Victor Oladipo, rising to the light
It's NBA draft day 2013, and Victor Oladipo, sharply dressed in a gray three-piece suit with a lavender shirt and black tie, keeps staring into space. At least that's what his twin sister Victoria told him, because Victor was too deep in thought to realize it.
He's sitting at a table surrounded by his three sisters, his mother and his agent. His father, Chris, known for his mysterious methods and regular absences, is surprisingly present also, sitting amongst the crowd, though he won't be staying for long.
The man Oladipo calls his godfather -- his first AAU coach, Kingston Price -- is there, too, seated close to the elder Oladipo. A handful of other friends are there as well, ready to experience the surreal.
Victor Oladipo was meant to be in that space, surrounded by anxious, soon-to-be NBA players and their gleaming family members. He was meant to walk across that stage, don an NBA cap and shake the hand of commissioner David Stern.
He just never knew it. Almost until the moment Stern announced Oladipo as the second overall selection of the Orlando Magic, the 21-year-old never really thought he'd live up to the goal he set when he was 5, watching the NBA on the television and deciding that was his future.
To Oladipo, nothing about his path said NBA. Not his overly skeptical father, who showed support in the most unique of ways. Not a high school career that saw him playing behind his more polished friends until his senior season. Not even his collegiate career that began with way too many losses and ended with a loss that momentarily took all his strength.
But there he was, at the Barclays Center, his name being called at the same draft position that current and former greats like Jerry West, Bill Russell, Wes Unseld, Bob McAdoo, Isiah Thomas, Jason Kidd and Kevin Durant were chosen.
Other than a very specific gesture to the crowd, what happened after Stern called his name was something of a blur to Oladipo.
And everything that led up to that point came rushing back.
"It was a crazy feeling," Oladipo said, sitting in a near-empty restaurant in downtown Orlando, Fla., his eyes wandering off as he speaks, taking himself right back to draft night. "I was watching the draft for as long as I could remember. Watching people walk across that stage. To say that I just did that? There was no way.
"For me to be where I came from, I'm not supposed to be here. And with all the guys I used to hang around with? I was not supposed to be the first one."
Oladipo grew up in Upper Marlboro, Md., a part of Prince George's County, which is rich with basketball talent (the current crop of NBA players from that county include Durant, Ty Lawson, Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Jarrett Jack, Sam Young and a handful more).
Oladipo was mostly unaware of the depth and quality of talent in his area, because his father didn't let any of his children outside the house very often. Part of it was his strict nature, and part of it was because the family didn't live in the safest of neighborhoods (the family moved to a more rural section of town after the home's front door was knocked down while they watched television).
Even in elementary school, Oladipo had to sneak in basketball when he could, dribbling the ball in the basement so he wouldn't get scolded, sneaking out of the house to play, then racing in through the back door before his father got home.
It wasn't exactly the best way for a parent to foster a child's passion.
His father had his reasons. Born in Sierra Leone, Chris Oladipo worked multiple jobs when his children were young despite having earned a doctorate in behavioral science at the University of Maryland. Sports were a hobby in his eyes, as they were for him growing up playing soccer and tennis, and for his Nigerian-born wife, Joan, who ran track, high jumped and played a sport called net ball. ("It's kind of like basketball but not really basketball. There's only one person who can shoot. Ironically, she was a shooter," said Oladipo, whose shooting skills were questioned until his final year of college.)
Oladipo had to seek basketball advice. He had to ask for pointers. He had to create confidence.
"It's just me, really," Oladipo said of those days. "Sometimes it has its ups and downs, but you can learn from anything.
"It's my love for the game that made me do what I do. I pushed myself.
"Basketball was kind of like my brother. It was something I could go do and just be myself."
At St. Jerome Academy, a private elementary and middle school about 45 minutes away from his home, Oladipo played on B teams until sixth grade. He played mostly power forward and center because of his height and was known more as the "hustle guy."
By the time Oladipo had to choose a high school to attend, he had no idea where he'd go. His father kept asking him, but it wasn't until a friend's dad took him to a game at DeMatha, a Catholic high school featuring a tradition-rich basketball team, that Oladipo finally answered.
"I kind of fell in love with them there," he said.
When it came time to try out for the freshman team, Oladipo was one of about a hundred students trying to get the attention of coaches.
"I stood out, one, because I wanted to play defense and, two, because of how athletic I was," he said, though he didn't consider that the start of a memorable career. "I didn't really go crazy or anything. I was happy, but for some reason I wasn't really joyful or anything like that."
