Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, his father rose together from tragedy

DURHAM, N.C. – The best player in college basketball is sitting across from me in a trophy room at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A few steps away is Coach K Court, the place where, during the 19-year-old’s presumably short college career, he has already displayed to the world a preternaturally mature basketball player, perhaps the best offensive big man since Tim Duncan.

At this moment, though, Jahlil Okafor, all 6-foot-11, 270 pounds of him, is bent over at the waist, his head in his hands, tears welling up in his sad brown eyes.

He is talking about his mother, Dacresha “Dee” Benton, and his final memories of her. Jahlil was 9 years old, living in small-town Oklahoma with his mother, his older sister and two toddler half-brothers. The little ones were napping, and Jahlil and his sister, Jalen, were in the living room, watching music videos on BET. Suddenly, they noticed their mother, who’d been battling bronchitis for a couple weeks, start breathing hard. Really hard. She lay on the couch and kept taking these awkward breaths: labored, struggling, almost gulping for air. They thought she was joking – after all, their mom was usually joking – so Jahlil teased her back. He said he was going to steal her Oreos.

Then came the violent coughing, and the breathing that grew more and more pained, and the sudden realization that something was seriously wrong. The family’s phone wasn’t working, so Jahlil dashed to his neighbor’s house. He dialed 911. The ambulance came. The family went to the hospital. His grandma, his aunt, his sister: They all waited for the doctors’ news.

The news was this: Jahlil’s mother had a collapsed lung. At age 29, the woman who had raised him was dead. Jahlil walked into the hospital room. The boy stared at his lifeless mother, not wanting to ever have to say goodbye.

This is a story about Jahlil Okafor that’s been told often. His mother’s death, which happened almost exactly 10 years ago, has become part of the Jahlil Okafor legend – as much of a legend as a college freshman who is the presumptive No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft can have. He speaks of his mother frequently, with a confident assurance that there is some deeper meaning to his tragedy. His profile on Twitter begins, “R.I.P. I love you mom.” A picture of her headstone is the backdrop on his cell phone. For years after her death, his morning alarm was a recording of his mother’s lilting voice, saying, “Jahlil, Jahlil.” Before every game, he prays to his mother, that she may become his wings on the floor.

But the story that hasn’t been told is what happened next, after a doctor broke the news to 9-year-old Jahlil that he was now without his mama.

What happened next was this: Jahlil phoned his father, Chucky Okafor, who had moved from Oklahoma back to his hometown of Chicago a few years before. Chucky heard it immediately in his son’s voice, which was somewhere between a cry and a scream. The only words Chucky could make out: “Mama. Mama.”

Then Chucky got on the next plane to Fort Smith, Ark. He went to the funeral that overflowed the school gym. He stood next to his 9-year-old son as Jahlil read a poem he wrote to honor his mother. He listened to Jahlil sobbing uncontrollably at the gravesite. He said to Jahlil that his mother’s death would be something that he would never get over. He put his arms around his son and his daughter, and he told them their mother would always be with them – and, as Chucky said that, the wind lifted up, and Chucky spread out his arms, and he told his kids, “Every time you feel the wind, that is your mom with you.”

Then Jahlil moved to Chicago to live with his father, and Jahlil’s story became two stories, connected: The story of a boy turning to his father to learn to become a man. And the story of a father whose wandering life – a life of mistakes and trouble and unfulfilled potential, a life cast in the shadow of his own mother passing away at a young age – was set straight when he realized that, now, he was all his son had.

“Without Jah,” Chucky Okafor told me simply, “I’d probably be dead or in jail.”

Chucky Okafor became the father Jahlil needed the day Jahlil’s mom passed away 10 years ago.

After Jahlil’s mother died, the father came to save the son.

It turns out the son saved the father, too.

******

It’s not that Chucky Okafor was some sort of lowlife thug. And it’s not like he was some awful dude. Far from it. Chucky Okafor was always the life of the party, always everybody’s friend, always loud, always right in the middle of things. It’s just that maybe he was in the middle of too many things.

