The Dadball Era: The Return Of Victor Oladipo

Who didn’t think Victor Oladipo was taking that last shot? Other than his impossibly oblivious defender, I mean—the unaware, unobservant worker-droid beamed into this galaxy for that lone defensive possession for some reason.

Nobody, that’s who.

Not one sane person inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse or anywhere outside of it thought Oladipo was going to pass the ball right then. Not down three. Not after this past year. Especially not after this past week. That ball was going up come hell or high ankle sprain. Vic came to the building to shoot big shots and dribble the ball around … and he was all out of dribbles.

That it went in was the surprise. Except not really. Not when you think about it. We’ve seen that episode too many times to be surprised now. It’s the “Bizarro Paul George” rerun, it’s a classic! The plot line is terrific: the confidence to even take the last shot, the wherewithal to drain it, and the strutting, snarling geography lesson regarding who is the rightful owner of this metropolitan area. Roll credits. The whole thing was more Vic-torian than a hideous, customized $9,000 Fendi fanny pack covered in Darkwing Duck characters.

Wednesday-night NBA games in the cold, gray bleakness of January are not supposed to mean anything. But last night did. That was different—and not just because of Victor’s last-second heroics. And not even remotely because the Pacers won.

It was important because he was back. He was playing again and doing neat little Oladipo things, if only briefly. The rest of it was meaningless, more or less—at least in terms of the 6,000-game NBA season. It was fun and maybe a bit of foreshadowing, but fun and foreshadowing can rupture in a hurry in January, or any other month.

Just like the Pacers did last year around this time.

Make no mistake: Victor’s emotional post-game interview had little to do with the game or his shot or a meaningless regular-season win on a weeknight. It had almost everything to do, I think, with reflecting on all the dreadful rehab work he endured to get back on the court. Anyone who’s ever gone through it knows: that shit is MISERABLE. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and in any other feasible way, and in ways you’d never think feasible at all. I did it for six months, and I wanted to jump into one of those geothermic acid pools in Yellowstone by the second week.

The mere thought of going through it again broke Andrew Luck’s football-playing soul. He’d rather spend his time being a dad and building life-sized Lego monasteries. So would I, for that matter.

Being done with it—having succeeded at the hardest, loneliest, most depressing, most uncertain, most seemingly paradoxical challenge: to simply get back to where he was before the injury—brought him to tears talking to Jeremiah Johnson as the dust was settling in Bankers Life, and maybe also in our living rooms. Through hard work and sheer luck, he has a second lease on life now. Because his life, for better or worse, is basketball.

So was Gianna Bryant’s, I’ve read. That she never got to her first lease is a million times worse than any rehab, and that, too, was in Victor’s eyes and voice and heart as he spoke, and understandably so. The past year, the past week—it was all coming out, whether he wanted it to or not, and we’ll love him more because of it. Last night was no ordinary regular-season game in January, but not necessarily because of what happened on the court.