PROVO — For a long time, Kara Childs wasn’t convinced that BYU was the right place for her oldest son, Yoeli, to play basketball.
Kara pushed for Yoeli — the 2016 5A Deseret News MVP out of Bingham High — to experience living outside of Utah.
“BYU wasn’t my first option for him,” recalled Kara, a single mother of two sons. “He really researched where he wanted to go. The BYU coaches worked with me for about a year, answering all of my questions. It took a while to get me on board. Ultimately, it came down to what Yoeli wanted to do and what his choice was. I would support him in whatever he wanted.”
BYU assistant coach Tim LaComb may have spent more time recruiting Kara than he did recruiting Yoeli.
“I recruited her pretty hard. She was concerned about how he’d fit in on and off the floor,” LaComb said. “She didn’t know much about our program. Yoeli had a lot of options. He was somebody we were always impressed with but I wasn’t sure how it would play out because he wasn’t LDS. When he came down to talk to us as coaches, we knew right away he was one of the best kids we’ve ever talked to.”
In 2015, Yoeli signed with BYU and he began his freshman campaign this season. In between, last summer, he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That’s a lot of change for a teenager to undergo, but Yoeli “has always been very mature for his age,” Kara said. “He doesn’t do things rashly. Before he gets into a situation, he’s already thought it through and he’s usually prepared for it.”
Just weeks into his freshman season, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward made another change — from reserve to starter, in place of an injured Kyle Davis.
Yoeli, who turned 19 last Friday, has started 13 straight games and is averaging 8.5 points and 7.5 rebounds; he has blocked 31 shots and has thrilled Cougar fans with his rim-rattling dunks.
In all aspects, Kara believes, BYU is a “great fit” for Yoeli.
“He clicks with the coaches and the players,” she said. “Seeing how the coaches act, how the program is run and how the players interact with each other, all of that made BYU my first choice.”
Growing up, Yoeli — whose first name means “Do the will of God” — focused on basketball, academics and helping others. While attending middle school, Yoeli told his mom he set a goal to seek out those who were lonely or didn’t have friends.
“He wanted to talk every day to someone that sat by himself at lunch or someone that seemed alone in the halls,” Kara said. “That’s who he is. He’s always been physically bigger than most of his peers, and he took on that role to look out for the little guy.”
Instead of going to parties or spending time with friends on Friday nights, Yoeli would usually stay at home to talk to his mom and get rested for basketball practice on Saturday mornings.
When he took his recruiting trip to BYU, Yoeli played pickup games with Cougar players and toured the campus. At 10 p.m., he asked players what they were going to do next.
“They said, ‘We usually go to sleep, or we can play video games,’” Yoeli recalled with a smile. “I knew that this was my kind of place.”
As Yoeli starred at Bingham High — he was named one of the top 100 players in the country by ESPN — he generated considerable interest from numerous schools such as Arizona State, Marquette, Auburn and Oregon. The more he learned about BYU, the more he liked, including the fast-paced style of play, the coaching staff and the players.
“Even though I wasn’t LDS, all of my best friends were LDS,” he said, “so it was never a big deal for me.”
Meanwhile, Yoeli began to learn more about the LDS Church.
“After I committed to BYU, I started taking the church more seriously,” he said.
Last summer, forward Eric Mika, who had recently returned from a mission to Italy, and Yoeli became friends. Mika encouraged him to meet with the missionaries. Yoeli was baptized in July.
“It’s been awesome," he said. "I’m grateful for all of the blessings that come with it.”
LaComb was a little surprised when Yoeli told him he wanted to be baptized.
“One of the things his mom talked to me about was, ‘You’re not just going to get him down there and baptize him, are you?’” he said. “I told her that’s not something we get into. We want kids to worship how they worship but they need (to adhere to) the Honor Code. Yoeli came into my office and said he needed to talk to me. Usually, when a freshman comes into your office, he’s homesick or not happy about something. He told me he was thinking about joining the church. That was pretty unique.”
On the court, Yoeli has made an immediate impact. He loves to rebound, and it shows.
“Every once in a while, I’ll catch myself looking up at the scoreboard to see how many rebounds I have,” he said. “People might catch you looking up at the scoreboard and they might think that it’s selfish. But I’m looking at rebounds. I’d rather have 15 rebounds than 20 points."
Yoeli had a career-high 15 rebounds against Coppin State, and he notched a career-high 19 points and four blocks against Cal State Bakersfield.
“We’re so pleased he’s playing the way that he is. He’s an unbelievable fit,” LaComb said. “We knew he’d have a big role here.”
Yoeli enjoys talking about the special bond he has with his mother. Kara became a math teacher so she could spend as much time as possible with Yoeli and his younger brother, Masay.
“She got a job where she could drop us off at school and pick us up,” Yoeli said. “I look up to my mom more than anybody. I wouldn’t be half the man I am today without her.”
Despite Kara's initial concerns about Yoeli attending BYU, he knew he had his mom’s unconditional support.
Kara has watched her son experience plenty of changes in recent months; now, she’s firmly on board with Yoeli playing at BYU.
“I’m glad that’s the choice that he made," she said, adding that it helps that he’s playing close to home. "Watching him make these choices and doing what he’s doing, I feel comfortable with all of it. I’m just happy that he’s happy. He’s following the path he wants to go down.”