Victor Oladipo returns to the Washington area this week, which means his basketball career — the truth, the fiction and the thin line separating the two — has come full circle.
“I can’t wait to go home,” the Indiana Hoosiers’ junior guard said the other day, “and play in front of my family and friends and most all these guys, show the world what we’re capable of.”
He stands 6 feet 5 now, eight inches taller than when he first enrolled at DeMatha seven years ago. Oladipo still has that calm confidence, though, a warm smile and a penchant for song.
“What you see is what you get,” Indiana Coach Tom Crean said.
If only it were that simple. Oladipo isn’t really a man of mystery or even one of contradictions. So much of his life is on display.
“Everyone loves him,” teammate Yogi Ferrell said. “He’s the BMOC — the big man on campus.”
But when everyone loves you, everyone talks. Words and stories evolve over time, which is how Oladipo, an Upper Marlboro native, can be all of 20 years old — competing in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 round this week at Verizon Center — yet has already inspired so many myths.
Surely, you’ve heard that he wasn’t even good enough to start on his high school team, right?
Around Washington gyms, they still talk about the time Oladipo sprinted down the court in a game at Spalding and hurdled over an opposing player on a fast break.
His dad missed it, though, because as you also might have heard, he’s been mostly disinterested in Oladipo’s basketball career. The dad wanted to send his son to China to learn karate instead. Or so the story goes.
Oladipo showed up to another high school gym in street clothes and came out of the stands for a dunk contest, throwing the ball off the glass and whipping it between his legs before slamming it home. Oh, and there was that 360-degree dunk, too, back when he played for DeMatha.
There are threads of truth to all of it — some stronger than others — but as friends, family and coaches explain, with Oladipo, the reality is actually more interesting and more complex than any myth.
“To hear people talk now about how good he is, if you realize where he started from, you’d be truly amazed,” said Mike Jones, his high school coach.
When Oladipo started playing at DeMatha, the longtime Washington area powerhouse, he could barely dribble or shoot. Yet he still somehow stood out when nearly 100 freshmen showed up for the first day of open gym.
“We saw this dude running sprints so hard,” said Justin Black, a DeMatha teammate, “and we’re like, ‘Who is this dude?’ ”
From the start, Oladipo insisted on being the first in the gym. His mother or father would have to rise early, leaving their home in Prince George’s County by 5:30 a.m. in order for Oladipo to be at the gym by 6:30.
“He always was the hardest worker,” said Duke guard Quinn Cook, a former DeMatha teammate. “I can remember him always waking me up in the morning, doing push-ups, doing something to get better.”
Oladipo didn’t make the varsity team his first year at DeMatha. His tools were limited, so he focused on areas in which he could simply outwork foes.
“All I could really do is play defense,” he said. “That’s what I had to do in order to get on the floor.”
He knew that to crack the starting lineup and contribute at DeMatha, he’d have to develop his game. Oladipo met each morning with Dave Adkins. The DeMatha assistant didn’t bother with a ball and hoop. Oladipo wasn’t ready. The coach would instead position his young pupil in front of a mirror to work on his shot. The two would sharpen Oladipo’s form and technique, mimicking a shot over and over. It could get tedious, but Oladipo didn’t complain.
“Special players have that inner drive,” said Adkins, now an assistant for the Maryland women’s team.
By his sophomore year, he was rewarded with a spot on the varsity bench. His very first game was at Coolidge in the Caron Butler Classic, with Butler and some of his NBA teammates in attendance. Jones inserted Oladipo midway through the game, just before DeMatha went on a fast break.
Coaches had rarely seen Oladipo get near the rim in practice, but the first time he touched the ball in a game, he wowed everyone with an enthusiastic slam.
From the pixels of Yahoo to the pages of Sports Illustrated, Oladipo’s family has been put under the microscope in recent weeks. Oladipo first told The Washington Post in 2010 that his father didn’t attend his basketball games and he wasn’t sure why. The story line became ripe for further dissection as Oladipo blossomed into one of the nation’s top players these past few months.
“Sometimes I sit down and wonder why he doesn’t come, why he doesn’t want to see me play,” he said in 2010, “but I guess it’s hard to explain.”
Chris Oladipo told The Post then that he, in fact, did attend his son’s DeMatha games — “I don’t make myself as obvious as others do,” he said — and he recently told Sports Illustrated he’s also been to Indiana games, too, claims that Oladipo himself said were untrue.
“What people don’t realize is his dad loves that boy to death,” Jones said. “There were plenty of times where Vic was coming home at 10 and his dad was waiting outside Largo High to pick him up from a workout. . . . The situation is what it is and yes, his dad shows his love for his son differently than maybe some are accustomed to, but I know his dad does care and love his son.”
