Chicago basketball star Najeeb Echols dies at 39

Chicago native Najeeb Echols, 39, died on Wednesday in Kansas.

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Najeeb Echols

Najeeb Echols

Chicago native Najeeb Echols died Wednesday in Kansas. He was 39.

Echols is survived by his wife, Jaime, his daughter, Jada, and his son, Jalen.

“I’m just distraught,” said Jason Straight, a longtime friend of Echols’ and the current basketball coach at Providence-St. Mel. “I had to leave practice, leave school today. He was an unbelievable guy, not just a basketball player. He was a talented singer and piano player.”

Echols was a key member of Young’s 1998 state and city championship team, considered one of the best in state history.

Former NBA player Quentin Richardson was the star of that group, along with Dennis Gates and Cordell Henry.

Echols was just a freshman in 1998 and went on to become one of the top scorers in the state and a top-10 prospect in the country the next two years. He had to sit out his senior season after transferring from Young to Morgan Park and being ruled ineligible.

“This is a shock,” said Cyrus McGinnis, who was an assistant coach at Young in 1998 and currently works at Proviso West. “He was a loving person. I was very close to him.”

Straight, Echols, Eddy Curry and a few other players were the subjects of “Preps: Chicago Hoops,” a popular TV show that aired on Fox Sports in 2001. The three high school stars were good friends at the time, and the friendships survived the last two decades.

Young’s 1997-98 team: Reginald Jones, #4 Cordell Henry, Dennis Gates, behind Henry, and far right Quentin Richardson. Standing, left to right Marquis Wright, Kristopher Clemmons, Najeeb Echols. and Corey Harris.

Young’s 1997-98 team: Reginald Jones, #4 Cordell Henry, Dennis Gates, behind Henry, and far right Quentin Richardson. Standing, left to right Marquis Wright, Kristopher Clemmons, Najeeb Echols. and Corey Harris.

Sun-Times file photo

“Eddy and I used to make fun of Jeeb all the time and ask him if he was going to be a baller or a singer,” Straight said. “We were all recently talking about getting together to do a where-are-they-now? type of look back at the guys from the show.”

Echols played college basketball at Missouri and Illinois State. Recently, he worked for Farmers Insurance, and in 2012 he started a non-profit youth sports program, Whatever It Takes Premiere Youth Club, focused on basketball and track.

Daughter Jada is a promising runner.

“She is amazing,” Straight said. “She’s had some unbelievable times. [Echols] was really looking forward to her being a collegiate athlete. He was helping her and a lot of other kids.”

His wife, Jaime, posted a message on Facebook on Wednesday night:

“My heart is breaking as I write these words . . . My husband, teammate, best friend and the love of my life passed away early this morning. The world has lost an amazing man, but heaven has gained an amazing angel. My husband has earned his wings. His life was wonderfully lived, and is deserving of being wonderfully remembered.

‘‘The funeral arrangements are pending through Eli and Sons Funeral Home. Jalen, Jada and I appreciate the love, thoughts, prayers and condolences you all have sent our way. Thank you so much.”

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