Udoka Azubuike’s mom, Florence, presented her son with a treasured gift as he left Nigeria for the United States six years ago.
“She put a Bible in my hand. She said, ‘Don’t forget this. Always keep this in your mind and allow God to guide you,’’’ Azubuike, Kansas’ 18-year-old sophomore center said Thursday at the Alamodome, site of Saturday’s Final Four semifinal game between the Jayhawks and Villanova.
Azubuike, who kept the Bible with him during his four years at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., and his two years at KU, now is trying to provide his beloved mom with a present of his own.
Because of an NCAA program that provides players $3,000 to $4,000 to bring family members to the Final Four, Udoka has sent Florence the funds to fly from Nigeria to Texas for Saturday’s game against Nova, and if KU wins, Monday’s title game against either Loyola Chicago or Michigan.
As of Thursday afternoon, Florence had been approved for a visa at the embassy in Abuja (which is 570 miles from where Azubuike grew up in Delta, Nigeria) and was set to board a flight to reach San Antonio by late Friday afternoon. There was a bit of a hangup, however, as Air France has announced it will cancel a significant amount of flights because of a strike.
“It would really mean a lot. I have not seen her in a long time (since he left Nigeria),” Azubuike said, noting he stays in contact with his mom by phone and occasionally via FaceTime with the help of his sister who lives with mom in Africa.
“She has never watched me play basketball ever. She doesn’t know anything about basketball. She really doesn’t understand it. It’ll be fun for her to see me play.”
Azubuike — he was discovered as a potential top prospect at a camp in Lagos when he was in eighth grade — jumped at a chance to live with a host family in Florida and attend Potter’s Christian, with mom’s immediate blessing.
“She knew, based on the situation back home, it wasn’t conducive for me,” Azubuike said. “We had a lot of hardship back there. There was a lot of bad stuff happening. When the opportunity came for me to travel to come to the U.S. to play basketball and go to school, I didn’t think twice about it. My mom was excited about it too. She was raising five kids (he is the youngest) without a dad, just my mom.”
Azubuike loves his mom so much he points out his main motivation in someday playing the game for a living is to provide her a better life.
“It’s what I do this for,” Azubuike said. “I want to be successful for my mom because of how my mom raised us. That motivates me a lot.”
KU coach Bill Self, who revealed some concern about the Air France strike, wants this reunion to happen.
“Doke hasn’t seen his mother in almost six years,” Self said. “He lost his father, I think, when he was in seventh or eighth grade. If you can imagine, she loved her son so much that she sent him away when he’s 14 or 13. How hard would that be?
“We want to win the game, but is winning the game more important than to make sure there’s not a little distraction for Doke? Of course not. The NCAA, for all the stuff (grief) they catch, they passed a rule a few years ago that allowed families to get to events. And his wasn’t easy to get here because we had to go through political people to deal with their embassy in Nigeria for the passport, but also to set up a meeting to get a visa, and she had to fly I don’t know how many hours just to get to the city where she had the visa meeting this morning at 9 a.m. to get the visa.
“Then try to get her on flights, which will take over 24 hours to get her here. It will be worth it. 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? I can’t even imagine what’s going to be going through her mind."
Azubuike said he’s dreamed of mom watching him play basketball as a Jayhawk ever since he arrived at Kansas.
“I tell Coach, ‘I want to bring my mom to the fieldhouse,’’’ Azubuike said. “She’s never seen me play. Allen Fieldhouse is a cool place to play basketball. The process never came true until the Final Four, when it’s the NCAA that can bring parents to the States. I talked to the coaches, too. We started working on it. I was glad everything worked through in time. I”m grateful to the coaches and Sean Lester the (deputy) athletic director. We communicate. They played a big role in this and making this possible.”
KU issued a news release on Thursday indicating Azubuike's mom would get to see her son play this weekend.
The release listed individuals who helped make this possible including U.S. Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and U.S. Representative Kevin Yoder, all from Kansas. Also mentioned: Stuart Symington IV, the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria; Cecily Brewer, Senior Desk Officer, Nigeria, U.S. Department of State; Sherman Grandy of the U.S. Consulate in Lagos; and several members of the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Nigeria: Laura Fields, Megan Moore and Carol Cox.
“We are thankful to them for going above and beyond to help Udoka and his mom,” KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger said. "For Doke to be able to share his experience at the Final Four with his mom is something neither of them will ever forget. You can see it in Doke’s face whenever we discuss it," Zenger added.
KU's release did not mention the possible Air France strike.
Azubuike, by the way, said his left knee which he sprained on March 6, is feeling fine, thanks to rehab that is continuing.
“I’ve been rehabbing, getting better. As a team we are in high spirits,” Azubuike said. “I feel good. I’m not rehabbing as much as I used to, but yes I am still in rehab.”