Monday, February 19, 2018

Behind The Scenes With Victor Oladipo, The NBA's One-Man Musical




All-Star Weekend wasn’t just another high note from Victor Oladipo’s season-long coming out party—it was also the first time his father watched him play. The Crossover goes behind the scenes with the Pacers star in LA.Image Via Sports Illustrated


LOS ANGELES (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED) -- The trip from Indiana to Los Angeles spanned five years, five coaches, two trades, one position change and a final unexpected stopover in the middle of Colorado (or was it New Mexico?). Victor Oladipo’s flight was scheduled to land in L.A. at 11 a.m. on Thursday, but the Pacers eight-seat corporate jet slammed into 170-knot headwinds, and a plane that normally travels 500 miles per hour screeched to 350. The jet can hold 1,200 gallons of fuel, but due to the slow going it needed more. Which is why, on the first day of his first full-fledged All-Star Weekend, Oladipo found himself standing on a small airstrip attached to Pueblo Memorial Airport. He gazed across the barren landscape. “I’m in an episode of Breaking Bad,” he thought. Pueblo is in Colorado, not New Mexico, a source of debate among Oladipo and his companions as they lounged in the terminal and waited for the fuel. Oladipo ate a burger with a lettuce bun from the café.

Over the next 96 hours, he would host one party at a club with Cardi B, another with Snoop Dogg and Floyd Mayweather. He’d sing with Jamie Foxx, dunk with Black Panther and toast Michael Jordan’s birthday at a $100 million mansion in Bel-Air. He’d play Jenga in a sneaker store stock room with someone who goes by The Shiggy Show, an apt moniker for the weekend, and he’d dance alone in front of 1,000 people at a practice. He’d eat sushi from Katsuya and chicken from Popeyes. He’d ride in enough Mercedes Sprinters to fill a presidential motorcade, protected by three security guards and primped by two stylists. They would present him with approximately 40 ensembles, a dozen of which he would wear. He’d wake up early to toss 12-pound medicine balls and do plyometric pushups in the J.W. Marriott fitness center, and at 9 a.m. Sunday, he’d watch online the weekly sermon delivered by Pastor John K. Jenkins at First Baptist Church of Glenarden back home in Maryland.

As Oladipo dressed for the game Sunday afternoon in his room on the 15th floor—opting for the red-white-and-black Givenchy button-down, black Helmut Lang leather top and black AMIRI jeans with a tear in the knee—he pondered the meaning of Pueblo. “I’ve had a long journey to get here,” he said. “Sometimes you’re in the middle of nowhere.” He glanced at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, curls freshly shorn by a traveling barber, and headed to the bus. He didn’t have to be there until 1:50. “Let’s do 1:45,” he said. He was excited, as one would be when about to play in front of his father for the first time.

The 25-year-old Oladipo—“pronounced like Home Depot,” he clarifies—comes across as relentlessly carefree. He sings wherever he goes, normally R&B, from Sam Smith to Marvin Gaye, Tyrese to Tank. He describes himself as a bird and a butterfly. He peppers his speech with the word feathery, which he defines as “the greatest of all goods, not heavenly but feathery.” When the Pacers acquired Oladipo last summer, his coaches compared him to Lou Rawls, not Paul George. “His life is a musical,” says assistant Dan Burke, and he’s hitting the high notes: 24.4 points per game on 48.4% shooting, best of his career. “Also, he has a nice voice,” center Al Jefferson says, “so you don’t have to tell him to shut the hell up.”

Oladipo’s tenor shifts only when the subject turns to basketball and family. His parents, Chris and Joan, immigrated to the United States from Nigeria 32 years ago. They prized education, not sports, and Chris held two jobs so Victor and his three sisters could attend private schools. “I never really saw my dad because he was always working,” Oladipo recalls. “We didn’t have a great relationship.” While Joan warmed to hoops, Chris never did, driving a wedge between father and son. He rarely met Victor’s coaches or teammates.

In each of his first three NBA seasons, Oladipo went to All-Star Weekend, either for the Rising Stars Challenge or the Slam Dunk Contest or the parties. But last February, he flew to Washington D.C. instead and sat in Chris’s office for three-and-a-half hours. “It had been a long time since we had a real conversation,” Oladipo says. “But you’ve got to work at it, because he’s your dad, so his opinion means more than anybody’s. He told me he believes in me, and that gave me a huge boost.”

In January, Oladipo was selected to his first All-Star Game and he invited the man he calls Pops. He braced for rejection, but Chris accepted—on one condition: no cameras, no interviews, no fuss. Oladipo booked a flight from D.C. to L.A., arriving late Saturday and departing late Sunday, with a room at The London in West Hollywood. In previous articles, Chris has claimed he has seen his son play before, but if so nobody noticed. “Maybe on TV, but not in person,” Oladipo says. “This is the first time I will know for a fact he is there. It’s going to be a big deal for me. I still can’t believe he said yes.”


