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International Jayhawks to reunite with family at Final Four

March 31, 2018

Kansas's Udoka Azubuike shoots during a practice session for the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, March 30, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Udoka Azubuike has waited several years for the thrill he’ll get when he looks into the Alamodome stands at the Final Four and sees his mother.

Sure, Azubuike appreciates the opportunity to play for a national title with his Kansas Jayhawks. But he is the starting center for one of the nation’s most prestigious college basketball programs, and his mother has never seen him play.

In fact, Florence Azonuwu hasn’t seen her son at all for six years.

“It is just going to be nice to see her again,” Azubuike said. “This is what basketball is all about. Reuniting with family and getting to meet your family. That is the best part about it.”

Azonuwu’s emergency travel visa from Nigeria to the U.S. was only approved Thursday, following some wrangling by the school, Kansas’ two senators and the U.S. State Department. If she can get through three flights over 24 hours while avoiding trouble from an Air France strike in Paris, Azonuwu expects to be in San Antonio by the time Kansas takes the court against fellow top seed Villanova.

Azubuike was 13 years old when he left Nigeria to play basketball in Jacksonville, Florida. While he grew into an impressive student-athlete, most of his contact with his mother and siblings has been limited to phone calls every few weeks.

“Can you imagine?” Kansas coach Bill Self asked. “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.”

And she won’t be the only parent taking advantage of the financial help provided by the NCAA, which gives several thousand dollars in stipends to family members so they can make the trip to the Final Four.

Silvio De Sousa’s father is planning to travel from Angola to see his son for the first time since last summer. Ukrainian guard Svi Mykhailiuk will welcome both of his parents, who have already made the trip stateside this season for Kansas’ senior night.

De Sousa also left Africa to play high school basketball in the U.S., and he spent the past four years learning English and becoming a student capable of thriving at Kansas while growing into one of the nation’s most coveted big men. He is looking forward to showing everything he has learned to his father, Jean-Jacques, since De Sousa was still in high school the last time they saw each other.

“I didn’t know everything would be so hard for me, but the past two years have been a lot better,” De Sousa said. “I feel more comfortable here, and since I get to see my family almost every summer, now I’m handling things a lot better. I made the decision, and I knew it was going to be a hard decision, a tough decision. I just took it day by day, and I’m glad so far.”

After committing to the Jayhawks last year, De Sousa completed his final high school exams in Florida shortly before Christmas, eager to get to Kansas in time to contribute to the current team.

De Sousa, who says he can’t sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time, credits his active mind and ferocious attitude toward self-improvement partly to his parents’ influence in their daily video phone calls. For instance, he learned his new language in a uniquely aggressive way.

“I talked a lot, even though I didn’t know English,” De Sousa said of his first year in the U.S. “I would just say something just to make sure I learn. And I love to make mistakes, because if you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn. So I made sure I made mistakes so that I would learn something.”

De Sousa arrived in Lawrence — wearing shorts, no less — on Dec. 26, and he played for the Jayhawks on Jan. 13. He has matured into a key reserve for the Jayhawks in a remarkably short time, backing up Azubuike and contributing on both ends of the court.

“He’s grown a lot,” said Marcus Garrett, De Sousa’s fellow Kansas freshman. “It’s hard when you’re coming in and you have to learn 40 plays in a week. He was thrown right into the fire. He was playing quick, like two weeks after he got here. He came in working hard. He didn’t come in with a lazy mindset, and when you’re trying to learn, you can pick things up.”

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