College basketball’s First Family of 2021 was spending Wednesday in a Hampton Inn in Pittsburgh. It had taken Ranford and Christina Champagnie nearly six hours to drive from their home in Brooklyn, and the winter weather forecast had been grim. Not that any storm warning was going to stop them.
“I’d have rented a truck,” Christina was saying. You know how it is with moms. Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night was going to keep her from the Pittsburgh-North Carolina State game later Wednesday. Her son Justin plays for Pitt and leads the ACC in scoring at 18.7. Back in New York, Justin’s twin brother Julian plays for St. John’s, and leads the Big East in scoring at 19.8. Not even the Mobley brothers at USC, currently putting a 1-2 punch on the Pac-12 for the 18-3 Trojans, can match that.
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If this sounds like the Champagnie parents have been watching a lot of basketball lately, you should see all the electronic items going some nights in their Brooklyn house, which is not far from Coney Island. “Televisions, recorders, iPhones,” Ranford listed off. “Everything has to work.”
So it would seem. They also have a 4-year-old son, Jaylen, and he’s an active little guy. Ranford coaches soccer and Christina teaches second grade, so this is a family often on the move. Not only that, because of COVID restrictions, St. John’s has allowed no fans, so while Ranford and Christina live maybe a half-hour from campus, they haven’t been able to see Julian play a single home game in person this season. Not one. And yet, they don’t want to miss a shot, nor a rebound, nor a dribble of two sophomore sons blossoming into stars in separate galaxies. Once inseparable nearly every moment, Julian and Justin are now 400 miles apart.
So for the parents back home, one screen or another usually has had to be the ticket.
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Take Jan. 16. Julian scored 20 points in St. John’s two-point loss to Marquette. Justin, returning from a knee injury that cost him a month, quickly resumed normal operations and put up 24 points and 16 rebounds in a victory over Syracuse. Both tipped off at noon, and back in Brooklyn, the parents tried to keep up with it all. "Back and forth, back and forth," Ranford said of the remote. They were recording both, and would later look at anything they missed, with as much gusto as any coach who ever studied game film.
Then there was the fun Wednesday evening of Feb. 3. At 7 p.m., Justin had 10 points and 13 rebounds as Pitt upset Virginia Tech. Julian took over at 9 p.m. with 14 points and 13 rebounds to help St. John’s stun Villanova. "We were going crazy. The neighbors were not too happy with us," Ranford said. "The little baby went to bed so late that night," Christina mentioned.
Justin was born first back on June 29, 2001. Julian came 7 minutes later. When Christina looks at two strong sons filling up the stat sheets nearly 20 years later, she occasionally thinks back to her feelings that day. "It was, oh my goodness, I’m having twins, how am I going to manage two kids?’ Now I have so much pride. They worked really hard all along the way."
Ranford had some first names in mind, and if he had had his way, the Big East and ACC would be led in scoring today by Kymani and Kahri Champagnie. Uh, no, Christina decided. "We compromised," she said. "I came up with Justin and my husband came up with Julian. The little baby is Jaylen, so we kept the J."
By the age of 5, Julian and Justin were on their first basketball team together, in a CYO league in downtown Brooklyn. Their father loves nearly all sports — "The only game I really don’t play is water polo," Ranford said — but his passion was soccer. He helped lead St. John's to the 1996 national championship, and later coached the sport. He was rather hoping one of sons might follow.
"When their mom put a basketball in their hands, it was like, forget about soccer," he said. "I really wanted to see one of them play soccer, but they’re 6-whatever, 6-7, 6-6. There’s rarely any soccer players like that." Plus, basketball is what they loved, so Ranford decided what almost any father would: "It was a no-brainer for me. Kind of disappointing, but a no-brainer."
They were not early bloomers, and Christina still remembers how they didn’t even make their middle school team as sixth-graders. But they grew and improved, and the day came they could whip their father. "I’m pushing 6-feet. When they were 14 they were 6-1 and giving me the business," Ranford said. "Especially Justin. Julian sometimes was, 'Dad, you won.' Justin would not be easy on me He was, 'Dad, you’re not beating me.'"
Along came AAU and high school, then college offers. Not the kind of deluge that pours down upon five-star recruits, but enough to offer good choices. That’s when Julian decided to stay home with St. John’s, and Justin decided he wanted to get away to Pittsburgh.
"I cried like I lost a family member," Christina said. "I cried for two or three weeks straight. I couldn’t even talk to people. But they sat me down and explained that this was something they felt was right for them at the time. They wanted to create their own paths."
And now look at them, making noise in one league or another. "I expect them to do well, I expect great things from them," Ranford said. "But to see the way everything has taken off, it has been like . . . wow. In two years' times, these kids are all over the internet and all over the news, I never really saw this happening."
He still has one last chance to bring up a soccer-loving son in Jaylen, but that ain’t going well, either. "I think I’ve lost that. It’s basketball," he said. "There’s a portable hoop in our house and all he does is, 'Look at me Dad, I’m Justin. Look at me Dad, I’m Julian.'"
Meanwhile, Christina wears out Facetime talking to her sons and spends so many nights and weekends glued to a screen. "When it's game day, I usually don’t talk to anyone. If a family member calls, I don't want to hear anything about basketball until the game is over."
But she was willing to chat this game day in Pittsburgh. They had stayed in their hotel room the night before to watch Julian score 21 points as St. John’s beat Xavier — their seventh win in eight games. This was their third trip of the season to Pittsburgh, and Ranford knows the route well by now: Hop over the bridge from Brooklyn, hit Interstate 76, go west 300 miles, check in at the same Hampton Inn, where he is now on a first-name basis with some of the employees. In the background Wednesday morning, Jaylen could be heard chattering and having a great time. Big brother Justin had stopped by, happy to see the family in town.
"It means everything," said the son, who carries a tattoo on his right wrist to honor his parents. "Having them in the stands will be that much better."
Later that night, he would score 18 points with 10 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season, but the Panthers were edged by North Carolina State 74-73. Next up in this parental two-ring circus: Saturday. Justin at 4 p.m. against Florida State, Julian at 7:30 against DePaul.
It’s all so perfect for Ranford and Christina Champagnie. Or it would be, if St. John's was allowing anyone in to watch games. Maybe next season.
Speaking of which, there have been published stories reporting the pairing has been made for next season’s Gotham Classic, which is usually played in Madison Square Garden.
Pittsburgh vs. St. John's.
Yeah, Mom and Dad will be recording that one.