Sam Okey, was undoubtedly one of the top basketball players ever to come out of Wisconsin. Now, 20 years later, he will take his rightful spot in the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Saturday, Sept. 26, during a banquet in Wisconsin Dells.
In 1995, the small riverside village of Cassville, WI, had a population of 1,025 residents. The student enrollment at Cassville High School was 140.
Normally, a town of this size, tucked away in the southwest corner of the state, would go unnoticed by anyone living in the larger metropolitan areas of Wisconsin and the surrounding states. But, that wasn’t the case for Cassville in 1995.
When it came to high school basketball in the state of Wisconsin, Cassville was the place to be from 1993 to 1995.
For those who couldn’t squeeze into the gym on Friday night to watch the home Comets, you only hoped to get a seat in Belmont, Potosi, Shullsburg or Bloomington later on in the season. But, you had darn well better get their prior to the start of the J.V. game at 6 p.m.
If you had looked carefully amongst the crowd at a Cassville basketball game the year before, you would have seen Stu Jackson, the head basketball coach at Wisconsin, or even Dean Smith of North Carolina, or Tom Davis of Iowa.
If you had gone to “The Pit,” in Shullsburg, you would have seen a camera crew from ESPN mixed in amongst the other television and newspaper reporters there to capture the action.
The big draw in those days was a 6’7”, 220-pound forward who could play any of five positions and score at will, even against double teams.
Okey’s story is one of a small-town boy who possessed amazing talent with a legitimate dream of someday playing in the NBA.
His talents took him to places only others could dream of, and his accolades and accomplishments are those which leave you shaking your head in amazement.
When asked for the one word that comes to mind when thinking of Sam Okey, longtime Cassville basketball coach Dennis Uppena simply said “Special.”
He didn’t offer any explanation, and quite frankly, he didn’t have to. Sam certainly was special.
According to Uppena, by the end of Sam’s eighth-grade year, he was probably 6’2”, and by the time he was a freshman, he estimated he was around 6’4” or 6’5”. In the next couple of years, Sam had grown to an athletic 6’7”.
“As a grade-school player, probably as early as fifth grade, you could tell he had special talent and abilities,” said Uppena of Okey. “From that point on, the big question was, how big was he going to get.”
As a freshman starter during the 1991–92 season, Okey led the Comets with an average of 16.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, while also finishing with a team-high 40 steals and was third in assists with 44.
He concluded the regular season as a first-team all-conference selection, which he did all four years at Cassville.
In 91–92, the Comets went 12-4 in the Blackhawk conference and 19-7 overall. Six of the team’s losses that year came when Okey was out with an injury.
Okey helped lead Cassville to the WIAA Division 4 state tournament, where they defeated Marshall in the state semifinal game, 72–71, before losing to Spring Valley, 66–51, in the state championship game. Okey scored 28 points against Marshall, and 10 against Spring Valley.
His performance at the state tournament put Okey and the Cassville basketball program on the map, and as sophomore going into the 1992–93 season, Okey was already drawing interest from the Wisconsin Badgers and coach Stu Jackson, who two years earlier had led the New York Knicks to a playoff upset over the Boston Celtics.
During his sophomore season, Okey averaged 20.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game in Blackhawk league action.
The Comets went 15–1 in league play, and 25–2 overall, and made a return trip to Madison in the D4 state tournament.
After disposing of South Shore, 53–35, in the state semifinal contest, the Comets lost to the state’s leading scorer, Anthony Pieper, and the Wausaukee Rangers, 69–57.
In numerous interviews following the 1993 state title game, Okey has often said that was probably the most memorable game of his high-school career.
In that game, Okey scored 33 points, pulled down 15 rebounds, blocked six shots and dished out three assists.
That was the last time Okey would ever touch the silver ball again, as the next two seasons he went on to lead Cassville to two state titles and a combined record of 54-0.
As a junior during the 1993-94 season, Okey averaged 26.5 points, leading Cassville to a league record of 16–0 and an overall record of 27–0.
In state tournament wins over Randolph and Goodman, Okey scored a combined 65 points and pulled down 28 rebounds, and was a unanimous All-State first-team selection.
On Friday, Aug. 19, 1994, the summer between his junior and season seasons, Okey held a press conference at Cassville High School, announcing his intention to play college basketball at the University of Wisconsin.
At the time, Okey was ranked the 11th best basketball prospect in the country, and had North Carolina coach Dean Smith and Iowa’s Tom Davis making trips to Cassville in efforts to recruit him.
For Cassville coach Dennis Uppena, those were some very memorable moments.
“Some of that was very, very interesting of course.” Uppena said of Okey’s recruiting process. “I got to meet some people that I never would have gotten to before.”
“Dean Smith came at least twice,” Uppena said. “I sat down to supper with him and his top assistant (Bill Guthridge) at the Sand Ray. That was very special, and something that I will never forget.”
No coach was in contact with Okey throughout his high school career more than Wisconsin assistant Stan Van Gundy.
