DURHAM, N.C. -- Sometime before the 2 a.m. celebratory breakfast at Waffle House and the net cutting, their thoughts inevitably drifted to the end. It seems odd that an 18- and 19-year-old would have to ponder this so soon, their likely final games together. But that's the nature of modern college basketball, and the curse of the exceptionally talented: Someone or something is always pulling you away.
Where to begin? Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor are only freshmen for the Duke basketball team, but their history is long. They met in a bathroom, of all places. Jones was 8 with spindly legs and a basketball uniform so big that he swam in it when he walked into this restroom at an AAU tournament and saw Okafor. Accounts vary on how tall Okafor actually was -- somewhere between 5-foot-6 and a redwood -- and Jones couldn't take his eyes off him. How in the world could he and this giant be the same age?
Okafor, for his part, shrugged off the encounter. He was used to having people stare at him. But Jones did leave an impression on him a day or two later, when they met on the basketball court. Okafor thought he was one of the best third-graders in the gym. There's a picture from that day that Jones' mother, Debbie, saved. Jones was leaping up for a shot against Okafor's outstretched hands in the photo, boy against man. They parted ways without saying so much as a word.
Who would have thought that, six years later, they'd be so close that they'd make a pact to play college basketball together in pursuit of a national championship? When Debbie Jones heard her son say that he was teaming up with Okafor, that they'd make their college decision together, she didn't want to discourage him but also knew how fickle teenagers are. "Yeah, right," she said to herself, but then the boys kept texting and calling each other, from Minnesota to Chicago, and she knew that they were serious.
On Tuesday night, Debbie couldn't really talk because she had lost her voice screaming in Houston over the weekend. The Blue Devils beat Gonzaga, and now Okafor and Jones are going to the Final Four in Indianapolis to play Michigan State.
Though The Pact sounds reminiscent of LeBron James' decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form an NBA superpower in Miami back in 2010, Tyus Jones insists that wasn't their inspiration.
"It was more of a business obviously with LeBron and their end," Jones says.
The teenagers' motivations were far more simplistic. They were best friends, and they trusted each other. And if Jones and Okafor were going to make it to the Final Four, they knew their best chance was to aim for it together.
THE IDEA OF HIGH SCHOOL basketball players aligning in college package deals isn't exactly novel. Indiana high school teammates Greg Oden and Mike Conley pledged to attend Ohio State together back in 2006, pre-LeBron. And then there are the instances in which a superstar player is able to bring a teammate of lesser value along for the ride.
But Jones and Okafor were two of the top five high school basketball recruits out of the Class of 2014. They didn't play high school ball together and didn't even live in the same state, with Okafor going to Whitney Young High in Chicago and Jones matriculating at Apple Valley, a suburb of Minneapolis.
After that chance encounter in third grade, they met again years later during tryouts for the USA Basketball under-16 team. They worked seamlessly together; Jones the heady pass-first point guard, Okafor the prolific post player. They loved dominating their opponents. After cruising to a gold medal for the United States, the teammates joked collectively about transferring to the same prep school and crushing all of their foes.
Of course that was unrealistic, so Jones and Okafor decided to join forces in college. They informed college coaches of their pact and took recruiting visits together. Usually, a coach would make a home visit to either Jones' or Okafor's house one night, then visit the other the next. And then the boys would call each other and compare notes.
It helped that Debbie Jones and Okafor's dad, Chukwudi, got to know each other through USA Basketball. They'd hit the speakerphone button and conduct conference calls among themselves and the boys, gauging their thoughts.
"It was a great team effort," says Chukwudi, who goes by Chucky. "We supported both children as far as their decision. They were very meticulous. They knew what they were looking for out of a university, and we'd get home and get on the phone after a visit and we'd recap: What did you like, what did you dislike, how did you like how they treated your family? Those boys worked to make a great decision."
They announced their college decision in a signing ceremony held simultaneously in two states that was televised by ESPNU. Okafor, sitting with an auditorium full of classmates behind him, was nervous that he would mess up and put his hat on at the wrong time, before Jones grabbed his Duke cap. They called each other before the ceremony to calm their nerves.
Jones and Okafor also made a three-way call to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to tell him of their plans. November 2013 was a good month for Krzyzewski. Less than a week later, Justise Winslow, a prized small forward from Houston, committed to Duke. Winslow played on the under-17 team with Jones and Okafor, who had been campaigning for him to join them in Durham.
Their USA Basketball coach, Don Showalter, was surprised that all three of them picked Duke. Showalter was also impressed that Jones and Okafor were so steadfast in their decision to play together.
"It's pretty rare," Showalter says of package deals. "But it's being talked about more."
In many cases, it doesn't work out. Last summer, Malik Newman, one of the most prized recruits out of the Class of 2015, proclaimed that he and prep star Diamond Stone would be a package deal. Within months, that resolve seemed to diminish when Newman tweeted that Stone's choice wasn't necessarily going to be his pick. Stone committed to Maryland; Newman still hasn't announced his decision.