When Chucky was 18 months old, his mother passed away from breast cancer. His father was a Nigerian immigrant who came to America because he saw it as a place of opportunity. Chucky’s father raised their six children on his own. He gave his children traditional Nigerian names; Chucky is short for “Chukwudi,” which means “in the presence of God.”

The house was a typical immigrant’s house. The dad worked long hours, sometimes three jobs at a time, getting home just before midnight then doing it all over again the next morning. But when he was home, he was strict. Bedtime was 8:30. Education was paramount. On weekdays, television was allowed only for “The Cosby Show.” The family sat around the table and played Monopoly or Sorry or Uno together. And Chucky’s sister, Chinyere Okafor, took on a bit of that mothering role with Chucky.

“It just happened that way – it wasn’t planned,” Chinyere Okafor said. “He just became a part of me. I just felt like as a big sister, that’s what you do. So it didn’t start off about raising him. It became a homework assignment. He couldn’t write, and he would try to write C’s or an H. I’m like, ‘No. Sit down right here.’ It turned into playing school. From writing a C you just keep going to how you write in cursive: ‘You need to sit down and do this.’ Then, it kind of turned into raising Chucky.”

Chucky turned into a pretty difficult kid to raise. He got into fights. He ran the streets in the rough neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side, where his family lived.

 “I didn’t look for problems,” Chucky said. “It just seemed like problems found me.” He got kicked out of school, attending five high schools in three years. He was sent to live with his grandmother. He got in trouble for stealing someone’s credit card. He got sentenced to a juvenile detention center twice, the first time at age 14 or 15 when he was arrested for stealing cars.

“I didn’t know how to steal a car,” Chucky told me. “So my job was to break a window. And so I shattered the glass of a car. And somebody else would actually go hotwire the car, or ‘peel’ the cars, as they would call it. They did like four or five cars that day, and I didn’t know how to drive. So I got stuck with a car with a cracked windshield and literally got pulled over maybe about 30 or 40 minutes later.”

Chinyeye was dismayed to see her little brother losing his way. It was as if he’d forgotten his family roots.

But through it all, Chucky always had basketball. He was big, and a superior athlete. His attitude in the gym was the same as his attitude in the streets: Get in his way and Chucky Okafor would run right over you.

He was good enough at basketball that, despite all the trouble, colleges were willing to take a chance on him. And Chucky was ready to take a chance on a place other than Chicago, so he enrolled in a junior college in Fort Smith, Ark.

“Chicago, if you allow for it, it can overtake you,” Chucky told me. “It’s a beautiful city. I love my city, I love Chicago with a passion. But there’s different areas, different environments, different situations that a young, urban black man can fall into if he doesn’t have the right support or the right guidance, and the motivation to get out. And at an early part of my life, I didn’t see the big picture.”

It was when he was in junior college that Chucky met a vibrant young lady with the best smile in the world. They were both watching the same high school basketball game one night. Dee hollered at him, and Chucky hollered right back. Chucky loved that smile; he loved Dee’s swag. It didn’t hurt that Dee loved basketball and was a standout high school player in tiny Moffett, Okla. She’d been a great shooter with soft hands, destined for college ball herself until she hurt her knee.

Things were complicated. All told, on and off, Chucky and Dee were together for seven years. There was a lot of back and forth between Fort Smith, Ark., on the Oklahoma border, and Chicago. Chucky got on with the basketball team at Chicago State. Eventually, he moved to Chicago permanently because there were more opportunities. He got a job as a doorman at a condo. He set his life straight, or at least more straight than it had been. He worked toward his degree. He wanted his son to know his dad was a college graduate.

And even though ultimately things didn’t work out between Jahlil’s parents, Chucky was a big part of his son’s life, visiting him in Oklahoma and bringing him to Chicago for extended trips. Every birthday, father bought son a new basketball rim for his bedroom: a Nerf hoop, a Jordan Jammer. Eventually, he moved the dresser out of Jahlil’s bedroom and installed a giant Hot Shot machine, the type you usually see at arcades.