Perhaps it was because his friends, like Quinn Cook (now at Duke), Bryon Allen (George Mason) and Jerian Grant (Notre Dame) were better than him.
Perhaps it was because the reception at home would be lukewarm at best -- at least from his dad. DeMatha coaches saw something in Oladipo, so head coach Mike Jones referred Oladipo to an AAU team then named Triple Threat (it's now Team Takeover).
That's where Oladipo met Price, who coached the ninth-grade team.
"Upon meeting him, he just became one of my favorites, and it actually didn't have anything to do with basketball," Price said. "One of the hardest things to find is a guy that's willing to listen and hang his hat on everything you give him. And he was that kid.
"We had to do a lot of mentally grooming him, making him understand that he is good, because he had no clue."
How could he know? On the freshman team he was essentially just another guy. At home he got no feedback, his father constantly telling his children to "face their books." He couldn't compare himself with his friends, who had no such crisis of confidence.
In Price, Oladipo discovered someone who wanted to unearth something special in him. So the lanky kid became a sponge. A well-mannered, intelligent, eager sponge -- with an especially strict dad. This AAU thing required more time away from his books, more time away from his home, more time committed to a "hobby."
So sticking with Triple Threat was no sure thing.
"I had convinced the father that his grades weren't going to drop," Price said. "I convinced the father that, when he's with me -- he met my wife and my kids -- I convinced him that we wouldn't let any of that slip.
"The only way Victor could come out, stay out and kind of live that life of hanging with the fellas and all of that stuff, was through me and through us. So we became kind of his extended family."
This particular ninth grader was in heaven.
Basketball wasn't his brother anymore, his teammates were. Price became a secondary father figure -- only this father spoke basketball all the time, encouraged him to play, convinced him that he's much more than just another guy.
Because his actual father never showed much interest in the sport, Oladipo soaked up everything Price had to say, and almost all of it was about defense.
Because his actual father rarely let his children out of the house, Oladipo spent every second he could in the gym, in the locker rooms, near his teammates, near his coaches.
He was a coach's dream, and he didn't even realize it.
"I tell him this all the time: Your father is the reason why you're as good at who you are," Price said. "Because his father did not follow the game, because his father did not care about basketball … his only outlet to basketball was us.
"He's such a good kid, infectious kid. Coaches could be sitting at one table and the kids at another table, and he's eavesdropping on us, just listening.
"This is just who the kid is. So he's trying to find a way to fit in."
Fitting in and standing out were two different challenges, however. And Oladipo didn't think he was capable of accomplishing the latter.
In fact, Oladpio didn't even think varsity basketball was in his near future.
"He's on our team, he's an integral part of our team, he's feeling good about himself, so I started asking him if he's gonna play varsity next year," Price said. "His first response was, 'Huh?' "I said, 'What do you mean, "Huh?"'
"And I can still remember his quote to this day: 'Varsity? They're good.'"
Price's immediate retort was, "So what are you?"
Oladipo hadn't given varsity nearly as much thought as you'd expect from someone who had NBA dreams.
Price, who Oladipo had grown attached to, offered a blunt dose of reality: Make varsity, or this whole experience ends.
It wasn't so much an ultimatum as it was setting an alarm clock for Oladipo.
"One day I just stopped and I said, 'Listen, I want you to know something,'" Price said. "'Do you enjoy playing for us? Do you like sleeping over at my house? Do you consider us like a family? Well lemme just tell you something. There's no way in hell that we're going to have a 10th grader that's playing JV on our roster. So you got to find a way to make varsity.'"
That meant Oladipo would have to attend 6 a.m. workouts the summer after his freshman year. It was no easy task, given that DeMatha was nearly an hour from home.
Not only did he show up, but he was so energetic in the workouts that DeMatha coach Mike Jones called Oladipo's AAU coaches to ask how they motivated him.
Oladipo kept showing up, even after he suffered a fracture in his foot during AAU season and couldn't actually participate.
Jones kept telling Oladipo he didn't have to, but Oladipo kept showing up, offering to help in any way he could, even by sweeping the floors.
Oladipo's response: "I'm OK, Coach Mike. I just don't want y'all to forget about me."
"That's who the kid was," Price said. "How could you not fall in love with a kid who has that determination? He was raised great -- I mean, we can't take any credit for how he was raised -- and he's just waiting to get molded."
That experience helped Oladipo make varsity, though he wasn't a starter until his senior season. And while his team won the city title his junior year, and he was averaging a double-double and playing relentless defense nightly, Oladipo wasn't being widely recruited.
