Victor Oladipo's rise from overlooked recruit to Indiana superstar
First it was the son who lay prone on the varnished floor of an opponent's court, flattened by emotions that can attend the most important victories. It was the second Sunday in March, and Indiana had just beaten Michigan by a single point in Ann Arbor to win its first outright Big Ten regular-season title in 20 years. Hoosiers guard Victor Oladipo had punctuated a stunning junior season with 14 points, 13 rebounds and punishing defense on Michigan's Big Ten Player of the Year, Trey Burke, who made only seven of 20 shots and committed four turnovers. Now Oladipo rose to his feet and embraced Indiana head coach Tom Crean, who had first seen him play basketball on a dark winter morning in a high school gym outside Washington, D.C., six years ago, when Crean was the coach at Marquette and Oladipo was not yet anybody's big-time recruit. Tears formed in Oladipo's eyes -- and Crean's, too -- as they hugged.
Then it was the father who fought back tears as he watched a TV screen more than 500 miles away, in those same Washington suburbs. At least this is the story the father tells. "By the time I finished watching that game, you needed to give me CPR," says Chris Oladipo. "I must have cried 10 times watching that game. When Victor plays, you could take my heartbeat anywhere in my body." The father immediately sent a text message to the son, congratulating him on his victory and his performance. This, too, is the story the father tells, although the foggy veracity of his words becomes part of the son's story.
It has been a remarkable season for Victor Oladipo, once considered a marginal prospect for teams at the highest level of college basketball and, through most of his first two years at Indiana, a solid player with as many holes in his game as strengths. He was dynamic and confident but incomplete -- a better singer, his friends will attest, than shooter. (At least twice he has performed Usher's "U Got It Bad" for large audiences in Bloomington, including at the season-opening Hoosier Hysteria in October 2011; meanwhile, in his first two years he made only 18 of 74 three-point attempts and as a sophomore shot 52.3% on two-pointers).
This year Oladipo has leaped forward and become one of the best players in the country, complementing his explosive finishes and fierce defense with 64.2% two-point shooting and 44.3% on threes. On the eve of March Madness the 6'?5" Oladipo is the type of dangerous performer who could by the force of his passion and talent steer the wide-open NCAA tournament. At the same time, he has risen dozens of spots in the NBA draft, which he is likely to enter with a bachelor's degree in sport communication earned in three years. "Here is a guy who was just barely on [the NBA's] radar at the start of the year," says one league scout, "probably not even in the top 100 in the country. Now [he's] probably going to go in the lottery. It's very unusual to make a climb like that in one year."
Oladipo's rise has paralleled Indiana's return to the college basketball elite, a nearly decadelong climb that began in the stale fumes of Bob Knight's departure and suffered the indignity of multiple NCAA violations incurred in the two-season term (2006--08) of Kelvin Sampson. As a freshman Oladipo averaged 18 minutes a game for a team that went 3-15 in the Big Ten; as a sophomore he started 34 games as the Hoosiers stuck their heads above water, won two games in the NCAA tournament and fought eventual national champion Kentucky deep into a Sweet 16 matchup before losing. Through all of this Oladipo checked off the requisite Hoosier Hero boxes: unselfishness (according to kenpom.com, he averages 21.9% of Indiana's field goal attempts, third on the team); tenacious defense; a willingness to improve ("He's the poster child for athletic players who need to work on their whole game," says Indiana assistant and 13-year NBA veteran Calbert -Cheaney); and palpable joy (which Oladipo expresses by strutting, flexing and otherwise emoting through the biggest games, causing fans to chant, "Oh-la-DEE-po! Oh-la-DEE-po!")
He also created arguably the most spectacular moment of the regular season. Late in a tight home game against Michigan on Feb. 2, Oladipo reached far behind to gather an errant fast-break lob pass from Jordan Hulls and, while floating toward the goal, attempted to carry the ball all the way into a dunk, resulting in a carom off the rim that bounded high into the air. The audacity of the attempt was scarcely diminished by the miss.
Oladipo's is a story of talent discovered late, nurtured and grown. And of a coach who once found true greatness (Crean recruited Dwyane Wade to Marquette 14 years ago) and has never stopped looking for it again. "It was Coach Crean who gave me my opportunity," says Oladipo. "He gave me the chance to get better."
And it is more than that too, because sports is a culture of family. Of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, parents and children. Of loving homes and broken homes, of caring and neglect. We are a culture that connects the past to the present and tries to find the unbroken line that explains success through support or toughness or, when there is little support, perseverance. For Oladipo that line meanders through a childhood lived in the warm and lively embrace of his mother and three sisters, distant from a father who has been there, yet not, and whose interpretation of love is different from most others.