He was a doting father, calling his son nearly every day when the two were apart.

But Chucky still wasn’t right, even after he became a dad. He doesn’t like to go into specifics, other than just saying he was still involved in criminal activity, still making mistakes, still being a dumb Chicago kid who was caught up in all the wrong things.

Then came one March morning, when Chucky picked up his cell phone, and he heard his son crying, and all in one crashing and awful moment, everything changed.

“I couldn’t play (around) any longer,” Chucky told me. “From that point my life was never, ever about me again. And that’s to this day. It has never been about me at all. It’s always been about my children at that point.”

When Jahlil read his poem at the funeral, Chucky stood next to him. Chucky made sure the family wore blue or pink to the funeral – anything other than black, because he didn’t want it to seem like they felt sorry for themselves. At the cemetery, he told Jahlil and his sister that it’s OK to cry, but they must cry proudly, with their heads held up, not with their emotions hidden away.

Chucky’s daughter moved in with her grandmother in Oklahoma. Jahlil came to Chicago. He was in fourth grade, and he already had his sights set on the NBA, enamored of the idea he could someday be himself in a video game. Chucky moved from the South Side to a more sheltered life in the suburbs, near O’Hare airport. Part of it was for Jahlil: Chucky wanted to shield his son from the rougher parts of Chicago.

And part of it was for Chucky, so he could change, too.

“As a parent, we all want our children to do better than we did,” Chucky said. “And my life has been a great example of what not to do or how not to choose, how to make the right decision instead of doing the wrong decision. Sometimes you don’t have to learn by mistake. Sometimes you can learn from someone else’s mistake …

Chucky was careful to shield Jahlil from making the same mistakes he did.

“Any weaknesses that I had growing up – whether it was me following the crowd or getting into trouble, or me as a basketball player and not having a left hand – I didn’t want any of my weaknesses to be his weaknesses.”

Chucky’s sister, Chinyere, saw the differences in Chucky. It was as if all the wonderful things about him, all those things that had always been obscured by his mistakes, finally came to the forefront.

“I saw him try to create a human being better than who he was,” Chinyere Okafor told me. “I know that Chukwudi always knew his potential and understood that he lost out because he lost his path or lost the idea of dreaming big. And he refused – definitely refused – to let that happen to any seed or blood of his.”

******

Jahlil Okafor lifts his head up in the trophy room at Cameron Indoor. He pulls his hands away from his face, sits up straight and takes a breath. He’s still crying, but he looks me in the eyes and continues to tell me about his mother. It’s as if, 10 years later, his father’s words still ring out: Be proud, son. Pull your head up. It’s OK to cry.

The words worked. What Chucky Okafor did with his son – with the help of his extended family, especially Chinyere, who went from Chucky’s surrogate mother to Jahlil’s “auntie-mom,” as Jahlil calls her – worked.

“His family has given him this happiness and this support and this love of life that is unbelievably uncommon,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski told me. “It’s just a terrific family unit that this kid is a part of. In that moment where you have this incredible loss, they’ve put all their arms around him and have created this environment where that was not going to be the thing that defines him. They were going to make something happy, positive and good from it. And they have. They have.”

At his freshman season at Duke University, Jahlil Okafor has been nothing short of spectacular. He’s shown a combination of grace and power that, especially for a man his size (6-foot-11, 270 pounds), has astounded NBA scouts. They talk of his well-honed footwork, of his wide repertoire of post moves, of his timing, of the fact he is so surprisingly light on his feet. They talk of things you can’t teach.

He’s averaged nearly a double-double despite most teams double- or even triple-teaming him. In last week’s thrilling overtime victory over North Carolina, Okafor sprained his ankle in the first half – yet he ended up playing 41 courageous minutes, during which he scored two enormous baskets and had a couple rebounds in overtime that helped seal the win.

