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Sam Okey: In his own words
Cassvilles Sam Okey was a rare talent who could play all five offensive positions in high school, and still be a force on defense. On Saturday, Sept. 26, he will be inducted into the WBCA Hall of Fame.

     Last Friday afternoon my phone rang with a familiar voice greeting me at the other end.

     It was Sam Okey, who heard I had been trying to get in touch with him for a story, which actually ran in last week’s Grant County Herald Independent.

    Even with my story about Okey being inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame already printed, I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip by.

     For years I’ve wanted to sit down with Okey, who is now 38 years old, and get his personal and honest perspective on his basketball career.

     Keep in mind that all of us have some regrets in life, but I prefer to focus on the positives, which you will see from my questions to Okey. After all, this is about celebrating his induction into the WBCA Hall of Fame.

     What I found settling in talking with Sam, is that in recent years now, he has chosen to look back on his playing career as a positive experience and not the disappointment that many Monday morning quarterbacks would have you believe it was.

     While I’m typically not a fan of the “question-answer” format to writing a story, I did so anyway, as I felt there was significant value in seeing Okey’s answers in his own words.


A.J. Gates: “It’s been 20 years now since playing at Cassville High School, does it feel like it’s been that long?”

Sam Okey: “Some days it does and some days it doesn’t. It’s a cool thing to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, like I told coach (Uppena), but it’s another thing, like you said, I’m 20 years out of high school now.”


Gates: “What does it mean to you to be going into the WBCA Hall of Fame on your first year being eligible?”

Okey: “You know what, it’s a really cool thing, just because it helped me realize how special it really was at that time. You know, being from a small town, and being able to travel around. Basketball took me a lot of places I probably would never have been even yet without all that.”


Gates: “Like you said, basketball took you places and allowed you to do things that not many small-town kids get to do.”

Okey: “Absolutely. And it also brings back a lot of good memories. The teams we had, and the guys that I played with like (Chad) Infield, the Ackerman twins, all the Uppenas, and all the others. It will be good to see everybody again, that’s for sure.”


Gates: “Are a lot of those guys going to be there (Hall of Fame induction), and do you keep in contact with them?”

Okey: “I’m still in contact with pretty much all of them. I think they’ll all be there. Coach Uppena will be there, and I’m sure (Jerry) Petitgoue will be there because he’s one of the head guys. He was my AAU coach in high school. He’s affected a lot of people’s lives when it comes to basketball. And, Petitgoue still looks the same. I can’t tell if he’s 80 or if he’s 40.”


Gates: “On the subject of high school basketball, how easy was it for you, playing in the Blackhawk conference? You could have scored 60 points a night I’m sure.”

Okey: “It got easier, especially with all the AAU experience I had. We’d go around to the national tournaments and play against the top competition in the country, and then come back to play at Cassville. There were definitely times it seemed a little bit unfair. But still, everybody was always giving us their best game because we didn’t lose that much. It was definitely a great experience. I look back on all that stuff with nothing but fond memories.”


Gates: “When talking with Denny (Uppena) he mentioned how unselfish you were, and said that you’d be the first to admit that those teams were more than just Sam Okey. You had some guys on those teams that could play ball too.”

Okey: “Absolutely. I think the teams I’ve played with, they probably would have went to state anyways. I don’t know if they would have went undefeated and all that, but I bet they would have had a chance to go anyway. You know, we all played together since we were in fifth grade, and that made a big difference, that’s for sure.”


Gates: “Right now open enrollment is big, and kids are going to bigger schools if they are good at a certain sport. Did that thought ever cross your mind 20 years ago when you were in high school?”

Okey: “I think it was talked about a little bit, but that was the reason my dad moved back from Milwaukee to Cassville. He wanted to raise us in a community like that. I mean it was maybe just said in passing, but we never really gave it any serious thought. Now a days with social media, and with how everything is, it’s different. When I was going to school, it wasn’t as easy to do that, or even to know where you stood, you know what I mean? Now it’s a business from the time you’re  13 until the time you’re done playing.”


