INDIANAPOLIS — When the final buzzer sounded and the fireworks above the court went off, unleashing a torrent of confetti and streamers and tissue paper cut into pieces the size of a Reese’s that signaled the end of the college basketball season and the beginning of Duke’s celebration, Jahlil Okafor was not on the floor.
He was on the bench, sidelined due to foul trouble and defensive struggles and his inability to consistently make free throws, an issue in a game that only needed a couple of those freebies in order to be put on ice. Okafor, Duke’s first-team all-american and a soon-to-be top two pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, hadn’t played his best game anyway, finishing with just 10 points and three boards in 22 foul-plagued minutes.
But none of that mattered.
Because as soon as that buzzer sounded, Okafor took off on a dead sprint, the fastest he ran all night, as he tried to chase down Tyus Jones, his best friend, his point guard and the other half of a package deal that brought another national title to Durham. He caught Jones right around half court, enveloping him in a bear hug as the two went crashing to the floor, locked in embrace when the inevitability of tears became a reality.
“This is what we dreamed of,” Okafor said, ‘this’ being Duke’s 68-63 win over Wisconsin in the national title game on Monday night.
And ‘this’ is the reason that Jones and Okafor, the Class of 2014’s best point guard and big man, decided all those years ago that they were going to play their college basketball together.
The story has been told a million times by now. Jones and Okafor met in third grade, at the AAU nationals in Orlando. They grew close in ninth grade, when they roomed together while playing for USA Basketball, deciding then that they were going to play their college ball together. That was when they first discussed winning a national title together.
“And we did it,” Okafor said.
That moment the duo shared at midcourt? It was the culmination of that process, a relationship built and maintained despite two kids that come from different backgrounds, that lived more than 500 miles from each other, a friendship that turned into the bond of brotherhood.
“We told each other we loved each other,” Okafor said of their embrace. “This is what we dreamed of.”
“To come all that way,” Jones added. “We were just crying.”
What you have to understand here is that talk of package deals like this happen all the time on the recruiting circuit. Kids go to a camp or a tournament together. They enjoy each other’s company. They win a few games and have fun playing on the same team. Suddenly, they’re talking about how much they would like to go to college together without realizing just how much can change over the course of the next year, or two years, or whatever it ends up being. All it takes is one off-hand mention for it to become a tweet, which becomes a rumor, which becomes something that the players will be asked over and over again.
The kids themselves know that these things can take on a life of their own, and they’ll use that to their advantage. Talking about package deals creates a buzz, and maybe that buzz will help them get a better scholarship offer or a phone call from a program that normally wouldn’t call. Or, maybe, the two are friends and they do want to play in college together, but one of them is far better than the other. If they’re good enough, they can make ultimatums to get a friend a scholarship.
That’s a real package deal. To get one kid, you have to take the other kid.
“It showed a sensitivity that most teenagers would never have,” Coach K said. “It’s really a good thing. That’s the kind of young men they are. I saw that throughout the recruiting process.”
“I think what was different about Tyus and I was the fact we had our families involved,” Okafor added. “My dad, his mother. His dad, my aunt. We’re all just one big family. I consider his mom my second mom. Likewise him with my dad.”
The end result was that moment on the court, immediately after winning the national title.
That’s a memory that both Jones and Okafor will carry with them forever, much like the friendship that precipitated it.