He had some offers, but didn't get the attention from college coaches that the higher profile players receive.
Tom Crean, who was still in the initial phase of turning around the Indiana University basketball program after leaving Marquette, noticed something in Oladipo.
"You could see the athleticism, you could see the energy, but I'm telling you, the one thing that stood out to me was his body language, his eye contact," Crean said. "Those things, at a young age, they stood out.
"Then as I got to know him, you could see the humbleness, you could see how much he loved his family, and you could really get a sense for how hungry he was to be a really good player. But he also wasn't very confident that he could be a very good player."
That hadn't changed since his first year at DeMatha. The "star" on the team was Cook, leaving Oladipo feeling like he had a lot of ground to make up.
But Crean offered a scholarship anyway, and Oladipo accepted.
There was one minor hurdle to overcome, however.
Oladipo needed to convince his father that perfecting basketball in Bloomington was more beneficial than studying martial arts in China.
Talk about your random requests.
"He was like, 'I want you to go to China, to study abroad so you can have a sound body and a sound mind,'" Oladipo said. "I was kind of like, 'Whoa. I don't wanna do that.'"
Fortunately for Oladipo, his mother helped shut down that idea quickly. So it was off to Indiana, where a 12-win freshman season had him "kind of in a state of depression."
"We were everybody's doormat," he said. "It's a humbling experience, definitely. Nobody around the school wants to hang out with you. Nobody knows who you are -- at a major university, too, that's all about basketball."
Oladipo did his part to contribute to the losing.
"Missing dunks, shooting too quick, bad footwork -- really just everything going too fast," Crean said of Oladipo as a freshman. "Anybody that works as hard as he works deserves the chance to make some mistakes. You could see it was just a matter of time before he got better."
Eventually, everyone saw an improved Oladipo. Whether it was his 13 points and seven rebounds as IU dramatically took down No. 1 Kentucky his sophomore season, or his 23-point, eight-rebound, four-assist breakout game at Purdue, where he played significant minutes at point guard, or his 14 points, 13 rebounds and relentless defense on eventual Player of the Year Trey Burke as Indiana beat Michigan last season to secure the Big Ten title, Oladipo showed constant signs of progress. He went from relative unknown to essentially leapfrogging his teammate, Cody Zeller, for Player of the Year considerations.
The more people watched him grow on the floor, the more people learned about him off of it. Like his penchant for belting out a slow jam for everyone to hear. Oladipo famously sang his go-to song, Usher's "U Got It Bad," at Hoosier Hysteria in 2011. But his teammates got plenty more of Oladipo's dulcet tones over the years.
"When we were roommates, he'd leave the door open so he could use the restroom or whatever," Indiana senior Will Sheehey said. "Then I realized that he would go down the hall and sing so that everyone could hear him. So instead of closing the door and singing to himself, he would kind of leave it open so everyone could hear him and kind of comment on it."
Still, it was his improving game that had everyone talking. Comparisons started pouring in, to the point where even his twin, who said she'd been "skeptical" and "sensible" when it came to her brother's future, realized playing with the best in the world could soon be in his future.
Before the dream, however, there was the nightmarish game. The finale of his collegiate career, against Syracuse in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed, saw Oladipo go 5-of-6 from the field for 16 points. But the rest of his team could only manage to shoot 11-of-41 (26.8 percent), and the Hoosiers lost 61-50 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., with many of Oladipo's family and friends in attendance.
In the middle of the hockey dressing room, the team had its usual postgame prayer. At one point, Crean put his hand on Oladipo's shoulder. That's when the realization came to him. Yes, his NBA dream was just months away from becoming reality, but his collegiate experience was now over.
"At that point, I just cried my eyes out," Oladipo said. "I cried so much -- there's a point where you want to keep crying but there's no more tears. My chest was hurting, my lungs was hurting. I was crying so hard and for so long, it was crazy."
His coach did his best to console him, but the thought alone was temporarily crippling.
"He just couldn't stand up," Crean said. "I felt awful. He could not physically stand up. He just slumped down into me. We just found one of these benches in the locker room, and just hugged him and let him cry it out. It was miserable. I mean, it was miserable. It took a while."
Hours, in fact. Crean said it was 2:17 a.m. before the team finally headed back to its hotel, where Oladipo found his sisters and mother waiting for him despite the extended delay.
"I told my mom, 'If we leave and he sees all these other families here, how's that going to look?'" Victoria said. "We just need to stay."
Oladipo's father, however, wasn't there. He wasn't at the game. He hadn't been at any game Oladipo has ever played, dating back to high school.