After a seven-hour voyage, an hour-long Sprinter ride and a “fitting” at the Loews Hollywood overseen by the stylists, it was time to throw down some 360 reverse windmills. Oladipo was the lone All-Star to participate in the dunk contest, but he’s spent the past three months keeping the Pacers in contention, leaving little time for car hurdles or drone drops. “I’m going to need an elephant,” Oladipo said, “so I can jump over its trunk with the water shooting in the air.” Dunk coach Chuck Milan—yes, there is such a thing—was supposed to fly to Indiana for a practice session, but the trip was postponed because of bad weather, so they only talked on the phone. Three years ago, Oladipo finished second to Zach LaVine, on the strength of a 540-degree jam. But in the Thursday night rehearsal at Staples Center, he could not land much of anything, and even Milan looked anxious in his "I Jump High" hoodie.

Oladipo’s priorities have evolved from basketball’s favorite sideshow. In the Lakers empty locker room, he touched a photo of their championship rings and asked his friends, “Who’s going to win it?” Nobody wanted to answer. “We’re fifth in the East right now,” Oladipo started. “First of all, who thought the Pacers would be fifth at the break? If we get that 3 seed, I’m telling you, look out. It’s going to be scary.” He strutted to the middle of the room in boxers and socks. He was punchy. He pretended the Lakers logo on the carpet was the Finals stage.

NBA headliners typically reveal themselves by their third seasons. This is Oladipo’s fifth. But he’s been a late-bloomer at every level. He didn’t dent the starting lineup at DeMatha Catholic High until his senior year and he couldn’t land a scholarship to Virginia even after attending three camps there. AAU coaches described him as “nosy,” eavesdropping on conversations during bus rides. They’re talking about me, Oladipo convinced himself. They don’t want me anymore.

He was too daring to run the point and didn’t shoot well enough to space the floor. He caught lobs at the top of the square—sometimes, for fun, in his school uniform: bucks and khakis a couple sizes too small—but his energy could be overbearing. DeMatha coach Mike Jones insisted that he listen to slow jams before games to mellow out. If his backstory reminds you of somebody else's, perhaps it's the guy whose face stretched across the building next to Oladipo's hotel, 575 feet high and 1,261 feet wide.

“Russ!” Oladipo chirped Friday afternoon, as he strolled beneath the Jordan Brand billboard, en route to a Verizon appearance that followed a Foot Locker appearance that followed an NBA Cares appearance. The specter of Russell Westbrook has hovered over Oladipo since he was a sophomore at Indiana and head coach Tom Crean called Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti with an unrelated question. “He told me how they never let Russell just be an athlete,” Crean recalls. “How they held him accountable to be a basketball player.”

Even when Westbrook left opponents in his vapor trail, the Thunder harped on him to take the extra dribble and finish higher off the glass. Crean absorbed every word, which he would apply to the development of his own dervish, who was not yet on Presti’s radar. Crean sat Oladipo in a conference room and unspooled clips of Westbrook from Year 2 to Year 3, Year 3 to Year 4. “Here is a phenomenal athlete,” Crean explained, “becoming a better player all the time.” During the 2011 lockout, Pacers coaches took a field trip to Bloomington and execs advised them to check out Cody Zeller. But when the Hoosiers practiced, Burke looked past their 7-foot center. “Who’s No. 4?” Burke asked. “It’s not that he’s good. But he’s wild.”

That spring, Crean requested an evaluation of Oladipo from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, and 28 teams reported they would not draft him. A year later, he was picked second overall by Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, who had come to Orlando after working under Presti in Oklahoma City. “Rob’s vision,” Crean remembers, “was Russell Westbrook.” The Thunder molded Westbrook into a point guard and the Magic intended to do the same with Oladipo, but they lacked the supporting cast and the organizational commitment. Orlando shuffled him from point guard to shooting guard to sixth man. Three head coaches came and went. Young players, stuck in an interminable rebuild, battled for minutes and shots.


Presti rescued Oladipo on draft night 2016, extracting him from Orlando for power forward Serge Ibaka, and installed him alongside the dynamo he’d failed to emulate. At their first joint workout, over the summer in Los Angeles, Oladipo arrived at the appointed time. “Yo!” Westbrook barked. “You’re late.” In Year 1 A.D.—After Durant—Westbrook was on a mission and Oladipo a sabbatical, constantly learning and occasionally participating. A secondary ballhandler for a team that required only one, Oladipo stood on the perimeter and studied Westbrook, rampaging at the rim. “It was a great visual,” Oladipo says. But in the playoffs, when the Thunder needed him to do more, he wasn't primed. After Houston dispatched Oklahoma City in the first round, Oladipo, who had averaged just 10.8 points per game and shot 34.4%, sat mournfully in the Toyota Center locker room. “I’m nowhere near the player I want to be,” he thought.

Westbrook had shown him what alpha dedication looks like. Oladipo flew to Miami last May and strode into DBC Fitness, domain of Dwyane Wade, another Crean disciple. “What do you want to accomplish?” asked David Alexander, owner of DBC. Oladipo wanted to be an All-Star. “This will be the hardest four months of your life,” Alexander responded. “But if you treat it like Navy SEAL boot camp, you’ll have your best season.” Oladipo weighed 222 pounds that day. Three weeks later, he was at 205, having cut flour, dairy and gluten from his diet. He discovered a mild wheat allergy. “I could have told him to eat a brick,” Alexander says. “He’d have eaten the brick.”

