SAN ANTONIO — Udoka Azubuike’s most revealing answer in Thursday afternoon’s candid and personal interview session with reporters may have been the Kansas basketball center’s most unintelligible.
Azubuike, a 7-foot sophomore and native of Delta, Nigeria, spoke at length about the efforts to get his mother, Florence Azonuwu, from the African country to the Alamodome in time for the top-seeded Jayhawks’ national semifinal against Villanova at 7:49 p.m. Saturday.
Azonuwu experienced passport and visa issues, but a breakthrough occurred Thursday and, at the time of Azubuike’s interview, she appeared on-track to make it to San Antonio by late Friday. She has never seen her son play basketball — in fact, she hasn’t even seen him face-to-face in the nearly six years since Azubuike was discovered at a camp in his home country and received his mother’s blessing to pursue his hoops dream in the U.S.
With all those factors in mind, Azubuike was asked a relatively straightforward question: Will it be difficult to put the emotions of this reunion aside and focus on Saturday’s game?
“Um, yeah, I mean, I try—” Azubuike started, then stopped, then continued. “I think, I don’t know, but hopefully — yeah, yeah.”
It wasn’t Azubuike’s most articulate answer, but the honesty of the response, the emotion on his face and the difficulty putting into words why this reunion will mean so much to him revealed more than anything the towering frontcourt force could’ve ever said.
“She’s never seen me play at all. Like, she’s never seen me play basketball,” Azubuike said. “It’s going to be an emotional moment for me. I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.”
This, if nothing else, is an understandable response.
“We want to win the game,” KU coach Bill Self said, “but is winning the game more important than to make sure there's not a little distraction for Doke? Of course not.”
How the reunion was made possible is a story of international politics, labor disputes and an actual good deed by college basketball’s regulatory organization.
The NCAA in recent years has made funds available for travel and lodging expenses for families of student athletes who make the Final Four, opening the door for international players such as Svi Mykhailiuk and Silvio De Sousa to take advantage of the program in a relatively open-and-shut fashion. As mentioned earlier, though, Azonuwu experienced issues with her passport and visa, bringing doubt as to whether she would be one of the nearly 70,000 that could attend Saturday’s game.
“At first I didn’t think it was going to be possible because of the amount of time I have and because the situation of things back home," Azubuike said. "Sometimes it can be a little bit complicated."
U.S. Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and U.S. Representative Kevin Yoder, all from Kansas, stepped in and, according to KU, helped expedite the typically slow-moving process with the Nigerian embassy in the capital city of Abuja. Yoder confirmed Azonuwu’s visa clearance in a Thursday afternoon tweet, but she wasn’t in the clear just yet — her path to the U.S. took her through Paris, and an Air France strike threatened to make everyone’s efforts for naught.
Azonuwu, though, appeared to clear that final hurdle, as KU was confident enough to send out a Thursday night news release announcing, essentially, mission accomplished.
"For Doke to be able to share his experience at the Final Four with his mom is something neither of them will ever forget," KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger said in the release. "You can see it in Doke's face whenever we discuss it."
One of five siblings to the middle school teacher Azonuwu, Azubuike experienced the death of his father while he himself was in middle school. Azonuwu knew the situation in Nigeria “wasn’t conducive” for her son, Azubuike said, which made the decision to approve his move to the U.S. an easier one to swallow.
“It was kind of hard back then because we had a lot of hardship back there, and there was a lot of bad stuff happening. It just wasn’t good for me,” Azubuike said. “When the opportunity came for me to travel out to come to the U.S. to play basketball and go to school, I mean, I didn’t think twice about it, and my mom was pretty excited about it, too.”
Azonuwu had a simple message and a meaningful gift for her son upon his departure.
“My mom, she’s really religious. She’s a real Christian. She’s all in Christianity,” Azubuike said. “When I was leaving, she gave me a bible and was like, ‘Don’t forget this. Keep this in your mind and allow God to guide you.’ ”
Azubuike estimates he and his mother talk over the phone about once every three weeks. He’d like to FaceTime her, but Internet issues in his home country are abound. Azubuike is driven, he said, by giving his entire family a better life.
“Oh man, that’s what I do it for,” Azubuike said. “My mom, she’s been through a lot back home. Raising five kids without a dad, just my mom. I’m pretty motivated.”
As Azubuike puts it, his mother “don’t know nothin’ about college basketball,” which should make Saturday a surreal and somewhat confusing experience.
“Can you imagine, you've never seen your son play basketball and the first time you do it is in front of 70,000 people at this thing?” Self said. “I can't even imagine what's going to be going through her mind.”
Of course, there’s also the little matter of the game itself. KU (31-7) finds itself a five-point underdog against the Wildcats (34-4), but for what it’s worth, Azubuike isn't flinching.
After all, he wants his mother to have the opportunity to watch her second-ever basketball game Monday.
“We’re used to it. Against Duke we were the underdogs, even though we were the No. 1 seed,” Azubuike said. “We’re just going to go about playing our type of basketball, playing Kansas basketball. We don’t believe in underdog or whatever. We just go out there and play ball.”