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Locked out of one dream, Akognon forms another

Former Casa Grande star working out for NBA teams, but labor unrest could send him back to China

John Akognon, who prepped at Casa Grande, may put his NBA dreams on hold for another year and return to play another season in China.

Crista Jeremiason/The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 1:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 1:35 p.m.

Sometimes dreams cause blindness. Dreams, if they are full of fantasy, rarely cut through the clouds. The dreamer is locked into a trance in which he cannot see, does not want to see. Josh Akognon could be but is not one of those dreamers. And how tempting it would be for Akognon to ignore reality, for he is as close as he's ever been to his NBA dream.

Both the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Hornets worked out Akognon in the past couple weeks, both telling him they really liked his game, both giving the former Casa Grande star the distinct impression they would invite him to their training camp. If they had one. The NBA lockout prevents that. So, Akognon could wait around for a season that may or may not come.

Or Akognon could continue being a rock star in China.

In April, Akognon finished a 39-game schedule with the DongGuan Leopards of the Chinese Basketball Association. He averaged 29.2 points a game, made 55.6 percent of his field goals and had four games over 40 points, one of them 54 points. All those numbers created the following Mick Jagger experience.

“We were at the Chinese New Year parade,” said Akognon of himself, his wife Ariana, and his son, Josiah, now 10 months, “and someone recognized me and wanted to take my picture.”

Within 10 minutes, 50-100 people surrounded the Akognons, he estimated. Within 20-30 minutes, upwards of 400 people were using their camcorders. Very few Chinese, Akognon has found, ask for autographs. Eventually the Akognons were walking away, wanting to leave, but the crowd began following them. They wanted to see where Akognon was living. The Akognons needed a police escort to their apartment area.

The police restrained the fans from getting too close, so Akognon was able to enter the apartment complex without being tailed.

“The Chinese love basketball so much, earmuffs are sold at games to protect people's ears from the screaming,” Akognon said. “I had to buy one for Josiah.”

All that attention and all that scoring was topped off nicely and neatly by his salary.

For the five months in China, Akognon estimated he made around $250,000, including performance incentives. That money is tax-free. The cost of Akognon's rental car and leased apartment were paid by the team. In other words, there are worse jobs.

According to his Los Angeles-based agent Scott Nichols, the monthly salary range in the CBA is between $50,000-$100,000. So if Akognon were to return to the CBA after the season he had, quite likely his salary would nudge the high end. And if Akognon were to return to China, he would not return as another nameless, faceless American.

That changed forever the day Akognon faced ex-NBA star Stephon Marbury in a practice game. Marbury is the former two-time NBA All-Star guard who always has played with attitude, you might say.

“Before the game we were warming up,” Akognon said, “Marbury kept looking at me and mumbling. It was really weird. When the game started, he was pushing, shoving and throwing elbows. So I did the same thing. At one point we actually squared up to fight each other. At halftime we faced each other between the locker rooms and he shook my hand. He said I was nasty. It was his way of testing me. After that we became the best of friends.”

In the first regular-season match-up, Akognon scored 26 on Marbury. Marbury answered with nine points. The second time, Akognon had 17, Marbury 33. Akognon had established a toe-hold. Returning to the United States, he felt a measure of satisfaction.

Averaging 29.2 in the CBA is not a rec-league accomplishment. Akognon, at 5-foot-11, showed the league and NBA scouts he was a defender and a point guard, someone who could move an offense while shooting the eyes out of it. So when Minnesota and Oklahoma City offered Akognon workouts, he declined. Both teams were loaded with point guards.

“If there wasn't a lockout,” Akognon said, “I wouldn't think about going overseas. But Scott pointed out to me that if the lockout ended in December, for example, and I signed with an NBA team, I would be making $100,000 less than I would have made at China.”

Akognon may be a basketball player but he is even more of a family man. His parents, Emmanuel and Alfreda, have instilled strong family values in him. He will not place his family in jeopardy. Unless the lock-out is settled within a few weeks, and that's highly unlikely, Akognon is not going to put his family through a financial struggle.

“I know guys who wouldn't play overseas because it was the NBA or nothing,” said Akognon, 25. “Well, if I took that attitude, I probably would be living at home now, driving my mom's car and looking for a job.”

Instead, after he left Cal State Fullerton as the Big West Player of the Year in 2009, Akognon played in the Estonian and Baltic leagues and in China. He has earned enough that he has leased an apartment in Petaluma and bought a Range Rover. Yes, he admits, his game has improved. Yes, he is doing a lot to dispel the notion that he can't play in the NBA at 5-foot-11.

“J.J. Barea has helped, too,” said Akognon of the 5-foot-11 point guard who had a solid playoff run for the world-champion Dallas Mavericks.

So Josh Akognon will go to China, his NBA dream still intact, but his vision of it expanded. It occurred at the same time his role as a player changed. No longer a shooting guard, Akognon is a point guard who is supposed to see the court and everyone on it. You might say he has learned how to see the big picture. The same, he will agree, also holds true of his life.

For more North Bay sports, go to padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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