After four years as an assistant at Wisconsin, Van Gundy was named the head coach of the Badgers in July of 1994. One month later, Okey made his verbal commitment to UW.
“I’m comfortable with the entire staff, that they have the drive to build a basketball dynasty at Wisconsin,” Okey said in an Aug. 20, 1994 article published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I want to be part of that. Coach (Stan) Van Gundy told me when I first met him I was made to play at Wisconsin…and he’s right.”
Later on in that article, Okey said, “To be honest with you, I liked the coaching change. I liked coach (Stu) Jackson just fine, but I like coach Van Gundy even more. He’s the one who recruited me, and I trust him. I don’t feel I gambled on him, instead, I feel he showed great faith in me.”
With his college decision behind him and out of the way, Okey went on to lead Cassville to another perfect season (27-0) and another state title during his senior season.
That year, Okey averaged 31.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 7.0 blocked shots, 5.5 assists and 3.4 steals per game. He did all this despite playing a little more than a half throughout the entire regular season.
The Comets, who averaged just under 80 points per game, and gave up an average of just 45.6, had no reason to play Okey late in the third quarter or any of the fourth during much of that season.
Still, Okey remains the fifth-leading scorer in state history with 2,539 career points, a number that easily could have been a lot higher.
“He could have scored many more points, but because we had such big lead a lot of times, he didn’t see much time in the fourth quarter of a lot games,” Uppena said. “It really could have been a lot more.”
At the state tournament in 1995, Cassville defeated Oakfield, 56-43, in the state title game. But it was in the state semifinals that Okey had perhaps his best performance of his high school career.
In a 78-64 victory over Prentice, Okey scored 30 points, had 23 rebounds, 12 blocked shots, seven assists and three steals. With a minute to play in the first half of that game, he had already managed a triple-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks.
In the championship game, Okey made 6 of 10 3-point attempts, as Oakfield attempted to pack in the lane with multiple defenders. Okey finished that game with 33 points and 19 rebounds.
At the conclusion of his senior season, Okey had the full attention of everyone in the state. He was named Wisconsin’s “Mr. Basketball,” played in the WBCA All-Star game, and was named a McDonald’s All-American.
As a four-year starter for Dennis Uppena, Okey had led the Comets to four appearances in the D4 state title game, where they won two silver and two gold balls. The Comets were an unheard-of 97–9 during those four years, with Okey missing six games his freshman year.
While fans in and around Cassville got to see Sam’s talents from December to March, it was during the off-season where Okey really fine-tuned his skills, and tested himself against some of the best prep basketball players in the country.
From the age of 11 to 13, Okey played AAU ball under Cuba City coach Jerry Petitgoue.
When he got older, Okey played in the Milwaukee summer circuits with coach Marty McGlothan and the Mission of Christ Warriors.
The team played in tournaments throughout the country, including Las Vegas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Michigan.
He also played one year of AAU ball with a team out of Randolph under coach Hugh Roberts.
The summer following his junior year, Okey averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds at the Las Vegas Shootout, and made the All-Tournament Team.
He also dominated at the Nike Scholastic Festival at Deerfield, Ill. Also playing in the tournament were Kevin Garnett and Ron Mercer, who played for the Southeast Breeze team.
Fifteen days after winning the Division 4 state championship in Madison, Okey found himself amongst the top 22 high school players in the country, selected to play in the prestigious McDonald’s All-American High School All-Star game held in St. Louis.
Joining Okey on the East squad were future NBA first-round draft picks; Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Stephon Marbury and Ron Mercer.
The West squad that year had four future NBA first rounders in: Chauncey Billups, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Robert “Tractor” Traylor.
Of the 22 players on the 1995 McDonald’s All-American team, nine were future NBA first-round draft picks. Five were second-round draft picks, and eight went undrafted. Garnett went straight from high school to the NBA.
In 18 minutes, Okey scored nine points, making all four field goal attempts including a 3-pointer, and pulled down six rebounds.
Things were going better than anyone could have planned for Sam Okey during his high school basketball career.
According to the 1996 Sporting News College Yearbook, Okey was ranked 13th among the top 20 college freshman prospects for 1995–96 season. He was ranked ahead of Chauncey Billups (18th) and Antawn Jamison (19th).
But, when it came time for college, a misfortunate turn of events ultimately led to a falling out between Okey and the Badger basketball program.
The timeline reads like this:
July 22, 1994 — Stan Van Gundy is hired as the new head coach at Wisconsin following the departure of Stu Jackson, who accepted the general manager position with the NBA’s expansion Vancouver Grizzlies.
Aug. 19, 1994 — Sam Okey verbally commits to playing college ball at UW.
March 14, 1995 — Van Gundy was fired at UW following a dismal 13-14 record in his first and only season as head coach.
March 31, 1995 — Wisconsin hires UW-Green Bay coach Dick Bennett to replace Van Gundy as the new men’s basketball coach at UW.
It was obvious Van Gundy was a big reason why Okey had chosen Wisconsin over all the other major colleges recruiting him.
