In a flash, Mount Saint Joseph basketball star Jason Edokpayi was out the restaurant door, phone in hand, leaving his mother behind to grab the carryout food they ordered for dinner.
What his mom, Josephine, saw next baffled her.
The Gaels’ 17-year-old, 6-foot-6 senior forward, who resides in Laurel, laughed as he shared his thoughts from that day last June, when the first of what would become a handful of Division I college coaches called and offered him a scholarship.
“I’m going to be completely honest,” said Edokpayi, who committed to Fairfield University later that summer, “I was jumping around, so excited, going crazy outside, and my mom is looking at me from the window, thinking, ‘What is wrong with him?’ Then we went in the car and she starts screaming, she was so happy. And then she starts tearing up because she knew this is what my dad wanted for me since the beginning.”
That day is etched in Edokpayi’s memory, and linked to another that changed his life forever.
Edokpayi vividly remembers the day — March 10, 2016 — that his father, Joe, lost his battle with duodenal cancer.
Edokpayi’s family — his mom and older siblings, Jennifer, 25, and Joseph, 23 — were together in the hospital room when he died. He was 58.
“I remember telling him before we left the hospital room, everyone was in tears, I just put my head on his chest and said, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure Mom doesn’t have to pay for my college,’” said Edokpayi, who was in eighth grade at the time.
“I meant it, and I’ll never forget that because it was the most serious time I’ve had in my life. When my head was on his chest, there was no heartbeat, but I know I was still talking to him at the same time. It just felt different. And then to be able to do that this past summer was amazing.”
‘The foundation of the family’
Fulfilling that promise took hard work and soul searching from Edokpayi, along with selfless support from his family.
In the beginning, it was his dad who was there to nurture his love for basketball. He put together the Fischer-Price hoop for Edokpayi when he was 3 years old. He signed him up to play recreation ball every year. His encouraging words were always the loudest in the gym.
And then, in the eighth grade, the time came to decide whether Edokpayi would attend Mount Saint Joseph to play basketball. His dad, who was terminally ill, made sure it happened.
“On the last day for new student registration, Jason’s dad asked his godfather to take care of him that day, so Jason and I could go attend the student registration,” said Josephine, who is a psychiatric nurse in Washington. “Because of his dad’s love for him, he was the one that made sure Jason and I made it that day to register him. He was the foundation of the family and influential in Jason’s basketball career.”
Collectively, Josephine, Jennifer — a behavioral therapist with a degree in psychology from Frostburg State — and Joseph — who will graduate from Towson University this spring with plans to go to medical school and become a surgeon — managed to get Jason to and from school, practices and games.
“My mom and siblings wanted to make sure that not too many things would change for me, and I would still be like a normal kid, live a normal life,” Edokpayi said. “They’ve done a great job raising me through high school.”
All that remained was Edokpayi doing his part on the court.
Going into the season, Mount Saint Joseph coach Pat Clatchey wasn’t sure what he would get from Edokpayi, who showed flashes of brilliance at times during his first two years on varsity but was inconsistent.
Edokpayi acknowledged as much. He made a few starts, came off the bench and even sat entire games during his junior season. He was determined to make changes.
He worked on his body, lifting weights, improving his cardio and cutting out soda and late-night snacks to shed 17 pounds and add eight pounds of muscle.
In the gym, he improved his jump shot and his ball-handling skills. He became more explosive. As his confidence grew, he enjoyed a breakthrough summer with his Amateur Athletic Union team that spilled into his senior season at Mount Saint Joseph.
After averaging six points and three rebounds as a junior, Edokpayi is scoring 16 per game with 10 rebounds this season. Last week, he was named the Baltimore Catholic League’s Most Improved Player and earned a spot on the All-BCL first team.
On Sunday, the No. 3 Gaels knocked off No. 1 St. Frances, 76-63, in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship game to improve to 27-5 and take over the top spot in The Baltimore Sun Top 15 poll.
With his family in the stands at Harford Community College’s packed gym, Edokpayi scored 18 of his team-high 21 points in the first half. Throughout the game, he protected the rim, securing 12 rebounds and blocking three shots.
In a game that featured some of the area’s top talent, he stood out.
“Jason rose to the occasion — doing what he’s done all season,” Clatchey said. “He allowed us to get off to the great start. He really wanted to win a championship and played like it.”
With an MIAA title in hand, the program’s sixth and first since 2016-17, Edokpayi and the Gaels turn their attention toward the BCL tournament, which begins with a quarterfinal against St. Maria Goretti on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“He’s having an incredible year,” John Carroll coach Seth Goldberg said. “As the season wore on, he just got better and better, and I thought the Most Improved Player award was very fitting for him. We didn’t start the season thinking he was the guy to try to take away, but he became that guy, and he’s a big reason why they’ve had so much success.”
He’s even become an inspiration to his teammates.
“There’s sophomores on the team who aren’t playing as much, and I just told them before the start of the year that it’s going to be a long season, a long process, and just be ready,” Edokpayi said. “Your time will come, and if it’s not this year, you got to work over the summer and be ready for next season.”
A lasting memory
After Sunday’s win, Edokpayi secured the team’s championship plaque and wouldn’t let go.
He bounced around the gym, celebrating much like he did after he received that phone call in June.
And every chance he got, he took a photo. There was one with his teammates. Another one with the seniors. And yet another with some of the Mount Saint Joseph students who came out to support the team.
The last one was the most special.
As his mom got set to take a shot of Jason with siblings Jennifer and Joseph, another parent quickly took the phone and told Josephine to jump in the photo.
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The Edokpayi family, proudly posing at center court, was all smiles.