In the Fall of 1995, Carolina was experiencing a changeover from one guard to the next. The year prior, sophomores Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse had led the Tar Heels to a surprising appearance in the Final Four, narrowly losing to Arkansas. The duo took advantage of the good season and the uncapped NBA rookie contacts to declare for the pros, leaving a talented recruiting class to try and give Dean Smith one last run. Two of the recruits were as hyped as Stackhouse and Wallace (Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison), but there was a third recruit that would turn out to be just as important.
Ademola Okulaja came to Carolina via Germany, thanks to another German Carolina alumn, Henrik Rödl. By this point, Dean Smith had a knack for catching a solid international player or two, and this was before they would automatically look to the NBA. Along with Carter and Jamison, the trio would embark on an era of Carolina Basketball that would allow Dean Smith to leave at the top of his game. He didn’t have the same NBA talent as his classmates, but the 1997 and 1998 runs at the Final Four wouldn’t have happened without Okulaja on the roster.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Okulaja had passed away at the age of only 46.
Okulaja was part of the starting rotation of six by his junior year, and by his senior year had 13.9 points and 8.4 rebounds a game, which was good enough to be First Team All-ACC in 1999.
More than that, though, getting the privilege to watch Okulaja play was a treat. His last two seasons at Carolina were my first two, and thanks to being in the pep band I got to see almost all of his home games, including the thrilling home win against Duke in 97. His senior season may not have ended the way he wanted, but he still got to let everyone know there was a reason he got to wear Carolina Blue. This shot against UVa in Charlottesville was peak Ed Cota and Okulaja.
After Carolina, Okulaja wasn’t able to get in with any NBA squads as his game hadn’t quite been taken on by the pros in the United States yet. It’s unreal to think how his game may have translated in today’s NBA, but he still did well for himself. Okulaja played pro ball in Europe, even playing with Dirk Nowitzki for Team Germany in the 2002 FIBA World Championships, where they won a bronze medal.
In 2008, Okulaja was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his spine, which ended his pro career. In that N&O article linked above, it explains how he used that time to pivot away for post-basketball life, becoming an agent.
As one can imagine, as word spread tributes to Okulaja popped up all over social media.
This is so painful….we’re going to miss you my boy. RIP @Oak1713 I’m praying for your kids and family. Without a doubt you have touched the lives of many with your kindness. 1 thing for sure you will not be forgotten….— Vince Carter (@mrvincecarter15) May 17, 2022
Love you Oak
RIP Ademola Okulaja aka The Warrior, one of the greatest Tar Heels to ever do it pic.twitter.com/L9k9A665nV— Tate Frazier (@tatefrazier) May 17, 2022
Sad to hear about the loss of Ademola Okulaja. He was one of my favorite players during one of my favorite eras of Carolina hoops. And here's one of my favorite dunks of his: pic.twitter.com/4T2hgd0huD— Carolina Dunk of the Day (@UNC_Dunks) May 17, 2022
My heart is breaking right now. Huge loss for the #CarolinaFamily.— Scott Williams (@scottwill42) May 17, 2022
Ademola Okulaja was a great teammate & brother to us all.
Saddened to learn of the passing of former North Carolina star Ademola Okulaja, gone at age 46. Heartbreaking. https://t.co/7ZJ2IKOxJm— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) May 17, 2022
Wow man RIP Ademola Okulaja. My very first sports agent in my professional career and Tar Heel brethren. Can’t believe it man , prayers up to your family bro, you’ll forever be in my heart.— Justin Knox (@Tuscaloosa_Slim) May 17, 2022
From Ed Cota pic.twitter.com/hU3ht2Df4v— ♛Young Simba♛ (A Leaky Black Stan Account) (@CrownedPrinceHC) May 17, 2022
Also take the time to read Adam Lucas’ column on Okulaja that posted later on Tuesday. As someone who both was in school roughly at the time Okulaja was and has been given extraordinary access to Carolina Basketball throughout the years, it’s a must-read to try and grasp the impact of Ademola.
Ademola Okulaja. Gone at 46, but forever a Tar Heel.