It starts far away. Victor Oladipo has often been described as the child of Nigerian parents, but only his mother was born in Nigeria. Chris Oladipo will not state his age, but according to public records he is either 61, 63 or 64. He says he was born in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, raised in the rural community of Blama (population 8,146) and educated in the city of Freetown at Albert Academy, a secondary school whose motto is
After earning the Ph.D. he took a job that often required travel to Nigeria. It was on a trip to Lagos, then the Nigerian capital, that Chris says he met his future wife, Joan Amanze. The two were engaged and, in 1985, moved to the U.S., where they were married. They lived for a time with Chris's two brothers before moving out in '86 and settling in Upper Marlboro, Md., in '89. They had four children: Kristine, now 27 and a graduate of Temple, with plans to attend dental school; Kendra, a 22-year-old senior at Gallaudet, a university for the hearing-impaired in Washington, D.C.; Victor and his twin, Victoria, a junior at Maryland.
When the children were young, Joan did not work outside the home. Chris often held two jobs. "I would go to work, I would come home; I would go to church, I would come home," he says. The children were enrolled in Catholic schools, often far from home. Victor attended St. Jerome Academy, an elementary and middle school in Hyattsville, Md. His parents switched off on the task of driving the children 45 minutes or more through the countryside and clogged suburban arteries near the nation's capital, a cacophony of small voices filling the vehicle.
Victor first joined a basketball team, the Green team, in kindergarten. He was excluded from his friend's Purple team, which got many of the best players. This was Victor's first athletic slight. "My team won the whole thing," he says. "The next year they put me on the Purple team." As he progressed through St. Jerome's CYO program, he was befriended by Nigel Munson, the point guard at nearby DeMatha Catholic High School, who would come by St. Jerome and play Victor one-on-one, whetting the latter's appetite to play for DeMatha "and to wear their blazers and bucks," Victor says.
DeMatha coach Mike Jones, who had played at the school under storied coach Morgan Wootten, first saw Victor in an eighth-grade CYO playoff game. "Victor stood out," says Jones. "He didn't score a whole lot of points, but he was always talking, always clapping, always around the ball." These are recurring themes in Victor's development.
He enrolled at DeMatha, played on the freshman team and made the varsity as a sophomore. According to Jones, Victor's first two varsity baskets were throwdowns, both in a November game against Coolidge High. "First time he was on the floor, he just took off ahead of the field and dunked," says Jones. "Nobody expected that." It was that year, Crean's last at Marquette, that the coach first went to watch Victor in one of DeMatha's optional 6 a.m. practices, which the sophomore seldom missed. "I'd guess he was maybe 6'?1" or 6'?2" at the time," says Crean. "You could see that he had this incredible athleticism and burst of speed and leaping ability, and you could see his relentlessness on defense, because he knew he wasn't going to get on the court at a high level unless he defended at a high level."
Kenny Johnson and Keith Stevens, the coaches of Team Takeover, a D.C.-based AAU squad, had seen many of the same qualities in the previous spring's tryouts. "Mike Jones told me he had this kid who was a little raw, but he had some potential," says Stevens. "He was a run-and-jump, high-motor kid, really raw. A lot of those kids don't develop, but Victor put in the time." Playing AAU involved complex travel arrangements, whereby Victor often spent weekends at his coaches' homes, because it was such a long drive to his house.
As a junior Victor was part of a DeMatha powerhouse that included Quinn Cook (Duke), Josh Selby (drafted by the Grizzlies, now in the NBDL), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), Mikael Hopkins (Georgetown), Marcus Rouse (Stony Brook) and Naji Hibbert (Gardner-Webb, transferred from Texas A&M). "Victor is that rare guy who played on a high school team that was as good as his AAU team," says Crean. Early in the season, says Jones, Victor stood in front of the team's top players and volunteered to come off the bench. DeMatha went 31-4 and won the city championship. A year later Victor started and averaged 11.9 points and 10.3 rebounds; DeMatha went 32-4 and won another city title. Victor was named All-City but was ranked only No. 144 in the country by Rivals.com.
"At that time his motor, his passion for the game, his athletic ability were all ahead of his skill set," says Chris Caputo, an assistant at Miami, who was an assistant at George Mason at the time and saw Victor frequently. "Not a great dribbler, not a great shooter, not a dynamic pick-and-roll guy. But he was a tough guy who could defend and do whatever it took to win. His other qualities were developing. Those were things Coach Crean was able to identify that others were not." By the end several D-I schools were recruiting Victor, including Notre Dame, Xavier and Charlotte, but none had worked longer than Indiana.
