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Coaches no longer blink over ink

Tattoos have become the norm among high school basketball players, although many elite prospects are holding off on getting inked

Holmes County (Bonifay, Fla.) forward Chris Walker has 20 tattoos.  / Courtesy of Chris Walker

Jahlil Okafor enjoys the typical spoils that come with being considered the top center in high school basketball.

He’s bombarded by droves of fans and autograph seekers after every game, gets the red carpet treatment every time he visits a college campus and has college basketball giants such as John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski on speed dial.

“It’s pretty cool,” Okafor said. “I can’t lie.”

Still, even for a player of Okafor’s caliber, there are limits.

“Tattoos,” said Okafor, a junior at Whitney Young (Chicago). “Can’t do ’em. Mostly because my dad won’t let me. Yeah, he’s kinda got me on lock. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, but I guess sometimes people can look at a bunch of tats and form opinions. I don’t want that either.”

PHOTOS: High School Athlete Tattoos

It’s a sentiment shared by dozens of elite players whose pause on ink can range from wrong price to wrong message. Though, to be fair, it’s a peculiar stance since tattoos among high school players have become as common as dunks and crossovers.

“Everyone has them,” said Ottawa (Ottawa, Kan.) swingman Semi Ojeleye, a senior who is signed to Duke. “But that’s the reason that I decided not to get one. I don’t want to conform to what everyone else is doing. I want to be my own person.”

At the other end is Holmes County (Bonifay, Fla.) forward Chris Walker, who has 20 tattoos “all over.”

His favorite?

The one over his right shoulder, displaying a basketball inside a rim with the words “My Life” underneath.

“I’m just into ink,” said Walker, a senior who is signed to Florida. “It’s just my thing. And (Florida) Coach (Billy) Donovan has never said anything about it. I don’t see anything wrong with them.”

Nor does, perceived, prim and proper Duke.

Blue Devils assistant coach Jeff Capel said since tattoos have become “such a huge part of the culture for young people,” he doesn’t think coaches pay much attention to them.

“To be honest, it's kind of surprising when you see a player that doesn’t have them,” Capel said. “There was no rule that I know of when I played at Duke, and we certainly don’t have a policy on tats now.”

Capel said that former Duke forward Nate James, now a special assistant for the Blue Devils, was the first player that he could recall at Duke with a visible tattoo. James played at Duke from 1997-2001.

“And Duke recruited him just as hard as they did anyone,” Capel said. “I don’t factor in tats at all when recruiting a kid.  Again, it's sort of become normal now.”

Be that as it may, West Charlotte (Charlotte, N.C.) center Kennedy Meeks said he’s held off on getting inked because he doesn’t feel it fits the image he wants to portray.

“It’s just not something I want to do right now,” said Meeks, a senior who is signed to North Carolina. “I think sometimes people look at it negatively and that’s just not something I want. It’s not wrong, but, right now, it’s not for me.”

Elijah Thomas agreed.

He said he “can’t begin to count” the number of players at AAU tournaments and showcases who sport perfectly placed ink on their biceps, forearms and chest.

“It’s crazy,” said Thomas, a sophomore center at Prime Prep Academy (Dallas). “I think a lot of times they’re pointless; like they just get them to have them. If I ever got one it would have meaning to it. But right now it’s not for me. Plus, I don’t think some colleges coaches like tattoos.”

That’s news to one of college basketball’s most successful and longest-tenured coaches, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who certainly doesn’t see an issue with ink.

From the Orange to the NBA stars he helped coach as an assistant on Team USA, Boeheim has seen most every tat, from tasteful to, um … eccentric.

“Those guys are such unbelievable high-quality people,” Boeheim said. “Tattoos and the acceptance of them have just evolved. It’s not like it was back in the day where coaches may have cared more. There may have been some negative connotations there. Now it’s just like wearing braids; it’s an expression.”

Marcus Lee’s parents, Sheri and Ronney Lee, aren’t signing off on tats until there’s a family meeting that reveals “some deep meaning behind getting inked.”

“Other than that, you can forget it,” said Marcus Lee, a senior forward at Deer Valley (Antioch, Calif.) who is signed to Kentucky. “I’m not mad though. I wouldn’t want it to hurt me.”

Still, Boeheim maintains that tats or not, when it comes to recruiting it’s all about the bottom line.

“Tattoos don’t matter to coaches,” Boeheim said. “When we want a kid we’re not worried about any tattoos; we just want him to sign.”

Because that’s the only ink that matters.

Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY



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