It was the weekend of Oct. 25, 2013, and Mike Krzyzewski was hosting a dinner party. Not just any dinner party – one that was years in the making, and one whose outcome would go a long way in determining the fate of this season’s Blue Devils.
The guests of honor: Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, along with their families and various other Duke staff members.
“The best recruiting meal we’ve ever had was at their visit at our house,” Krzyzewski said. “And it was hysterical. It was so good, it was unbelievable. People were cracking up. And to see their interaction, because they already knew one another. Terrific. That’s the build up of this year.”
For Okafor and Jones, who decided as ninth-graders to attend the same college, that was the weekend that solidified their college choice. And that was the weekend that set the foundation for Duke’s appearance in the national championship game Monday night, with a rematch against Wisconsin standing between the Blue Devils and their goal of hanging a fifth NCAA title banner at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“It really just felt like home, how comfortable we all were and our families were, and the coaching staff, how they interacted with and treated our families,” Jones said. “You look back on it, and that was really the moment that you knew this is really the spot for us.”
Sold on Jones
Jones caught the eye of Duke assistant Jeff Capel and Krzyzewski as a rising sophomore in July 2011, at an AAU tournament in South Carolina. From that weekend on, he was their sole point guard target for his class (Duke also opted not to recruit a point guard in the class ahead of him). The Duke staff had heard Jones and Okafor talk about choosing a school together, making a so-called “package deal,” but Capel and Krzyzewski still recruited them as individuals in case that idea didn’t hold.
It was like a throwback recruitment, in a way, Krzyzewski said: There weren’t middle men to deal with, just the boys and their families. And Duke made sure to establish the terms of the courtship early.
“We were very truthful,” Capel said. “That’s one of the things we tried to establish early during the recruiting process. For them, don’t believe anything unless you hear it from us. And from us, we won’t believe anything unless we hear it directly from you.
“And so, as the process went on, there were people, things trying to break up them, trying to maybe pit them against each other. And we understood that. We actually talked to them about that.”
Krzyzewski said the pitch to Okafor and Jones wasn’t about winning a national championship but about personal development. And he didn’t mean solely basketball development – “It’s obvious that we can develop a kid, basketball-wise, we have so many kids in the pros,” Krzyzewski said – but about a more holistic approach.
“Our school has a chance to develop you, too. In other words, you’re going to be around excellence, everywhere you go here,” Krzyzewski said. “And those three guys, they were looking for that.
“They didn’t want to be segregated and just be basketball players. They wanted to be Duke students. That was the biggest selling point. They fit right in here.”
Jones and Capel grew close quickly – Capel said he talked to him nearly every day, for years. Okafor was a little different, as he would sometimes put down his phone for a few days, dropping off the grid.
Based on his relationship with Jones, Capel said he started to feel like Duke would land him as his junior year of high school started. That was about 15 months before Jones’ early signing period.
“Then it was a matter of, is this pact going to stand?” Capel said. “And the more and more we got to know them and got to know their families, you realized that it was very real. And so, because we felt really good about Tyus, that made us feel better about Jah.”
It wasn’t until that weekend last October, on that official visit, that Capel felt Okafor was on board, too.
The friends commit
On the boys’ end, there were many group texts and conference calls between their families, and group texts and conference calls with Krzyzewski, too. And then, on the eve of Duke’s Nov. 12 game against Kansas, Jones and Okafor gave Krzyzewski the call he had been waiting for, one years in the making.
They were in. And that was their verbal commitment to the Blue Devils.
“When we told him, I don’t know if he was expecting that,” Jones said in November. “I think he was expecting more questions or something like that.”
Capel actually already knew, but he acted surprised when Krzyzewski told the staff about 90 minutes before the tipoff with the Jayhawks. There still were butterflies a few days later, when the staff watched as Jones and Okafor announced their choice on national television, and then everyone finally could relax once the signed letters of intent were faxed to Durham.
Jones and Okafor watched Duke’s season end early last year, and Jones sent Krzyzewski a text message after the loss to Mercer.
“I just told him that this won’t happen again next year,” Jones said.
And it didn’t.
Krzyzewski and Capel might never have talked national championship during the recruitment of Jones and Okafor. But the players certainly talked about it among themselves.
“That was the No.1 criteria,” Okafor said. “That’s all we wanted to do was win a national championship. Coming to Duke was what we thought was our best chance to have an opportunity to do that.”