When the Thunder sent Oladipo to the Pacers in July in the deal for George, the second time he’d been traded in 13 months, he nursed the sting for a day. Then he called Domantas Sabonis, who was with him in the deal from Orlando to Oklahoma City, and again from Oklahoma City to Indiana. “This is crazy, but it’s going to be better than you think,” Oladipo started. “I know these people. They’re going to treat us like we’ve never been treated before.” In college, Oladipo drove to Indianapolis for Pacers playoff games, and in his NBA debut, the road crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse greeted him with a standing ovation. After four pro seasons in No. 5, he returned to 4, the digit he wore at Assembly Hall.

For his introductory press conference, Oladipo caught a ride on the Pacers’ private plane with club president Kevin Pritchard. Even the Oklahoma City Police Department was tweeting about “the theft of Paul George,” among scores of swipes at Pritchard and Oladipo. “This wasn’t a dump,” Pritchard told him on the flight. “We targeted you.” The Pacers needed an accelerator to push their slow-motion offense into the modern era. “It was the first time in my career I felt like a team really believed in me,” Oladipo says. “I was just thinking, Don’t mess this up.”

But that was the wrong message, as Chris Carr would attest. Carr is the Pacers’ sports psychologist and his office in the practice facility has become Oladipo’s refuge. “I had a lot of baggage to throw away,” Oladipo says. “When you get traded twice in a year, people call you a bust, and doubt creeps in. It marinates in your mind.” He doubted himself in high school, when the recruiters dismissed him, and college, when the scouts spurned him. “Dr. Carr helped me see that I can do this. That it’s in me.”

At 6'4", Oladipo remains an undersized shooting guard, but the Pacers hand him the ball in the middle of the court, as the Hoosiers used to do. In OKC, if he gave it up, he probably wouldn’t get it back. In Indy, he drives when he chooses, and lanes are open. Oladipo is still adjusting to the freedom. On defense, he constantly pesters coaches, “Are we going over or under the screen here?” They prefer not to answer. “We trust you,” Burke replies. “Let’s not put a bridle on the bull.” Burke allows Oladipo to gamble for one steal per game, and if he is successful, another.

There is an old NBA axiom, It’s not who you get. It’s when you get him. Oladipo is the only Indiana rotation player who has attended every optional shootaround this season. “I’m a different person than I used to be,” he says, and he credits many for the transformation: coach Nate McMillan, Alexander, Carr. Russ. Before one game, the Pacers were goofing around in the tunnel when a teammate noticed Oladipo staring blankly ahead. The player asked Oladipo what he was thinking about. “I’m thinking about ripping their heads off,” he said.*

Seven months after the trade and the pep talk, Oladipo wore Sabonis’s jersey to the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night, and he was still rocking it when he spotted Jamie Foxx in the L.A. Convention Center parking garage. Oladipo grew up in the church choir and Foxx was his idol. “Hey, I like your music!” Foxx shouted. He scrolled through his phone and called up “Song For You,” the title track from the R&B album Oladipo released in October. Foxx blasted the catchy tune through his leather boombox backpack:

I’ve been so many places in my life and time,
Sung a lot of songs, I made some bad rhymes.
I’ve acted out my life in stages with 10,000 people watchin’.
We’re alone now, and I’m singing this song to you.

Stunned, Oladipo burst into verse, and eventually Foxx joined him, providing backing vocals in the parking lot. On Sunday morning, when Oladipo was asked to rank his All-Star experiences, the encounter with Foxx finished first by far. The parties were a blur, starting with CAA’s rooftop bash at Catch LA, and the dunk contest was a bust. Oladipo did not locate an elephant, but he did convince Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman to lend him his mask from a courtside seat, dressing up a double-pump tomahawk. But Oladipo was eliminated after the first round, about the time his father touched down from D.C.

Oladipo did not sleep much Saturday night, out late and up early, listening to Pastor Jenkins and lifting 45-pound dumbbells with Pacers assistant sports performance coach Andy Martin. “My dad texted,” he reported between sets. His whole basketball life, he’d seen teammates and their fathers after games, and tried not to turn jealous. His Pops was finally coming. “You’ll recognize him,” Oladipo said. “He looks just like me.”

Chris wore a blue suit over a plaid shirt and sat in a suite. The plan was for Victor to play, then shower, then meet him in Section 109. But All-Star Games run long and Chris worried he’d miss his 11 p.m. redeye. So late in the fourth quarter, a Pacers official retrieved him from the suite and led him down the Staples Center stairs to the hallway next to Team LeBron’s bench. There, Chris waited, for Team LeBron to win and his son to celebrate. Somewhere between the court and the locker room, Oladipo found his dad and fell into his arms. “A year ago today,” he said, “you told me I could achieve anything.”

“This,” Pops replied, “is only the beginning.”




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