Chris Oladipo was born in Sierra Leone, and his mother, Joan, in Nigeria. They moved to Prince George’s County and had four children, pushing them all to be disciplined and responsible, pointing each toward college. When tradition-rich Indiana wanted Oladipo to play for its basketball team, his father had other ideas. “It was hard to tell him I wanted to go to Indiana,” Oladipo told The Post in 2010, “because I knew how bad he wanted me to go to Maryland or Harvard.”
But those who know the family say that doesn’t mean Chris Oladipo doesn’t care about his son.
“Part of that I think is the different culture that his dad was brought up in,” Jones said. “But Victor clearly has taken his work ethic from his family’s culture and made it a part of him. . . . I don’t think his dad thought he’d be this good, but he’s clearly very proud of him. He just has a different way of showing it.”
Even if Oladipo’s father wasn’t raised around the game, he still was able to impart some lessons that translated to the sport. The work ethic that coaches and teammates constantly rave about was instilled by his parents, who could not be reached for this story. “I’m in the gym working hard because I saw all of them work hard,” Victor Oladipo said. “They taught me to strive to be great and to always work to get better.”
“Without them I wouldn’t be here,” he said last week. “They’re the world to me. They cheer me up when I’m down. And when I’m happy they just make me more happy. They’ve always been there for me, even when it seemed like I had no hope, no chance of being where I’m at right now.”
“This guy didn’t start at DeMatha High School as a senior,” Bruce Pearl, the former Tennessee coach, said on ESPN last month. “He couldn’t shoot, he couldn’t dribble. He was a 6-3 power forward that Tom Crean took a chance on four years ago.”
Oladipo’s high school teams were loaded. Among this year’s NCAA tournament field alone, Oladipo played alongside Duke’s Cook, Syracuse’s Jerami Grant, Georgetown’s Mikael Hopkins, Pittsburgh’s James Robinson and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant.
“A lot of people didn’t really get to see how talented he was on our high school team because we were just so loaded,” Cook said.
If Crean was gambling with Oladipo, he at least knew the odds weren’t too bad. The truth is, Oladipo started his senior season at DeMatha and was very good.
It was during Oladipo’s junior season that Jones struggled with a problem few coaches complain about: He had seven guys who deserved to start. He met with his team before that season and explained that he had only five blue starter’s jerseys to go around.
“Vic just said, ‘You know what . . . ’ and he switched his jersey to the gray team before anyone asked him to,” said Black, who now plays at Morgan State.
“He’s all about the team and winning,” Jones added. “He wanted to win moreso than hear his name called in that starting lineup.”
Oladipo kept working on his shot, always arriving early and staying late. While others complained about suicide sprints, Oladipo embraced competition. If he wasn’t the first to finish, he’d tell everyone to line up to run them again.
“You could say I flourished later or was a late bloomer or whatever you want to call it,” he said.
By Oladipo’s senior year, Jones had no choice but to start him. En route to being named first team All-Met, Oladipo averaged 11.9 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks and DeMatha won both the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title and the city championship.
The win over Ballou in the City Title game in 2010, in fact, was the last time Oladipo played at Verizon Center.
In the spring of 2011, after Oladipo’s freshman season, the Hoosiers held their inaugural “Spirit of Indiana Showcase,” an awards program honoring the school’s student-athletes. Wearing a white cable-knit cardigan and sunglasses, Oladipo walked through the audience, crooning Usher’s hit “U Got It Bad” as he made his way to the stage.
“He’s always singing,” senior Jordan Hulls said, “no matter where we’re at.”
“Nonstop,” sophomore Cody Zeller said. “I appreciate he gets a little country in there, so he always mixes it up.”
It didn’t take long for Indiana’s players or fans to become enamored with Oladipo. His big personality plays well both on and off the court.
“He never takes a day off,” Crean said.
As a junior, Oladipo’s performances have come to overshadow most of the myths. He was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year. The Sporting News already named him a first-team all-American. He’s averaging 13.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and is projected by most analysts as a top 10 pick in June’s NBA draft. By that time, he will have completed his bachelor’s degree in sport communication broadcast in just three years.
“I don’t think he has a limit,” said Indiana assistant Kenny Johnson, Oladipo’s former AAU coach who’s known him since middle school. “His potential is through the ceiling and he’s progressing. Not monthly or weekly, but daily. He’s one of those unique individuals who I don’t think we’ve seen his best yet. It’s still ahead of him.”
Liz Clarke contributed to this report.
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