Jahlil Okafor has become the top freshman in the country and the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Part of it is his DNA as the son of two talented basketball players. Part of it is Okafor’s work ethic, the hours he’s spent in the gym; basketball became a place of solace in the time after his mother’s death. And part of it – a big, big part of it – has been Chucky’s mentoring. The hours the two spent studying videos of Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. The road trips all over the country when Chucky’s coached his son’s traveling teams. The constant focus on the future that Chucky gave to his son – not just telling him he was destined for the NBA but telling him he was destined for greatness.

“I have so much respect as a man – and in particular as a black man – for what Chuck has done with raising his kids but especially with Jah,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel told me. “It’s hard enough for young black kids out here anyway, especially when you go through something as traumatic, something as devastating at an early age, as losing your mom. There is so much talked about in the black community of black fathers not being there. I don’t think there’s enough talked about of the ones that are. Chuck is an amazing example of a father that’s always been there and that went there to the max as his son dealt with adversity.”

In the Duke trophy room, Jahlil looked up at me and cleared his throat. He continued talking about his mother: That she loved Alicia Keys. That she’d always be dancing around the house with Jahlil and his sister. And that she was one helluva basketball player, who’d join pickup games with boys and always be the first one chosen for a team.

These are the stories that Jahlil tells his little brothers, the ones who were too young to have memories of their mother when she passed away. Sometimes, when they can visit, they’ll lie on Jahlil’s bed. They’ll ask him what their mom was like. He’ll tell them stories, like when there was a tornado siren in Oklahoma once, and they all had to run to the storm cellar, and that it was scary but that Mom was able to make even that seem like a fun adventure — there they were in the storm cellar, laughing their heads off. And then Jahlil will pull out his phone and play some of their mother’s favorite songs.

I ask Jahlil how old his half-brothers are. They’re 9 and 10, he tells me, then he paused. That moment is the first time it’s ever really hit him: Those two boys are the same age now as Jahlil was when he watched his mother die.

Jahlil keeps the memory of his mother alive for his younger brothers, who are too young to remember her.

You can see the sad, beautiful symmetry that runs through the generations of this family: Chucky Okafor’s mother passes away, and Chucky’s older sister puts her arms around Chucky. Jahlil Okafor’s mother passes away, and his father puts his arms around Jahlil. Jahlil’s two brothers come to an age when they’re truly understanding their life without a mother, and Jahlil knows that in some small part it’s his turn now, to do what his own family did for him, to help fill that void for these two boys who need it.

I ask Jahlil about his father. The two have an interesting relationship. It’s a father-son relationship, sure, with nurturing and discipline and counseling. But it’s a relationship like brothers, too: The two have grown up alongside each other, and have grown up because of each other, too.

“He’s been the greatest father for me,” Jahlil says. “Going around the streets of Chicago with my dad, people always tell me they can’t believe how much my dad has matured. Or, ‘You wouldn’t believe how your dad used to be.’ There’s always lots of words about how much he’s changed. I know he had a rough childhood growing up, and he made some mistakes when he was very young. But ever since I’ve lived with him, I know he’s said numerous times that I’ve changed his life.”

I ask him about the first time his father told him that.

“I was in seventh grade,” Jahlil told me. “I remember we were in Africa, in Nigeria, visiting family. We were staying in a hotel. It was actually New Year’s. When he told me that, I started crying. I don’t know why, but when he told me that I changed his life, I just started crying. Because I know how much he’s changed my life, especially when my mother passed. That’s when we really got close. He was like my rock. I depended on him so much when my mother passed.”

“That’s how much he loves me,” Jahlil continued, “that he wanted to be a better person for me, so I have somebody to look up to. And a better father figure. That just shows the love that he has for me.”

After a while, the big young man stands up and walks out to the basketball court. It’s empty now, this museum of an arena, but soon, at the next Duke home game, the announcer will say his name before tipoff, and the Cameron Crazies will cheer louder and crazier for Jahlil Okafor than for any other player. They know they are watching a future NBA player. They know they’re in the presence of a basketball player they someday may be able to tell their children they watched in college. But in reality, they are watching something else, too: A young man who has avoided his father’s mistakes because of what his father did for him, and a young man whose goal is not just to be good but to be something great. Just like his father taught him.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.