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Mother's memory constant for Okafor

DURHAM, N.C. -- He remembers surprise trips to Chuck E. Cheese's. He and his sister, Jalen, would dart around the restaurant, splitting their time between collecting tickets at the games and scarfing down pizza at the table. Despite the noise, squealing kids and sugar rushes that can defeat even the most indulgent parent, she'd never rush them along.

And she was tall, very tall. He remembers that.

And people in town really liked her. That has stuck with him.

And he was her sidekick, a real mama's boy. That much he knows for sure.

And then there were sirens and ambulances and his own panic. He remembers being the one in the room, the one who placed the 911 call.

And then Dacresha Benton, Dee as she was called, was gone, dead at the age of 29. Her son was not yet 10 years old.

Sadly, Jahlil Okafor remembers that, too.

"I have a lot of memories,'' Okafor said. "My dad lost his mom when he was an infant, so he always let me know how lucky I was to be able to remember her. But that can make it hurt even more sometimes, being able to remember.''

It's those memories, the ones that he has and the ones he'll never create, that ground Okafor as he begins a college basketball career at Duke that could easily overwhelm him.

Twelve months after The Freshmen dominated college basketball, Okafor is "The Freshman," the ballyhooed "It boy" for the season. He arrives at Duke with his treasure chest already stuffed with three USA Basketball gold medals, two high-profile MVP awards (from the McDonald's All-American game and the U17 world championships), multiple national high school player of the year honors, and the label of "one of a kind," from his college coach, a guy who has seen a few great kinds.

Yet the player who received his first scholarship offer as an eighth grader remains thoroughly unimpressed -- with himself, with the attention, with any of it.

It's because of those memories, and the difficult lesson they offered.

"He gets it,'' Okafor's aunt, Dr. Chinyere Okafor-Conley, said. "With his mom's passing, he knows that you're not promised tomorrow and that you're not guaranteed anything. We've had this discussion over and over again. Life can change in a matter of a minute, so enjoy it. That's what he's doing. He's enjoying it.''


In the Okafor family, basketball was everything, but it never meant everything.

Okafor's parents met when his dad, Chuckwudi (Chucky to everyone who knows him), was playing for a junior college in the Arkansas town that Dee called home. She had played basketball, too, but by the time she met Chucky, she had a daughter and had stopped playing.

The game offered Chucky a host of opportunities, but he blew each one, getting run out of two junior colleges and one four-year school for various forms of insubordination. And while he dreamed that his son would love the game as much as he did, he never wanted Okafor to pursue it with the same blind and often misguided ambition that he did.

The parents pushed academics -- as a preschooler, his aunt recalled, Okafor could recite the alphabet backward -- and harped on his manners.

"I always wanted to instill doing right from wrong, and that you always have a choice,'' said Chucky, who would eventually right himself and earn both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. "Regardless of whether he was playing basketball or doing a spelling bee, I wanted him to know I would support him and help him learn to make the right choice.''

Even when Dee and Chucky separated -- he moved back to his native Chicago to go to college, she remained in Oklahoma, where she had moved to attend junior college -- Chucky was present. He called Jahlil, who was seven when Dee and Chucky separated, almost nightly. Every year Okafor and Jalen took a vacation to Chicago.

But Dee was home, and Dee was the every-day force behind Okafor's upbringing, loving but strict, and like Chucky was intent on raising a son who was respectful. Dee loved to play with her children and joke with them, so one day when Dee, home battling bronchitis, started to breathe funny, Okafor thought she was just playing.

Instead, one of Dee's lungs had collapsed. Okafor called 911 and watched as medics performed CPR on his mother in their home. They couldn't save her.

"I think about it just about every day,'' said Okafor, who chose a picture of himself as a toddler nestled on his mother's lap for his Twitter header photo. "Any time I get to a quiet spot, in my room by myself, it drops in my mind.''

Months later, Okafor moved to Chicago permanently. Chucky immediately moved out of the more dangerous South Side of Chicago and set about giving his son the structure he lacked in his own childhood.

Chucky leaned on his sister, Okafor-Conley, to provide a woman's touch. She's a principal at an academy in the city and frequently drove Okafor back and forth to school, using the drives for heart-to-heart conversations.

This is the part where the story usually reads that basketball saved Okafor, provided him a reprieve from his grief. Except that's not entirely true.

