10 years later, Okwandu still savors UConn hoop title
Updated: Feb 18
• Coach brings big-stage chops to Avon High basketball
Nishant Gopalachar and Today Publishing received a First Place SPJ Award for this story • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists • Awards Story
By Nishant Gopalachar — Special to Today Magazine
This year is the 10th anniversary of a major UConn basketball milestone — when the clock hit zeroes on April 4, 2011, an overwhelming feeling burst through senior center Charles Okwandu as UConn beat Butler to clinch the 2011 NCAA men’s championship.
For the first 17 years of his life, Okwandu had never even played in a competitive basketball game, and he emphasizes that this title is “something that connects all of us for the rest of our lives as teammates and brothers.”
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, soccer was an enjoyable pastime for Okwandu, but basketball set him apart from the rest. Standing at 7 feet tall, Okwandu was one of the top 10 at the 50 Best Big Men camp held in Nigeria in 2007.
He played junior-college ball at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, PA. After a year there with coach Drew Kelly, who brought Okwandu to the States, he moved onto the big stage, where he played under legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
In the 2011 championship game, Okwandu led the winning Huskies in offensive rebounds, tallying four. Winning the title, he says, “was one of those moments that you see happen in movies and never really imagine it happening to you.”
Okwandu came to Avon after coaching at Granby Memorial High School and Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford — and he made an instant impact.
“Coach Charles is just a good person,” says Avon head coach Kris Pedra. “He brings a calming presence to our basketball program. The passion he has for basketball is only surpassed by the love he has for his family and students. I’ve enjoyed getting to know Charles on and off the basketball court and am proud to call him my friend.”
Many Avon players have expressed their appreciation for Okwandu, describing him as “a great mentor” and “a great person” and “the guy who always dunks on someone in practice.”
“He’s funny and knows the game well,” says 2020-21 senior captain Jack Hall, “so he can both make you laugh and help you improve your game on the court.”
In an exclusive interview, Okwandu spoke with Today Magazine — here is the conversation:
• How did the experience of playing with some of the best basketball players in the country help shape you as both a player and a person? Playing at UConn with some of the best basketball players in the country was an amazing experience. In practice we would compete against each other and that would push me to be better and work harder. Playing with Hasheem Thabeet helped me develop blocking shots and getting rebounds more efficiently and consistently.
Kemba Walker gave me a model for how to be a leader on and off the court. His ability to unite and push the team in practice was amazing. This later helped me when I started my coaching career.
• What went through your head when you won the national championship in 2011? What was your reaction? I was excited and shocked. It was completely overwhelming. Coming from Lagos, Nigeria and winning the national championship was a huge source of pride for me. It was one of those moments that you see happen in movies and never really imagine it happening to you.
After this I met President Barack Obama, and to be an immigrant from Nigeria and meet the first black American president was indescribable. The whole moment, all the work that we as a team put into making that moment a reality, was just overwhelming and will be something that connects all of us for the rest of our lives as teammates and brothers.
• At what age did you realize you could take your talents to the next level? To be honest, I began playing basketball at 17 years old. I was always athletically inclined and obviously my height was very evident at a young age. I really started to understand that my talents could really take me someplace when I was part of a camp called the 50 Best Big Men Camp in Nigeria and I was selected as one of the top 10. That was a really eye-opening experience for me … it really hit me that basketball could take me somewhere and if I worked hard the skies were the limit.
• Speaking of which, you spent some time in the D-League and in the CBL (Canadian Basketball League): How was your experience playing pro basketball? How much did it differ from playing in college? In college you are a student-athlete. You represent the school and are looked at as a unit. … We were the UConn men’s basketball team and we each had a role, with a huge amount of support from coaches and trainers behind you.
When you play for any professional league, it is more individualized. You are part of a team and represent a brand, but you also represent you. There is a lot more pressure. There is no more time to learn as you go. You have to always be on and perform your best. Having one off game can be your ticket home.
So even though you are part of a team, your place on that team is riding completely on you and how well you do and if there is someone who can do it better.
• So you came to the U.S. from Nigeria: What were some of the cultural differences that you noticed right away when you came to the U.S.? The weather hit me first. I was used to warm weather all the time and the first place I landed was Idaho in the middle of winter — nothing in my life prepared me for that! Also the food. Nigerian food and American food are completely different. The first food I had here that I enjoyed was hamburgers and fries. I am pretty sure for an entire year that was all I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
Also how much Americans love basketball. Back home our big sport is soccer. It wasn’t a huge deal that I played basketball — it was much cooler to play soccer.
The best thing about being over 7 feet tall is I can see over a crowd easily ... if I want to find someone I can easily spot them — Charles Okwandu
• How did you end up coaching at Avon High School? So I have been coaching for a while. I coached at Two Rivers Magnet School and Granby High School. My wife used to work at Avon High and loved it there and was always trying to get me to apply. We were looking at moving and buying a place in the Farmington Valley area and that really pushed me to apply — to not only work closer to where I lived but also work within a school district and community that was known for just being amazing.
Everything my wife said about Avon High was true … don’t tell her I said she was right about something, I will never hear the end of it! The coaches, student-athletes and athletic department have welcomed me with open arms and it has been such a positive experience coaching here.
• I understand that your wife is a teacher — where does she teach and what subject does she teach? Currently my wife is a developmental therapist and service coordinator for a birth-to-3 program that primarily supports children and families with children who have developmental delays or special needs. It is kind of difficult to explain, but she is basically a teacher and support for children ages 0-3 who may need extra support.
• Please tell us about your family: children, parents, siblings? My mother and father live back home in Lagos, Nigeria. They have been married for about 40 years. I have four brothers, two of whom passed away — one when I was about 9 and the other passed when I was 27. My other two brothers live in Lagos as well.
I have a 7-year-old daughter named Summer. She is amazing. She is starting to get into basketball, which is really cool. This summer we have her signed up for two basketball camps, and whenever I can I try to teach her some basics. She is really the light of my life. I am so blessed to have such a wonderful daughter.
My wife and I have been married for almost nine years. We met at UConn but didn’t start dating until after we both graduated. She is amazing and is really the backbone of the family. She is my support and is always there when I need help. She is my PR person. She helps me with any speeches I have and reaches out to people for me when I need it. I don’t know where I would be without her.
• What’s the best thing about being 7 feet tall? What’s the most challenging thing about being 7 feet tall? The best thing about being over 7 feet tall is I can see over a crowd easily. … If I want to find someone I can easily spot them, and if anyone is looking for me it is easy to find me as well. The worst part about being over 7 feet tall is finding clothes, shoes and traveling. I always have to shop at special stores to find clothes that fit me. I can’t just go to any store and find a pair of pants or shoes that work.
Also traveling is always difficult. When I fly on a plane I can never fit comfortably in the seat and usually can’t sit with my family due to me needing extra leg room.
Even cars are hard to fit into. My knees always hit the dashboard. We are still looking for a car with enough legroom for me to drive! Currently I am looking to get my driver’s license, and my wife and I have been searching for a driving school that has a car with enough legroom for me to learn to drive in. +
• Nishant Gopalachar played on the varsity basketball team at Avon High School — with a title-winning UConn grad as one of his coaches
• This article first appeared in the July 2021 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
• Today Magazine covers the heart of Connecticut's Farmington Valley, recording the underreported upside of the Valley's five core towns — Farmington, Avon, Canton, Simsbury and Granby