A year ago at this time, Kentucky men’s basketball was mired in its worst season since the Great Depression, and all Oscar Tshiebwe could do was watch.
Oh, and talk. He did a lot of talking.
Tshiebwe arrived in Lexington with about six weeks to go in a season Kentucky fans would like nothing more than to forget ever happened. As a transfer who played 10 games early in the year at West Virginia, Tshiebwe wasn’t eligible to play for the remainder of that 9–16 season. But as he watched from the sidelines as the Wildcats floundered through a COVID-19-impacted season, the big man made it known to his teammates that things would be different next year.
“I’m so fast; they can’t mess with me,” Kentucky center Lance Ware recalls Tshiebwe boasting from the sidelines. “They’re going to have to double-team me.”
Ware and his teammates were skeptical at the time. They aren’t anymore.
“He wasn’t lying,” Ware laughs.
All those boasts have come true. Tshiebwe is too fast to handle. Teams do have to double-team (and sometimes triple-team) him. And even that hasn’t been enough to stop Oscar, whose record-setting rebound totals have him in the mix for National Player of the Year and have elevated Kentucky from the shadows of last season’s disappointment back into a title contender.
The Oscar Tshiebwe you see on the court is steely eyed and fiercely competitive—seemingly capable of not just dunking on you but tearing the rim off in the process. But off the court, Oscar is cheerful, rarely found without that wide smile on his face that everyone in Lexington has fallen in love with. Just last week, he posted a video to his Instagram story of himself singing songs from the movie Moana while on the training table, perhaps the clearest proof that the 22-year-old is among the gentlest of giants.
“When the game comes, he turns on his superhero alter ego,” Wildcats junior Keion Brooks says. “He knows he’s the baddest thing out there, everybody else knows it and then it’s just, What can you do to stop it?”
But a pair of glasses and business-casual attire wouldn’t be enough to make Oscar blend into a crowd the way Clark Kent could. At 6'9", 255 pounds and 6% body fat, one tends to stand out in any room they’re in—even on a basketball court.
The path Tshiebwe has taken to become one of college basketball’s best players not only isn’t straight, it has hardly been paved. He grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and didn’t play basketball until he was 14. His father, a pastor, was poisoned to death when Oscar was just 12. Oscar left the rest of his family behind to come to the U.S. at 15, spent time playing JV basketball, had stops at multiple high schools and transferred midseason from West Virginia after being a preseason all-conference selection heading into his sophomore year. In his 22 years, Oscar has experienced more hardship than most people will in their entire lives. Yet he attacks every day with a relentlessly positive spirit that sticks with everyone he spends time with.
“Oscar has a bright light about himself, and you can’t dim it; it doesn’t ever turn off,” Brooks says. “That’s just who he is.”
Even before he picked up a basketball, Oscar learned the most valuable skill he possesses on the hardwood: his fight. He says he first found his love for physicality from his dad, who’d set down punishments like push-ups or hours-long runs for Oscar as a child. Oscar was a fighter, and he wasn’t going to let anyone forget it once he came to the States.
“I cannot let people bully me,” Oscar says. “They do not know how I grew up.”
Perhaps that’s why Oscar doesn’t mind the beating he takes from opposing teams desperate to keep him off the glass. In fact, he embraces it.
“I love contact. … Coaches sending three people to try to push me, I love that because that’s when I build a tree and say, Nobody’s moving me,” Tshiebwe says. “If you come in, I’m going to hit you first before you touch me.”
The big man is such a matchup problem for opponents that sometimes the refs even have trouble officiating him. But his coach, John Calipari, has an answer for that.
“The best thing you can do, do you want me to give you a secret?” says Calipari. “Recruit a guy who is 255 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan who goes after the ball. You recruit that guy.”
The players most familiar with Tshiebwe’s physicality on the boards? Brooks and Ware, who go against him every day in practice. Kentucky regularly does a drill in which the rim gets covered up and two players go one-on-one for rebounds clanking off that covered hoop. Whoever grabs three rebounds first wins … and the loser goes over to a treadmill to run.
“It’s a drill that’s built for him,” Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua says.
