There were 35,446 in the Carrier Dome when Duke played at Syracuse in February, but Jahlil Okafor could still pick out his dad.
“My dad told me he wasn’t coming, but during the game I heard his voice,” Okafor said. “So that was pretty cool.”
It’s hard to miss Chukwudi “Chucky” Okafor, who stands a broad 6-foot-5 and has cheering energy that would put even the best pom-pom wavers to shame. He has been a constant presence in Jahlil’s life, even more so after his mother died when he was 9.
Throw in Chucky’s brother, Emeka, his sister, Chinyere Okafor-Conley, and various other nieces and family friends, and there is a year-long party that has followed the Blue Devils all season, all the way to Indianapolis and the Final Four.
“Our parents of players have been fabulous, just how they support the team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Jah, his family could not be more into what we’re doing. They should have their own reality show.
“They're such a good family. Home, away, they have a great time. They dominate the Jumbotron. And they could not be better with us.”
It’s easy to spot Chucky, with his backwards-turned Duke hat. He’s always wearing a custom, hand-painted T-shirt depicting Jahlil. Sometimes, it’s Jahlil and Krzyzewski, other times Jahlil and Chucky – whatever close friend and artist Michael Cox draws up in his Born Vain studio. The plan for Saturday’s semifinal against Michigan State was a throwback picture of Jahlil in diapers, though Chucky let out an incredulous “What?!” when told Jahlil had found out that plan in advance.
The shirts were a new idea this year – Chucky spent the past two years of Okafor’s high school days at Chicago’s Whitney Young High on the sidelines in a coat and tie as an assistant coach.
“So for the last two years I had to contain myself because I was on the bench, otherwise we would have been penalized if I did some of the antics that I do now,” he said with a laugh. “A part of me is really excited to getting back to being a parent again.”
In addition to cheering, the Okafors are into dancing – so much so that the video board operator at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn kept cutting to Emeka and Chucky during Duke’s Nov. 22 win against Stanford. The pair obliged by breaking it down with moves that would have passed at any any nearby club.
“I couldn’t have possibly even imagined the emotions or how joyful these games would be,” Chucky said. “I’ve never experienced it. I knew it would be a great year for all the boys, success-wise, but I didn’t know how passionate and fun the games would be.”
Those who know Chucky aren’t surprised at how this year has gone – they know he’s loud, boisterous and, above all, 100 percent supportive of his son. As over-the-top as Chucky is, Jahlil is his polar opposite, reserved and relaxed, content to curl up with his laptop most nights, enjoying Netflix.
“Chuck is the father that is fun and crazy, but he is forever watchful,” said Tyrone Slaughter, the coach at Whitney Young. “Jahlil can go about his every day life without any fear of what is going on back there because Chuck is making sure it’s all right.
“It is incredibly refreshing, especially as an African-American man, to see a black boy and a black father hug and kiss and say I love you.”
Krzyzewski hasn’t bothered to pretend that Okafor, the likely No. 1 pick in this spring’s NBA draft, will stay at Duke for more than one year. But that hasn’t stopped Chucky and Co. from fully investing in the college basketball experience. For Duke’s last home game, against Wake Forest, Chucky went over and joined the student section, standing and cheering. The highlights were the win at previously undefeated Virginia on Jan. 31 (“That atmosphere was crazy”) and the Feb. 18, 92-90 overtime win against North Carolina.
Chucky estimated that he missed about seven games, most around a December knee surgery, but there was an Okafor representative at every game, loud and proud.
“I know how much Jahlil as invested in basketball, made it his craft and know how hard all those boys have worked to get to the national championship game and what they all have sacrificed to get to this point,” Chucky said. “None of those boys want to see it end. They want to be the last team playing.”