Ilana Okafor NGWSD Blog
I grew up the daughter of a former athlete. Dad pounded the pavement of the street basketball courts in New York City and eventually became a member of the All-Century Men’s Basketball team at George Washington University after an impressive college career with the Colonials. Years after Dad hung up his hightops and began a career in education, the hardwood came calling, once again.
Dad became an NBA referee when I was five years old. In the off-season, he would referee men’s urban summer leagues. I went everywhere I could with him. I watched games from the scorer’s table at Rucker Park. I sat at the end of the bench at Harlem River Park. I went to basketball camps and clinics watching Dad speak. I grew up in Madison Square Garden. Building security see me now and still remember the little girl who used to wait in the wings to meet the Knicks, hoping I could score an autograph from Kenny “Sky” Walker.
In high school, I started to attend games other than just basketball. As an active member of student government, I wanted to be supportive to many sports. This was when I went to my first organized women’s matchups in soccer, softball and field hockey, among others. When I went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my fanaticism increased. I was watching soccer and basketball games where Mia Hamm and Marion Jones established their careers. This was when I started to realize why I loved sports so much.
Sports were a setting where anyone could participate. Sex, race and religion did not matter. People set aside differences for the love of the game. Players on the fields respected one another and fought for the pride of their respective teams while fans cheered the common goal of a victory.
I became the Nike Representative in college where it was my job to provide publicity and sponsorship to non-varsity sporting events. One could find me at club sports tournaments, five-kilometer races and intramurals throughout the school year. I spent the summer after my junior year as the Nike representative for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. It was my job to generate interest for the Liberty all around New York City. When working with these athletes, my admiration for them increased. They embodied sportsmanship, teamwork and respect for their craft. Teresa Weatherspoon, Vicki Johnson, Becky Hammond and I would trek around the Big Apple to win over young fans – girls and boys – surprising them on basketball courts and teaching them skills.
As a professional, I worked for the NBA, the WNBA and BDA Sports Management. Luckily for me, I had current WNBA stars Seimone Augustus, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and Candice Wiggins as clients in public relations and marketing. Sports teach fundamental traits that can be applied everywhere in life and both women and men deserve to ability to develop and hone these qualities. If it wasn’t for the legislation of Title IX, these accomplished athletes would have been deprived of sharing their skills, talents and love of the game with fans like me everywhere.