Gates: “Looking back at your high school career, other than the state championship games, are there other games that stand out to you, like maybe playing in ‘The Pit,’ or something like that?”

Okey: “Oh ya. One of the games that stands out is when we played Cuba City during a holiday tournament. They were ranked high in the division up above us, and were kind of a rival. That’s when Bo (Ryan) was coaching at UW-Platteville, and they actually had to move one of their college games to accommodate for our game because the ticket demand was higher.”


Gates: “You also played Dubuque Senior that year too right?”

Okey: “Ya, we played them, and in one of the holiday tournaments we also went up to the old field house in Madison and played Middleton and ended up beating them. I don’t know if that could ever happen anymore.”


Gates: “You’re fifth on the Wisconsin high school all-time scoring list. Did that ever bother you, knowing that you could have scored a lot more points? In my opinion you could have been right at the top, if not the top scorer.”

Okey: “No, not really. Because, just the fact that we got to play in four state championship games. It also taught you about sportsmanship and all that kind of stuff. I’m sure it bothered me more in high school than it does now.”


Gates: “The whole McDonald’s All-Star experience; what was that like for you? That had to be something pretty special.”

Okey: “Ya, that still is. Actually, my mom and I were going through some old pictures because of this Hall of Fame thing, and there’s a picture of me with coach (John) Wooden. It was a first-class thing all the way. We went down to St. Louis. They put us up for a week in a nice hotel. We got to visit the Ronald McDonald House and spend time with kids with terminal cancer. That gives you some perspective, you know what I mean. You’re worried about a high school class, or who you’re going to take to prom, and all this and that. Here there are little kids dying, and to be able to put a smile on their face. That really puts things into perspective, that’s for sure.”


Gates: “Playing in that game, and the guys that you played with, that is something that I’m sure will stick with you for awhile.”

Okey: “Absolutely. Some of the guys that I played with are old grizzled veterans. Paul Pierce is still playing, (Vince) Carter is still playing, and (Kevin) Garnett.”


Gates: “Not a lot of people know about your AAU experience, and how that came about. From the minute school was out for the summer, were you spending time in Milwaukee, or how did that work for you?”

Okey: “My first AAU experience was with coach (Jerry) Petitgoue. I played with them for two years, and then I played for Hugh Roberts in Randolph until I was 15. Then, I think my dad realized that if I wanted to take my game to the next level, I’d have to play with the city kids more, and he got me playing in Milwaukee. From pretty much the time that school got out, until the time school started back up, we were traveling all over.”


Gates: “Were you staying in Milwaukee during the summer, or were you commuting back and forth?”

Okey: “I commuted sometimes, but a lot of times I stayed with a couple of the players there. They let me stay with them, and showed me what city life was like, which I had no idea at the time.”


Gates: “Obviously that is where you prepared yourself for D1 college ball, it wasn’t playing in the Blackhawk conference.”

Okey: “Absolutely.”


Gates: “As far as your decision to play at Wisconsin, was it ultimately an easy decision? With Dean Smith coming to town did that make it tough, or was it just Wisconsin all the way?”

Okey: “No, it was definitely a tough decision. Wisconsin, at the time, was starting to build something I think. They had Michael Finley and Rashard Griffith, as well as Stu Jackson and Van Gundy were there. Ultimately, it came down to, I wanted to be able to help start a tradition at Wisconsin and to have all my friends and family be able to come and see me play. My dad drilled Packers, Badgers and Brewers into my brain since I was two years old. I definitely gave it a lot of thought, but ultimately it wasn’t that tough of a decision.”


Gates: “And, at Wisconsin you were going to have a shot to play right away too, right?”

Okey: “Absolutely. Back then, not everybody was leaving early for the NBA. At North Carolina, they had Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, and those guys were only sophomores at the time. Coach Smith was like, in a couple of years you could probably be playing.”


Gates: “That leads right into my next question that I’ve been dying to ask you. After being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, were there any thoughts of jumping into the NBA. Did those thoughts ever arise then, or even after your sophomore season?”