He also had a couple of other good reasons for choosing Wisconsin; He wanted to give the fans of Cassville an opportunity to watch him play close to home, and he had an opportunity for immediate playing time with the departure of Michael Finley to the NBA.
In Sam’s defense, playing for Dick Bennett was not what he had signed up for prior to his senior season at Cassville. He had signed up to play for Van Gundy, who a month after being fired at UW, was hired by Pat Riley as an assistant coach for the Miami Heat.
In hindsight, Okey probably should have backed out of his commitment to UW when Van Gundy was fired, asking the Badgers to release him from his national letter-of-intent.
None-the-less, Okey honored his commitment to UW, and at first made the most of it.
As a freshman at UW during the 1995–96 season, Okey became the first player in Big Ten conference history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots in a season.
He garnered Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.3 blocks. He also was second on the team with 1.1 steals per game.
Okey shot 44 percent from the floor, including 29 percent from 3-point range, and was a 70-percent free throw shooter. The Badgers went 9–9 in Big Ten play and 18–14 overall.
Following a sensation freshman season at UW, Okey was named a finalist for the 1996 USA Under-22 team.
That summer, Okey had the opportunity to scrimmage against the 1996 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, not to be confused with the inaugural “Dream Team” of 1992.
Okey played seven minutes in the scrimmage and did not score, but pulled down four defensive rebounds, dished out one assist and had one steal. Okey’s teammates in the scrimmage included Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce and Chauncy Billups.
During the scrimmage, Hakeem Olajuwon scored a team-high 16 points, while Karl Malone added 13, David Robinson 12 and Charles Barkley 11. Barkley also had nine rebounds, while Shaquille O’Neal had six.
In his sophomore year at Wisconsin, Okey led the Badgers in rebounds (230), and was second in scoring average (11.2 ppg), blocked shots (0.9), steals (1.2) and assists (2.9).
He also set a new school record that year for offensive rebounds (81), which has since been bettered by Jared Berggren (88), Alando Tucker (86) and Mike Wilkinson (83).
The Badgers went 11–7 in Big Ten play, and 18–10 overall, as Okey helped lead Wisconsin to only the third NCAA tournament berth in school history.
In the summer of 1997, Okey was again one of 66 college players invited to the trials for the USA Under-22 team, which he again did not make.
Things got a little rocky for Okey after that, as he and Dick Bennett began butting heads, which ultimately lead to Okey leaving the team on Jan. 13..
During the 1997–98 season, Okey played in just nine games for Wisconsin, averaging 9.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 0.6 blocks and 2.6 assists per game.
Okey and Bennett reportedly had numerous run-ins during his time at Wisconsin, until things got to the point where Okey wanted out.
“The frustration was just too much for me to handle and the situation was too much for me to handle,” Okey said in a Jan. 24, 1999 article in the L.A. Times. “I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I’m ready for the healing process to begin. I need to re-find my love for the game of basketball.”
Okey apparently found that love at the University of Iowa under coach Tom Davis, who FYI is a graduate of UW–Platteville.
Okey first suited up for his first game with the Hawkeyes on Jan. 21, 1999, and his first home game was against none other that Wisconsin, where he came off the bench to score eight points in a 72–52 loss.
In only his seventh game with the Hawkeyes, Okey broke his right wrist during a fall under the basket in a 76–73 victory over Minnesota. He went on to miss the rest of the season, and ultimately ended his college career.
In his short stint at Iowa, Okey averaged 6.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.4 blocks and 1.1 assists per game.
After transferring from Wisconsin, Okey had the option of sitting out the 98–99 season and playing all of the 99–00 season, or playing just the second semester of the current season, which is what he elected to do.
Despite having a try out with the Milwaukee Bucks the summer of 1999, Okey went undrafted in the NBA draft, and took his talents overseas.
Okey was drafted by the La Crosse Bobcats of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) in the eighth round of the 1999 CBA draft, but did not sign with the team.
Instead, he played a year with the Kobassan Konya basketball organization in Konya, Turkey, where he averaged 11.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
The following year he played for Namika Lahti in Finland.
He them made the decision to return to the states, and made his debut with the La Crosse Bobcats on Friday, Dec. 15, 2001.
After starting 11 of 17 games for the Bobcats, Okey led La Crosse with 118 rebounds in 17 games and was second with 45 assists, 18 steals and nine blocks.
Then, in March of 2001, another major set-back was dealt to Okey.
The CBA had announced the permanent destruction of the league when owner Isaiah Thomas’ attempts to sell the financially strapped league, were unsuccessful.
With the death of the CBA, so to was the death for Sam Okey’s professional basketball career.
Today, Okey is married and lives in Schofield, near Wausau, where he works as a corporate liaison for Dudley Corporation.
The WBCA Hall of Fame banquet is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 26, at the Glacier Canyon Lodge of the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells.
Also among the 2015 inductees is longtime Potosi coach Eric Briehl and UW–Platteville standout T.J. Van Wie.