It gets competitive—and physical. Far more physical than a game would ever be, Ware says. He says he used to win about half the time last year when going up against Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Jackson. Now?
“You have to get lucky and hope the ball bounces to your side,” Ware says. “If it doesn’t, you just don’t have a chance to win.”
“If I can get my hand on the ball, it’s a success for me,” Brooks jokes. He says he has beaten Tshiebwe in the drill once in the 15 or so times they’ve gone against each other this year.
Teammates, opponents, coaches and fans alike all marvel at Tshiebwe’s record-setting rebound totals. His 20 rebounds against Duke in the team’s season opener made a statement, but the 28 he snatched against Western Kentucky was his true coming-out party as one of the sport’s biggest stars. He averages more rebounds per game (15.3) than any player has in at least the last 30 years and tops the nation in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, per KenPom. While he won’t surpass some of the seemingly unbeatable rebounding totals players from the 1950s and ’60s posted, his season this year will go down as one of the more impressive statistical seasons of the 2000s.
Those eye-popping stats have earned Oscar rock-star status in Lexington, almost 8,000 miles away from where he first picked up a basketball in the Congo. It’s why fans swarm him after every game hoping for an autograph, where he signs for as long as he’s allowed to by Kentucky and stadium staff. With new name, image and likeness (NIL) rules, Tshiebwe could easily sign autographs exclusively for money—ESPN reported that former Ohio State QB Quinn Ewers landed a $1.4 million contract to sign autographs in 2021, for instance. But even after Tshiebwe recently received clearance to make NIL deals after a complex process due to his immigration status as an F1 student visa recipient, you’ll still find him out signing autographs postgame and not asking for a dime in return.
“People say, ‘You know you can charge people for what you’re doing,’ and I say, ‘Of course I know,’” Tshiebwe says. “Sometimes it’s not all about money. … These people, they’re going to remember what you did in the past, and they’re going to help you.”
Players and coaches who spend time around Oscar every day say the gentle giant hasn’t changed who he is, even with all the fame he has gained in the last year. “He has been the same guy,” Antigua says.
A lot of that can be attributed to Oscar’s faith. He hosts pregame Bible studies in his hotel room before road games that nearly the entire team has attended, and he also puts together Bible studies on campus.
“It’s up to God for him to decide whether we win or not,” Tshiebwe says. “For me to lead the Bible study is to show people it’s not about me, it’s not about the team, it’s all about God. We have to put God first in everything we do.”
The Bible studies have brought the team closer together and helped them navigate life in the college basketball pressure-cooker that is Lexington.
“In Lexington, Kentucky basketball is everything, and in a way we get, for lack of a better word, worshipped. We’re not normal people at times,” Brooks says. “So to take a step away and be able to give everything you’ve got to God and have a conversation about it is great because it keeps you grounded.”
Tshiebwe’s spirituality has helped him navigate losing his father and leaving his mother and the rest of his family behind in the Congo while he chased his dream. And now, as first reported by The Athletic, money from NIL opportunities will allow Oscar’s mother to come to the United States … hopefully in time to see him play basketball in person for the first time in the NCAA tournament.
“She doesn’t even know how many people can get in a basketball gym. She probably thinks 1,000, 2,000,” Tshiebwe says. “That would probably be the best day of her life, just to see how many people are watching her son playing basketball.”
So what’s next for men’s college basketball’s biggest star?
First, he wants to drop 50 points and 30 rebounds in the first game his mom is able to watch him play. And while there has been plenty of speculation about Oscar’s basketball future and whether he’ll return to Kentucky or take his rebounding talents to the next level, his mind is on other things. While he’s focused on finishing this year strong, he recently hatched a plan to write books to share teachings from God. And not just one book—four!
With a smile, Oscar opens the Notes app on his phone and shows off the list of ideas he put together earlier in February. One is entitled Stop Burying Things That Are Not Dead. Another: Kindness Is Everything.
The last on the list?
How to Become a Champion.
In one month’s time, he might have a lot more material for that one. But one piece of advice that likely won’t make the cut?
Recruit someone like Oscar Tshiebwe.
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