Okey: “Yes, it did. But, at that time, really the only person that did that was (Kevin) Garnett, and I think (Stephon) Marbury might have done it after his freshman year. Ya, there was definitely some talk about doing that, and with hindsight being 20-20, I maybe would have given it a shot. With sports especially, it’s all about the timing, and not getting injured and the off-court stuff. All the stars kind of have to align, you know what I mean?”


Gates: “I’m sure it was obviously disappointing for you when (Stan) Van Gundy got fired, which left you with coach (Dick) Bennett, and a totally different style of play?”

Okey: “Yes it was.”


Gates: “At Iowa, you broke your wrist seven games into the season right?”

Okey: “Yup, seven games in, I broke my wrist, and then I ended up having to go to the (NBA) pre-draft camps with a cast on. Right after that, I got offered a contract to play in Turkey. I went over there for a few years and ended up going that route. I played two years in Turkey, one in Finland, and I spent about six months in Italy as well.”


Gates: “Then you came back to play in the CBA for the La Crosse Bobcats right?”

Okey: “Yup, I played for the Bobcats a little bit.”


Gates: “Then the league folded under.”

Okey: “Yup, that’s what happens when you leave Isaiah Thomas in charge.”


Gates: “There was another turn of events that didn’t go your way unfortunately. What happened after the CBA went under?”

Okey: “That was pretty much it for me. It’s kind of a funny story, but when I was in the CBA, we were suited up for a game in the locker room, the crowd was in the stands and everything. Our coach comes in and says, ‘Well, you guys can go home, this league just folded. What had happened, and I forget what his name was, but he was the head scout for the Knicks at the time, and he said to me, string together like 15 double-doubles and we’ll pull you up for a 10-day (contract) and take a look at you. I got two or three games into that and then that was pretty much the end of it.”


Gates: “At that point then, your dreams of playing in the NBA were over?”

Okey: “Yup, they were. And, being at that point in my life, I was kind of burnt out. I had been bouncing around, and traveling and just all that kind of stuff. I was just kind of burnt out on it. That’s just how it ended up.”


Gates: “I would think just playing a few years over seas would be enough to wear on a guy.”

Okey: “It was. And, like I said, even back then, there wasn’t the technology to stay connected with people or any of that kind of stuff. I don’t even think I had a cell phone.”


Gates: “What’s life like for Sam Okey now. What keeps you busy, and what makes you happy?”

Okey: “I’m a new business development liaison for the Dudley Corporation here in Wausau. I basically go into different corporate buildings and drum up new businesses to get them in to rent. I also help out with an AAU team here in Wausau, and I also do some personal instruction at the Y.”


Gates: “What age group do you work with on your AAU team?”

Okey: “They are actually 14 to 16 year olds.”


Gates: “And do they know the background and history of Sam Okey?”

Okey: “They didn’t really, I don’t think, when I started with them, but then we went down to Just-A-Game Fieldhouse in the Dells, and my stuff is all over down there. Then they were like, ‘Oh, you really did play.’ But ya, I’m married. I’ve been married for five years now. I married a girl from Wausau, that’s how I ended up here. No kids.”


Gates: “Looking back, do you ever allow yourself to wonder what if? You know, what if I had done this, or what if I hadn’t done that.”

Okey: “I did years back. There were times where I had trouble with it, and I just wanted to kind of forget about it. I used to be hard on myself, wondering what if I had done this, and what if I had worked a little harder, and all the other ‘what ifs. Now looking at it, it’s nothing but positives. All the people that I’ve met, even from grade school on up through my whole entire career. All the people who I still stay in contact with. Sports in general is just like one big fraternity anyway. I’m able to look back on it fondly now, where at one point in time I kind of looked back on it as a disappointment, you know? But, now it’s not that way.”


Gates: “Sam it was good to talk with you, and it was fun to rehash old memories.”

Okey: “It was good to talk with you too. Thanks A.J., and have a good one.”