Basketball was there, yes, and certainly it was an outlet. By the time Okafor was in middle school, aware of how much bigger he was than everyone else, he'd beg his aunt not to tell people his age, already prepped for the "He's how old?" response. And before he stepped a toe onto a high school court, DePaul said he had a scholarship.

So he was talented and basketball was fun, but it would never replace what he lost or fill the hole that will always be bottomless.

No one, especially his dad, tried to pretend otherwise.

"I know because I lost my mom,'' Chucky said. "The reality of the situation is, not having a mother to touch him or to grab onto was tough on him.''


Ask Okafor to describe his father, and he smiles.

"The exact opposite of me,'' he said.

Okafor is big in body.

Chucky is bigger than life.

When coaches made home visits to recruit Okafor, they weren't allowed to leave the family's home before posing for a "look-away," an Okafor family tradition.

"My father is Nigerian, and he didn't believe in looking directly into the camera,'' Chucky explained. "So that's how I take my pictures.''

And that's how Mike Krzyzewski came to be snapped -- arms crossed, side-by-side with Chucky staring off into space.

"They are fun, good people,'' Krzyzewski said of the family. "They have fun, I'm telling you.''

Last month, when Chucky visited Durham for Countdown to Craziness, he not only immediately dubbed himself a Cameron Crazy, but also took a selfie with the Blue Devil mascot.

Okafor-Conley, who went on the trip, expects that of her brother. What surprised her is how much her nephew is starting to find his playful side.

It's not that Okafor was serious-minded. He was just quiet, with a soft voice that somehow made him small despite that big frame. A beast on the basketball court who was devastated when Jabari Parker's Simeon team beat his Whitney Young squad in the state tournament, he was content to blend in off the court.

Whitney Young, recently rated fourth in the state, has a diverse and accomplished student population -- Michelle Obama is an alum -- and Okafor didn't think himself any more important than some of his equally talented classmates.

But since he's arrived at Duke, Okafor is exploring a new side of himself. He's more playful and relaxed. When a reporter recently sat down to interview senior Quinn Cook, Cook kept giggling. Turns out the culprit was Okafor, who was making faces at Cook from the hallway and somehow hiding behind the thinnest of door frames to go unnoticed.

"When we went to the craziness, he's out there dancing, and he is not the type to dance in front of thousands,'' Okafor-Conley said. "I videotaped it, but all you can hear is me screaming because I was so surprised. You can really see how loose he is with his teammates. That's new for him. I'm really excited about the chances he's taking.''

What Okafor-Conley doesn't say, but what is understood: Her nephew needs the silliness. He needs it because he's carried such a heavy burden for so long, and he needs it because he's going to be carrying an even heavier load going forward.

As much as Okafor, or any top freshman, likes to say the attention doesn't bother him, it is there, an inescapable prison of affection and adulation. For a part of last year, it chewed up and spat out Andrew Wiggins; it weighed on Jabari Parker and it will sit like a two-ton albatross around Okafor's neck.

To whom much is given, much is expected -- and great things are expected of Okafor. It is not just the rankings and ratings -- he is the first ESPN 100 top recruit to land at Duke, only the third freshman to make the preseason Associated Press All-American team (neither of the two previous on the list, Harrison Barnes nor Wiggins, made the first team at the end of the season) -- it's the way he plays.

His is not a ranking based solely on potential and measurements. He is gifted. His hands are big enough to palm a medicine ball, yet kissed with a soft touch. Thanks to a self-imposed diet (he eliminated bread, though he kept his beloved Fruit Loops), his body fat is down to 9.6 percent so he can move, not lumber.

He needs to find a rebounding snarl -- Krzyzewski harped on defensive rebounding for the whole team after a recent practice and reiterated the need for Okafor the following day in an interview -- but he is going to be great.

That's not a guess. It's a given.

"Whether he has this amazing year this year or not, we'll see but he's got it. He's going to be a great player,'' Krzyzewski said. "He's smart, he cares. Get the list of intangibles and he's got it. He's got things, mostly how physical the game is. Big guys have the toughest transition, but he's terrific already.''


Last month, when his family came to town, Okafor insisted on taking them to the nearby North Carolina state fair. He'd already been with his teammates but he wanted to go with his father, aunt and uncle.

They were content to chat and wander around. He wanted to go on the rides, yanking them around the fairgrounds like an eager toddler.

"The reality of the situation, not having a mother to touch or grab was tough on him,'' Chucky said. "But the way he handled it, he said it one day ... he appreciates his loved ones more. He appreciates everything more.''

Especially the chance to make memories.