Okey far more than OK
Dave “Doc” Koehler, a veteran of 30 years of coaching high school basketball in the state, still remembers the first time he saw Sam Okey.
It was in the pre-game warmups before a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association state tournament game. It was three years ago, when Okey was a freshman.
Koehler was sitting in about the third row of the bleachers at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse and he had yet to see Okey take a shot in traffic, go one-on-one at either end of the court or battle anyone on the boards.
But Koehler saw something else that told him this kid was something special.
“The thing that impressed me most is his eyes,” Koehler said. “I looked in those eyes and said, `My God!’ He has that fire in his eyes that you just love. I said, `This is a guy who is going to be a great one.’ “
This weekend, Okey, a 6-foot-7-inch senior, ended his brilliant high school career by making his fourth consecutive WIAA state tournament appearance, leading little Cassville High School, a 160-student school in far southwestern Wisconsin, to its second straight Division 4 championship.
He also was the clear and obvious choice to be the player of the year, for the second straight year, on The Milwaukee Journal’s third annual Okey
Please see Okey page 6 From page 1
all-state boys basketball team.
Moreover, some people believe Okey isn’t just the player of the year, but the player of all time in Wisconsin. One of those folks is Jerry Petitgoue, a head coach in Wisconsin for 29 years, the last 24 at Cuba City, and someone just five victories away from 500.
“You talk Jim Chones. You talk Joe Wolf. I go back a long ways. You talk Ricky Olson. I’ve seen the best, and at this stage, I feel he’s better than any of them,” Petitgoue said.
“It’s tough with Jim Chones because that was so long ago. But Joe Wolf wasn’t that long ago and there were some similarities. Both were from small towns. Joe Wolf was very, very good. But he wasn’t the power player this kid was.”
Okey finished his senior season with 844 points, the seventh-highest single-season total in state history. He finished his career with 2,539 points, the fourth-highest total in state history.
But he is much more than a scorer.
“He has got just a natural instinct for the game,” said Dennis Uppena, his coach at Cassville. “There is no question I’ve never met a player as competitive as Sam and who has the confidence in his ability that he does.
“He knows there are other players with more ability, who are quicker and faster. But he says nobody is going to outwork him.”
Okey is a chiseled 230-pounder, a power player with a quick drop step and a devastating slam-dunk. He ruled the boards in just about every game he played, and he intimidated opponents with his awesome shot-blocking ability.
But he also can shoot with either hand, dribble the ball upcourt against pressure and rely on his timing as much as his physical prowess to dominate as a defender.
He is truly a complete package. In Saturday’s Division 4 championship game against Oakfield, he even buried 6 of 10 three-point shots in a 56-43 victory.
Some of Okey’s stats this season were almost mind-boggling. He made 333 of 416 two-point shots that comes out to an astounding 80%. He had 384 rebounds, a 14.2 average. He had 156 blocked shots, a 5.8 average. He had 143 assists, a 5.3 average.
Only his free-throw shooting and three-point shooting would be in the range of what most mere mortals average. He shot 64% from the line and 34% from three-point range.
“The kid is strong,” said Win Parkinson, the coach at Milwaukee Tech and someone who has seen a host of outstanding players in his 27 years in the City Conference.
“He’s good inside. He’s not great outside, but he’s developed a better outside game. He’s a player. He just hasn’t played against good teams. For sure, he’s got to be the best since Wolf came out.”
Wolf, who played at Kohler, was 6-10 when he finished his high school career in 1983. He averaged 30.9 points, 17.1 rebounds and 4.2 blocked shots as a senior. He later played collegiately at North Carolina and was the 13th pick in the 1987 National Basketball Association draft. He is currently a Charlotte Hornet.
Other outstanding Wisconsin high school players in the last 50 years included Chones, a 6-11 center at Racine St. Catherine’s who graduated in 1969 and later played for Marquette and for 10 years in the American and National Basketball Associations; Milwaukee Lincoln guards Max Walker, class of ’62, and Fred Brown and Clarence Sherrod, class of ’67, who later became standouts in the Big Ten and, in Brown’s case, the NBA; and John Johnson, a 6-7 forward at Milwaukee Messmer who graduated in 1966 and later played 12 years in the NBA.
The list could go on.
There was Don Kojis of Milwaukee Notre Dame, Bill Hanzlik of Beloit and Nick Van Exel of Kenosha St. Joseph, three other first-team all-state players who made it in the NBA.
There were two-time first-team all- state picks before Okey, including Bob Sullivan of Manitowoc, Dale Koehler of Kewaunee and Calvin Rayford of Milwaukee Washington, all so honored by The Associated Press. And there have been some others such as Roy Birk of Waukesha, who scored the most points in a single state tournament; Olson, a dazzling guard at Madison La Follette who later played at Wisconsin, and Wausaukee’s Anthony Pieper, the state’s all-time scoring leader.
Is Okey better than any of them as a high school player? Is he clearly the best ever in the state, or just one of the best?
Parkinson, Bob Suter of Janesville Craig and Tom Desotell of Sheboygan North aren’t willing to go as far out on a limb as Petitgoue.
“He’s in a category with those kids,” Parkinson said. “Okey is stronger than any of those kids.
“But Johnson was quick. At the time he played for Messmer, they played good teams all the time. Okey hasn’t played against good players.”
Suter agreed that Okey is a special player, but he said the phrase “best ever” was one he would rarely, if ever, use.
“You say `ever,’ you’re talking Jim Chones and some pretty great kids down the line that people forget about over the years,” Suter said. “But he’s one of the best in modern times, no question about that.”
Desotell, in his 18th year at Sheboygan North, said not to forget that Wolf was 3 inches taller in high school and probably a better outside shooter.
“Joe Wolf was something special,” said Desotell, “and I wouldn’t go any further than saying he’s as good as Joe Wolf. I wouldn’t say he’s better than Joe Wolf.”
Okey’s next stop is the University of Wisconsin, where he signed a national letter of intent. And, perhaps someday he will join a select group of players from Wisconsin who have made it to the NBA.
“We’re not able to push him, so I don’t know what his limits are,” Uppena said. “I think he’ll excel as a Division I player and I think he’ll go beyond that.”
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