Attempts to reach Chris Oladipo for this story failed, which is fitting given his stealthy nature. Chris has been quoted as saying he secretly attended a couple of Oladipo's games, but no one else in the family can confirm those appearances.
"He was just busy," Oladipo said. "My mom used to say it all the time, he was just busy."
But busy wasn't a good enough excuse for Oladipo when he was younger.
"Mostly because my friends, their dads were there," he said. "Their dads were front row. Some of their dads were the coaches on the other bench. At that point, you're just a kid and you're so selfish, you just want him to be there. He couldn't be there for me."
Oladipo eventually came to terms with his dad's excused absence.
"It's not the typical father-son relationship," he said. "But it's getting better, slowly but surely."
One sign of that came on draft night.
Just before the draft began, Oladipo saw what he'd never seen before: His dad in the stands ready to watch his boy. Oladipo struggled with the thought of leaving a ticket for his father that night. But he eventually did, in part because he didn't want his dad to have an excuse not to show.
"I remember turning around, I saw him but he didn't see me," Oladipo said. "I turned around again, made eye contact with him and he gave me a salute."
Oladipo wasn't certain how long it would be before his name was called. There were rumors he could go as high as No. 1, while privately he liked the idea of being selected by the Magic and immediately being a franchise cornerstone.
His agent kept it a surprise as well. So when Oladipo's name was called at No. 2, he was as shocked as anyone.
And the moment, the dream that he visualized time and again for as long as he can remember, was truly complete. It was complete because he could make a single gesture into the stands.
"All I did was stand up and salute back to my dad," he said. "It was a special moment. All my friends and my family were in the same area. All I could do was smile. There were no tears then. I was too happy."
And that's about all Chris Oladipo saw. Because just as quickly as his son's life-altering moment came, Chris went. His youngest daughter was lucky to even catch him and provide him with a Magic hat the entire family was now sporting.
"As soon as you couldn't see Victor anymore, [Chris] was gone," Victoria said. "I literally chased him down, called him and ran up the stairs. He was smiling, he was laughing. It was the happiest I'd seen my dad in a long time. He was so proud."
Price was seated closer to Chris and got a better sense of the father's reaction.
"He let off a little roar that I've never seen out of him," Price said. "He just said, 'I knew it.' And then he left."
Chris didn't need to be seen. His and Joan's quality work as parents was already evident. Their oldest daughter Kristine is a Temple graduate; Kendra, who went deaf at a young age, attends Gallaudet, a school for the hearing impaired; Victoria is a senior at Maryland with an eye toward a law degree. Victor had just realized his lifelong dream of being in the NBA through years of hard work and dedication.
"I always said, 'He did what he had to do,'" Price said of Chris Oladipo.
Oladipo isn't sure if his father will show up at any of his games now, either, although it's a strong possibility he'll be at a few. If he was proud on draft night, Chris will likely radiate when he watches his son perform on the biggest stage.
Because Oladipo's drive hasn't changed a bit. He feels like his basketball life is starting anew in the NBA. He has been compared to Wade -- in large part because they had the same college coach -- but Oladipo wants even more.
"At the end of the day, I just want to be better than him," said Oladipo, who has known Wade for a couple years now.
It's a trait Magic coach Jacque Vaughn noticed in Oladipo before the team even selected him.
"We saw in Victor a guy who was in search of greatness and OK with the process of trying to find greatness," Vaughn said. "I think he's definitely a player that has not discovered his game completely. That's a good thing for us. That's my part, where I come in as a coach, putting him in a position to succeed, pushing the limits of his game and discovering and wanting more.
"He's a very driven young man, yet unselfish. He's extremely hungry but at the same time very humble. When you have that combination, it's hard to pass on it."
The Magic can only hope Oladipo discovers greatness. But they can be sure he'll exhaust every opportunity finding it.
"Victor's never in a rush to go anywhere," Price said. "Even after he goes and finishes the extra work, he goes and takes a shower, and he just hangs in the locker room. He doesn't have distractions. All he wants is what he's doing."
It's all he has ever wanted. Yet he has never considered success inevitable. He was too busy proving to himself he was any good at all. Oladipo knows his father's approach had more than a little to do with that mindset, even if he didn't recognize it along the way. That's why it felt like that draft night was meant to be. And that's why he acknowledged as much with a simple salute.
"It's one of the craziest days in my life," Oladipo said, eyes open wide as he recalled the details. "As far as emotions, I felt like I could do 16,000 backflips at one time. At that point, I'm just glad he was there to see me do something significant."