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Athletic Director

Cal State Fullerton Guard and former Gaucho Josh Akognon

Photo Courtesy of Nati Harnik- Associated Press
Akognon not about to give up his hoop dreams

PETALUMA — We can start anywhere, for the examples are truly everywhere, but let’s begin with apparently the most innocuous of images, Josh Akognon at home, watching television. Difficult to conceive this setting would reveal beyond a shadow of doubt his love for basketball, that if desire was the chief requirement to play the pro game, Akognon already is in the NBA Hall of Fame.

If Akognon, the former Casa Grande star recently named the Big West Conference Player of the Year, found himself in front of the tube, he would position an ottoman a couple of feet in front of a chair. He’d prop his feet on the ottoman and in the small space under his legs he’d dribble a basketball.

Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, like a metronome the ball would go, for as long as he sat in front of the television. Those HBO movies must have killed a lot of carpet at the Akognon home.

He’d dribble the ball going out to fetch the mail. He’d dribble the ball going to the store. He would go to sleep — Akognon swore this was true, er, oops, Josh is the son of a minister, OK, he didn’t swear — with a basketball cradled in his arms. If he went into a bank, Akognon would dribble the ball there. He’d be in the garage dribbling three basketballs at once.

You know how people go through different phases in their lives? Akognon measures his by basketball.

“I went through a phase in which I spun the basketball on one finger wherever I went,” he said.

His dad, Emmanuel, a Baptist pastor at a church in Marin City, would even let his son take a basketball with him inside the church during services.

“But no dribbling inside,” moaned Akognon, his head sagging in disappointment. He put the basketball under the pew, between his ankles and, yep, the guess here is, the ankles dribbled a little bit during the services. And, apparently, no spinning either.

Akognon took that desire, and a smooth jump shot, and made himself the talk of the Empire when he was at Casa. He was Northern California Division II Player of the Year in 2004, nominated as a McDonald’s All-American. He accepted a scholarship to Washington State, left there after a year, unhappy with the offense that ran at a snail’s pace, and transferred to Cal State Fullerton, where he just finished his senior season averaging 23.9 points a clip.

Of course there is only one place for Akognon to go from here.

“If Josh were 6-foot-6,” said a NBA West Coast scout, “you couldn’t talk to him; you’d have to go through his agent. Josh already would have his seat reserved at the lottery table, already would have met (commissioner David) Stern. Because he can put the ball in the basket at a phenomenal rate, if Josh were 6-foot-6 he’d be a lottery pick in the (June 25) draft.”

But Akognon is 5-foot-11. To some people, it’s like he has an unusual middle name: Josh He’s Only 5-foot-11 Akognon.

“I’m addicted to proving people wrong,” said Akognon, 23. “When I was a sophomore at Casa people told me I wasn’t good enough to play JVs (junior varsity).”

That is the same guy who just had his number (1) retired at Fullerton, an honor afforded to the conference’s MVP.

So he’s too small. So he comes from the Empire, where a player has yet to make it in the NBA. So he comes from a small college conference that hasn’t produced many big NBA names. So he wasn’t a playmaker in college, 5-foot-11 guards need to be playmakers in the NBA. So his turnovers-assist ratio this season at Fullerton was nearly 2-to-1, the NBA prefers the exact opposite ratio.

So what, he says.

He wasn’t asked to distribute at Fullerton. He was asked to shoot. He’s always been asked to shoot that quick-release jumper.

And, Akognon advised, it wasn’t as if he was born with a silver basketball in his mouth. He had to learn the game from the ground up. When it comes to sweat equity, Akognon already is a million-dollar player. He is a gym rat of the first rank.

“I’ve guarded big guys before, like (6-foot-6) Manu Ginobli (San Antonio Spurs),” Akognon said. “When you put me in an arena with 20,000 people, facing a taller player, it gets my adrenaline going and I feel faster, stronger, taller.

“I’ve heard it all. Some people say I’ll get drafted in the first round. Some people say I won’t get drafted at all. Some people say I’ll play in Europe. Some people say I won’t play anywhere.”

Akognon says what he always has said. Phooey. He’s hired super agent Bill Duffy, who represents such NBA stars as Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony and Baron Davis. Akognon will attend the two must-go NBA-run pre-draft camps: April 7 in Portsmouth, Va., just for graduating NCAA seniors; and May 27-30, the Chicago combine. Duffy will be scheduling Akognon for individual workouts in front of NBA teams in June.

“My term for this summer is head-hunting,” said Akognon, who graduated from Fullerton with a degree in Afro Studies. “I want Bill to contact all the lottery teams.”

Akognon knows he already has a future as a pro. Last summer, for example, he received two offers from Italian teams to turn pro, one for $80,000 a season and one for $103,000. But he is holding out for something better.

“Thing is,” Akognon said, “once European teams find out the NBA thinks you’re good enough to go to its pre-draft camps, they know you’re good enough for them. When you are on the NBA’s radar, you are on Europe’s as well.”

If Akognon has to spend a couple of seasons in Europe, refining his game, count him in. He didn’t spend all that time living with the basketball, the ball itself his teddy bear at night, for him to fold. Basketball has been at his core in a most personal way.

“I started playing in high school,” he said, “because I wanted to feel more important that just someone going to class.”

Akognon had begun playing the sport as a freshman but didn’t feel connected.

“I wasn’t taking it seriously,” he said. But then one day, in the middle of his sophomore year at Casa, in a pick-up game, Akognon went in for a lay-up. His shot was about to be blocked. At the last second he passed the ball behind the back of the kid who was going to block him. His coach, Jeremy Russotti, caught it, laid it in.

“Coach probably doesn’t even remember that,” Akognon said.

But right then Akognon got it. It was the tipping point for him.

He heard the reaction to his pass. The hook was planted. It’s when everything changed, he said. He heard the oohs and he knew he had to hear more of them.

“I live for playing in front of people,” he said.

That’s when the basketball became his 24/7 companion, his teddy bear, his bouncy TV buddy. It’s now almost eight years later and Akognon is not about to give up his best friend. They have been through so much, gone so far, defied the odds, you get the sense Akognon would be disappointed if he didn’t see at least one nod of approval. Sometimes addiction, he would say, is a good thing.

For more on North Bay high school sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5490 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.