After twice being denied a visa by the United States Embassy in Nigeria, Charles Okwandu landed stateside in 2007. He had nothing but a duffel bag with a shirt, a pair of pants, some underwear and a rosary. At age 21, he was leaving behind four brothers and his parents in his native Lagos, Nigeria, to pursue a better life.
“Just seeing how people that live around me cannot provide for themselves,” Okwandu said when asked why he was motivated to leave Nigeria and move to the United States. “Sometimes they eat once a day. They don’t have enough for clothes or to buy a house. That was my motivation to come over, to provide for my family.”
As a kid in Nigeria he did what everyone else did – he played soccer, which is what he credits his footwork skills to. Once he grew too tall for soccer, standing at 7-feet-1-inch, he looked for a new passion and found it in basketball. Through his dedication to the game, he was able to attend one of the best basketball programs in the country, earn a college degree, win a National Championship in 2011 and meet the first black President of the United States.
Through all of those accomplishments, one thing has remained constant: family. It is the most important thing of all to him. His wife Kelsey and daughter Summer are his world. This past summer he spent 30 minutes a night working with his young daughter on her numbers. He takes the time every night to be a father to his child and puts family above all else.
“With being married for six years, seeing him become a father has really been what changed him,” said Kelsey Okwandu. “He became so much more focused and driven. It wasn’t just about his dreams anymore but doing the best he can to create and support the dreams of Summer.”
His passion for working with children does not stop with his daughter; it carries over into his job as well. Okwandu works in the office as a security guard at Granby Memorial High School. Every morning he stands by the door and dishes out high-fives and handshakes to each student who walks through the door. It is something he does to start the day off right for all of the kids. Not only that, but he also coaches the freshmen basketball team. It’s a job he takes pride in, as his current goal is to work his way up through the system until he can eventually run a program on the collegiate level.
Current Granby Memorial sophomore Matthew Ferro said that Okwandu emphasizes there is no need to “trash talk people and stoop down to their level, but rather to beat them on the court.” Not only does Okwandu teach his players footwork and post moves, but he makes sure they are playing with respect and dignity as well.
Granby’s senior starting center Peyton Large said that Okwandu made sure to tell his players how important it is to “never get your head down and try to do too much.” Large also added that while playing under Okwandu, whenever he was playing poorly the “gentle giant” would stand by him and keep his spirits up.
“He brings credibility in terms of his history, where he’s played, who he’s played for, his skills, ability, coaching background, knowledge of his position and he’s a great guy to have in practice, not only to help our big players, but also our overall program,” said Granby head coach Walter Hansen. “He does do a really good job with our post players, showing them all different kinds of different skills that are beneficial for our program.”
Okwandu also aids the legendary coach Jim Calhoun at St. Joseph in West Hartford. He works with their big men. Okwandu has said that “it’s tough coaching. The kids have to respect you when you go up there. You have to be ready, you have to bring your A-game, it’s not easy.”
After being placed on academic probation that forced him to miss his sophomore campaign, he learned that it is essential to “be a student first before being a basketball player.” He righted the ship and fell into the habit of attending all of his classes and began to enjoy listening to his professors lecture.
Okwandu said winning the NCAA Division I National Championship in 2011 was the greatest feeling he has ever felt. In his ESPN interview after the winning the Big East championship, he made sure the world knew that he “loved this team.”
From his teammates, he felt the sense of community and family he has thrived in throughout his life. Over the summer, he played in the Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic Charity All-Star Game. Being at this charity event, he played alongside stars like Ray Allen, and former teammates Andre Drummond and Kemba Walker. Being at such an event to support Coach Calhoun made him feel “like I belonged to something special. Even after winning the championship, just seeing those guys there means a lot to me.”
Okwandu believes in the current UConn men’s team, saying that coach Dan Hurley will “take those guys to the promised land, maybe not this year but next year.” He has met Hurley in the past and he said he would love to work for him at some point. While he does not quite know any of the players, he would like them to know that if they ever needed advice, he’s their guy. A similar sentiment he broadcasts to all people he knows.
Even though he may be thousands of miles away from his relatives, Okwandu makes family everywhere he goes. He has touched hundreds, if not thousands, of young lives with his upbeat personality and wide smile. It is safe to say that he has filled his bag with a lot more than just clothes.
Mike Mavredakis is a campus correspondent for the Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.