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Mike Lopresti | | March 31, 2018

Final Four is a weekend of dreams for parents, too

Dunking our way to the Final Four

SAN ANTONIO — They have come to watch the Final Four. Maybe fidget a little, even pace in the concourse if things get tight. This the weekend of their dreams, too. The mothers, the fathers, the families.

Dawud Abdur Rahkman is here. . .

His son is Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman, one of Michigan’s senior leaders. Friday was open practice day at the Alamodome, so what was Dawud feeling, watching his son take the court in the distance?

“Just grateful. I know what he’s put into this. I know the sacrifices that were made. I’m just happy that everything he’s sacrificed is bearing fruit for him. This is what he wanted.

“What I see, it’s the same little guy that was playing when he was 10 years old.”

Abdur Rahkman has traveled hither and yon the past month, following the Wolverines. He’s a basketball man himself — currently coach at Lehigh Carbon Community College near Allentown, Pa. — and once his season was over, he hit the Michigan trail.

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Drove to New York for the Big Ten tournament, flew to Kansas City to save a few bucks and then drove to Wichita for the first and second rounds. “I’ve never seen so many cattle in my life,” Abdur Rahjam said. Flew to Los Angeles for the regional. Flew to Houston for a better air fare and drove here to San Antonio.

Through the years as a college coach, he had several chances to go to the Final Four. Never did. “My position was always, I would go to the Final Four when I’m coaching in it, or my son is playing in it. And here we are. I’m here. My first time ever. Some prophecy, I guess.”

As a parent, he can make use of the lounge the NCAA has in each team hotel, where families can gather together and commiserate. And he can get travel expense help with the stipend from a relatively new NCAA program that provides up to $3,000 per family to attend the Final Four. Another thousand if the team stays until Monday. Abdur Rahkman thinks that is one swell idea, and even hopes it eventually gets expanded to other rounds.

“The future is happening,” he said.

For Dawud, this weekend is about basketball, and memories, for the son named after the boxer he admired. “I grew up watching him and idolizing him. He was one of the few guys I saw to be different,” he said. “I think it probably was difficult (for his son) at first, but as he got older, it held him to a higher standard, because he knew it meant something to me, and it meant something to a lot of other people. And I think he has a conscience that says, 'I have to be somebody better.’ It’s helped him be the person he is today.”

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Dawud pulled out his cellphone to show a picture of the AAU team he coached years ago. Standing proudly in front of the tall players is a proud little kid in blue, who loved to travel along. His son. Later, Dawud would coach Muhammad-Ali’s AAU team. They were together at a tournament in Washington, D.C., and it happened to be Final Four weekend.

“I remember we were in northern Virginia and we were in a Holiday Express. I’ll never forget this. Derrick Rose and Memphis were playing against Kansas. Usually, we had other kids staying with us in AAU, but that’s the one time he and I were alone, just me and him.”

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That was the 2008 national championship game in San Antonio. Ten years later, father and son have made it to that very place. “I’m here,” Dawud said, “for the moment.”

David and Anna Richardson are here . . .

Senior son Ben is one of the main characters in the Loyola Chicago fairy tale. It was a 12-hour drive from Kansas City on Thursday, and they had to be on the road by 6 a.m. to get here in time for a Final Four event in the evening. A long, long day. “It was worth it,” David said. “It’s a once-in-lifetime situation.”

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For the Richardsons, who both work in real estate, the past month has been a blur. A drive to Dallas for the first and second rounds.  A flight to Atlanta for the regional. Lots of days away, but parents do what they must. “I have made every stop,” David said. “We’ve missed a ton of work. Fortunately, our employers are sports fans.”

They’ll catch some minutes with Ben, but understand it won’t be much. “We’ll see him briefly in the hotel. It’s nip and tuck, and you see him when you can," David said. "We’re here for business. It’s a business trip now.”

David will be nervous Saturday, but probably not as much as his wife. That last-second win over Tennessee in the Sweet 16, delivered at the end by a Clayton Cuter basket? Anna wasn’t looking.

“What just happened?” she asked her husband.

“We just won the game.”

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Loyola was first on the court Friday, so the Richardsons were there early, savoring where the road has led. “I’ve coached him since he was a third grade. This is a culmination of thousands and thousands of hours of work,” David said. “It’s surreal. It’s hard to put that into words. I’m walking around here, it’s a dream. Wake me up when this over.”

Florence Azuonuwu of Delta, Nigeria will be here . . .

She has never seen her son Udoka Azubuike play a game for Kansas, has not even seen him face to face in nearly six years. That’s a long, long time without a hug.

It took the help of a couple of senators, a congressman, the Department of State, and an ambassador or two to rush through a passport and visa for her. The travel stipend helped pay her way to a new world called San Antonio. “The NCAA, for all they catch, passed a rule a few years ago that allowed families to get to events,” coach Bill Self pointed out.

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Through the practices and press conferences and noise and pre-game build-up, an anxious son has been eager for a reunion.

“I am still waiting to hear from her. She is probably on a plane,” Azubuike said Friday. “This is what basketball is all about . . . reuniting with family and getting to meet your family. That’s the best part of it.

“I haven’t seen her since I was in the ninth grade, so it has been a long time. It’s going to be an emotional moment for me. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle it.”

Neither is his coach. This is not the greatest time for an emotional surge by one of his key players, but it’s something that needed to happen.

“It will be worth it,” Self said. “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.”

It takes a parent to appreciate that. “I can only imagine the emotions she’s going to go through,” David Richardson said.

There will be four different uniforms in the Alamodome Saturday, but in the four corners of the stands are people, in a way, on the same team. Parents from here and there, living a dream, looking down at the court and seeing young men, where little boys used to be.

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