Seven years ago, Avery Bradley and Abdul Gaddy were in a similar situation. The chums from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Washington, had talent and great chemistry, and made each other better. They wanted to keep it going. Gaddy loved Arizona; Bradley wanted to go to Texas. They had offers from both schools, Gaddy says. But Gaddy sized up the guard situation at Texas and knew he'd struggle for playing time. He also wanted to stay close to his family, so Gaddy picked the University of Washington, and Bradley became a Longhorn.
Both guys are doing OK for themselves now. Bradley is a guard for the Boston Celtics, and Gaddy is playing in Europe. In an email to ESPN.com on Thursday, Gaddy said that he and Bradley sometimes think about what could have been.
"We even talk about it 'til this day," Gaddy wrote, "saying we wished we played together in college regardless of where we went because we worked so well together and we always have that bond and connection, even when we play in the summer."
Gaddy says he's still best friends with Bradley.
IF A FRESHMAN who has barely broken in his college uniform can have a signature moment, the Michigan State game may have been that for Jones. It was the third game of the season. After Duke opened with Presbyterian and Fairfield, it was the first big game for the new guys. Jones struggled during the first 20 minutes of the game, but he finished with 17 points, all in the second half of an 81-71 victory over the Spartans. A few weeks later, he scored 22 in a win against Wisconsin. Nothing seemed to faze Jones.
To say he grew up around basketball would be like saying Wisconsin loves cheese. A year before Jones was born, UCLA's Tyus Edney led the Bruins to a national championship, cementing his place in NCAA lore with his coast-to-coast buzzer-beater basket in the second round. Jones' parents scoured baby books, checked out all the popular names, but were so moved by that moment that they had to name the boy Tyus.
Basketball is important to all of them, from his father, Rob, who played at Wisconsin-Parkside, to Debbie, who led Devils Lake High to the North Dakota state championship. Debbie was a point guard. Her sister, Darcy Cascaes, was a star guard for the University of North Dakota.
Rob and Debbie Jones are divorced, but they are engaged in their son's basketball career. Debbie works full time and runs the boys' basketball booster club at Apple Valley. "She runs from one meeting to the next," Cascaes says. "She doesn't sleep a lot. There's a reason why her kids are so humble and such good people. She holds them accountable."
Okafor's parents were also very into basketball. Dacresha Lanett Benton was a high school star in Oklahoma. She met Okafor's dad when he played junior college ball in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Their relationship eventually disintegrated, and Chucky moved back to his hometown of Chicago to attend Chicago State. Jahlil lived with his mom in a small town called Moffett, Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border. But he visited Chucky often. When Jahlil was 9, his mom contracted bronchitis, suffered a collapsed lung and died at 29. Jahlil and his sister, Jalen, were the ones who called 911.
With his mother gone, he moved from Oklahoma to Chicago to live with his father. Because Chucky lost his own mother as a young child, he understood the pain his son was going through, from missing his mom to moving to a new school to awkwardly being the biggest kid in every classroom.
"It's not as simple as a three-minute news broadcast to really understand what him and his sister had to go through," Chucky says. "He never lashed out at anyone. He's always just been kind and thoughtful to the next person. I think that's often missed [amid] his basketball prowess.
"At 19, the things he's had to endure ... It's amazing."
Basketball gave Okafor and his family something to be happy about, something to look forward to. Even in high school, Okafor was never a man about town, preferring to spend his idle time inside watching NBA games with his family. Jones was the same way, too.
After Okafor and Jones made USA Basketball's under-16 team, their bond strengthened a year later when the under-17 team played in Lithuania.
"I don't even know how to describe it," Jones says, "but it was very small, and the beds over in Europe are right next to each other. So half the time Jahlil is using up half my bed at the same time he's using his bed.
"Stuff like that, spending a lot of time together in a foreign country where no one else speaks your language, is when you really become close."
THE FAMILIES BECAME intertwined, too. It's what happens when you spend so much time together in the stands, rooting for the same thing. They eat meals together, and Debbie and Chucky jointly shopped for their sons' dorm-room supplies at the beginning of the school year. They have breathlessly followed every step of this Duke basketball season.
Okafor, a finalist for the Naismith Trophy, has long been considered a lock for the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Although he struggled to score last weekend at the regional in Houston, challenged by Utah big man Jakob Poeltl and then Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski, NBA teams are still salivating over his mobility, footwork and explosiveness, and he is still expected to be gone within the first two picks.
Jones is also projected by many as a draft pick, albeit late in the first round or early in the second. Will the 6-foot-1 guard stay in school? Both, true to form, are mum about the future and focused on the weekend.
Their families are trying to do the same.
"I mean, you can't help but think about [the end]," Chucky Okafor says. "But I'm just trying to stay in the moment, enjoying the moment. Anything this good, you don't want it to stop."
For now, at least, they're just college kids having fun. They play Nerf basketball in their dorm and go out to eat in the middle of the night, like they did early Monday morning, after they got back from Houston.
A few hours earlier, as the clock wound down against Gonzaga, Okafor found his friend on the floor. There were about two minutes left, and the victory was sealed. But for Jones and Okafor, the journey is far from over.
"This is what we dreamed of," Okafor told his friend. "This is what we came here for."