting used to the two-hour drive from Bordeaux to Pau, that distance would expand halfway around the globe as he made his way to Phoenix, AZ.
“They miss me sometimes,” Okobo said about his family. “It's not always easy for them to come over, but if they really need to or really want to, they can come over and I'll be able to see them.”
Okobo is certainly not alone as an international player in the NBA. As the game of basketball continues to grow more popular throughout the world, so does the percentage of foreign-born players in the NBA. With 108 international players from 38 countries and territories on roster to tip-off the 2019-20 season, Okobo isn’t the only one trying to find his way in a new environment.
This includes a number of his fellow Frenchmen, who have developed a tight-knit group within the NBA community over the years. From former Suns like Boris Diaw to two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, the French influence across the NBA has become more prominent in recent years.
“It's really nice,” Okobo said. “We can text each other whenever we want. We just give advices. I talk a lot with Frank Ntilikina. Every time a French player comes here, we go out to dinner and do something. When I go to their place, we're doing the same thing. So, it's really like a small community in the NBA and we help each other out.”
Some of the most memorable moments of his NBA career thus far included the opportunity to compete against his childhood idol,Tony Parker, twice during the 2018-19 NBA campaign. While it was Okobo’s rookie season and Parker’s farewell tour, the two were able to bond and formed a friendship that has benefitted Okobo during his basketball journey.
“It's really nice,” Okobo said. “He spent a lot of time in the NBA. He has a lot of experience. He won the NBA Finals. He was the Finals MVP. I ask him so many questions. To be able to play against him last year was pretty awesome. I learned a lot from him and we just text sometimes, we just call each other. He's a really nice guy and whenever I need him I know I can call him.”
While it’s going to take some time, Okobo is enjoying his adjustment to the culture in the United States as well as the overall NBA lifestyle. Despite the fact that he’ll have to overcome a few obstacles along the way, Okobo is willing to do whatever it takes to keep that child from Bordeaux’s dream alive.
“It's just a different culture, different language,” Okobo said. “So, I had to get used to all of that, but I think all of my teammates, the coaching staff, the organization have helped me a lot. Whenever I needed something, they helped me. I've kind of gotten used to it. Used to the game, used to the NBA lifestyle. It was a change, but I love it.”
PHOENIX SUNS TO HOST FIRST-EVER INTERNATIONAL NIGHT CELEBRATION
The Phoenix Suns will celebrate the global game of basketball on Saturday, Feb. 8 when they host the Denver Nuggets at Talking Stick Resort Arena at 7 p.m. Doors are set to open at 5:30 p.m. and the first 5,000 fans in attendance will receive an International Nightmini basketball, courtesy of FOX Sports Arizona.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of the late NBA commissioner David Stern, basketball has spread throughout the world and NBA opening-night rosters for the 2019-20 season included 108 internationalplayers from 38 countries and territories. In celebration of InternationalNight, Suns players will proudly don the flags of their native countries during pre-game introductions. The Suns have historically been early adopters to international talent and 41 foreign-born players have suited up for the team throughout the franchise’s history, including several members of this year’s squad. Horacio Llamas and Yuta Tabuse each made history as the first Mexican-born player and first Japanese-born player, respectively, to play in an NBA regular season game as members of the Suns. In 1985, the Suns drafted the “Balkan Banger” Georgi Glouchkov of Bulgaria, who became the first player from an Eastern European Bloc nation to play in the NBA. Charles Barkley represented the Phoenix Suns as a member of the iconic 1992 Olympics "Dream Team" that helped popularize basketball around the world and inspired future generations of international players.
Fans can visit Suns.com/International to take an interactive look at the globalization of the game.
As a part of the special night, fans are encouraged to visit the Fry’s Plaza beginning at 5:30 p.m. to place a pin on a travel map designating their family’s origins and pose for pictures around the world at the TapSnap photo booth. Fans will have the opportunity to enter to win an InternationalNight mini basketball signed by the entire team, and the game will also feature an International Dance Cam when fans can dance along to a myriad of songs and genres from different cultures across the globe.
Single-game tickets for all Suns home games are on sale at Suns.com. Call 602-379-SUNS to purchase season ticket PayPal SixthMan Memberships. Download the Official Suns + Talking Stick Resort Arena Mobile App, sponsored by Verizon, to stay connected with access to team news, highlights, stats, videos and more.