It was in Victor's senior year that the unusual nature of his relationship with his father was first publicized. In a story by Josh Barr in
In early March, Victor told SI that he and Chris were "not as close as a dad and son should be. Because, growing up, he just wasn't there. My parents' culture is all about tough love. You love someone, but you're not going to show them affection. You know, like in the movie 300, when Leonidas goes away and doesn't want to tell his wife he loves her, because that would show weakness? That's what my father was like. He's not going to show affection. It's kind of like: Life isn't easy. If you show weakness, people will attack it."
Kristine Oladipo remembers a similar mind-set. She says, "At the end of the day our father was probably too overprotective. He always warned us not to have too many friends, not to get too close to people. I wasn't allowed to go to friends' houses or to parties. But he also stressed that hard work pays off in the end, and I believe that's been good for me."
Mike Jones often met Chris during drop-offs. "I would describe him as focused," says Jones. "There was no small talk."
Joan Oladipo went to nursing school and earned her degree in 1998; she now works at -Baltimore-Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, Md. Despite her job, she attended most of Victor's high school games and some college games, including last weekend's Big Ten tournament in Chicago. "I know Victor really missed that his father wasn't at his games," says Joan. "He would like to have had both parents there. I do believe he has gotten over that."
Asked if Chris would agree to an interview, Joan says, "The chances of that, I think, are zero."
Yet Chris does speak. Not, he says, because he wants a piece of his son's fame -- "Please, no limelight for me" -- but because he wants to explain that he is proud of his son but different from most other fathers, fearful and mistrusting of the world. "I am not the typical American father who is shouting in the bleachers," he says. "I will never be an American dad. I believe what the father should be is an anchor, to keep the ship from running away. He should be a stabilizing influence in the child's life. I am humbled by Victor's success, but he is no longer just my son, he is everyone's son."
This, says the father, is the most terrifying situation of all, the moment when others might exploit his son. He says that one of his favorite old movies is Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic
"This applies to you, to me, to every one of us," Chris says. He did, in fact, push for Victor to skip that post-sophomore year of AAU to study martial arts in China, and still thinks it would have been a good idea. "Martial arts teach inner strength," says Chris. "If Victor had gone, he would have been even greater than he is now. I believe that."
There is one other point. Chris says that tales of his absence from Victor's high school games are "absolute rubbish. I once called Victor from a gym so that he could hear the background noise and I said to him, 'You know that I am here, because you can hear the noise.'?" He says he has twice gone to Bloomington to watch Victor play with the Hoosiers. Then he adds, "When Victor was home at Christmas, he came into my room and body-blocked me to the floor in a big bear hug."
Of Chris's high school claim, DeMatha coach Jones says, "I have my doubts about that." Of the college claim, Kristine Oladipo says, "Really? He's been home the whole time. I guess he could have driven up there and back in the same night, but I don't know about that."
Victor, a week after his interview with SI, declined a follow-up interview, but when asked through an Indiana spokesman about the episodes described by his father, he said that none of them took place. No phone call from a high school gym. No visit to Bloomington. No bear hug. Victor offers the denial painfully. He doesn't want to make his father look bad.
(Complicating matters, Chris Oladipo is the defendant in a civil lawsuit brought by a co-worker at the Prince George's County Health Department, who accuses him of sexual harassment. The county is also a defendant. Chris can't discuss the suit but adds, "I have lived my life honorably, with respect to men and women.")
The effect of this father-son relationship on Victor is impossible to fully know. He is very close to his mother and three sisters, all of whom text him constantly. He has improved dramatically as a player, and some suggest that this is partly because of his odd relationship with his father. "Victor loves his father," says Crean, "and like anybody else, he wants the respect of his father."
Jones says, "I believe the nature of their relationship has helped. It's given Victor something to prove. Watch the way he defends. The guys he guards aren't even part of the game."
Victor is not so sure. "Maybe it's a blessing in disguise," he says. "I see a lot of dads who are really involved, and sometimes it's aggravating because the dad wants it so much that he just pours it on the kid."
His teammates know him as the same exuberant character that TV audiences see in uniform. "He's got this way about him," says his onetime roommate Will Sheehey, an Indiana junior. "If he walks into a room, he wants people to look at him. He's flamboyant, but he's so nice that it doesn't really matter." Victor is, predictably, among the most voracious consumers of extra practice, wearing out the managers who rebound for shooting practice. The motor that made him a viable college recruit will go with him to the NBA.
First, however, there is a tournament to play. Four games to win for a trip to the Final Four. And if Indiana makes it, Chris Oladipo says he will be there to watch his son. For sure.