Victor Oladipo’s Drive

No one expected Victor Oladipo to be great. Not in high school. Not in college. Not when the Pacers acquired him. But Oladipo anticipated it. Maybe that’s because he has so much of the thing that elevates a person above predictions: Drive.

October 2018Add a comment

When Victor Oladipo was traded to the Indiana Pacers, he was in a plane, 30,000 feet above the ground and oblivious to his fate and the commotion below, where both veteran NBA watchers and casual fans were losing their minds on social media.

Even by the hasty standards of Twitter,reaction to the transaction that off-loaded Paul George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Oladipo was overheated:
“Thunder steal Paul George from panicking Pacers” —CBS Sports
“The Pacers’ Paul George trade was just sad” —SBNation’s Tim Cato, who piled on with the postscript, “Indiana actually had warring bidders for the George trade and couldn’t even steal a draft pick.”
“Holy Shit, Pacers Trade Paul George to the Thunder” —Deadspin

So to call what became Oladipo’s breakout 2017–2018 season a resurrection could be hyperbolic, but only because when news of the trade broke, Oladipo wasn’t technically dead, just buried beneath a steaming pile of “hot takes.” The loud knee-jerk bombast dispensed over social media practically crowed that those dumb hicks from Indiana had gone to market with their one and only cow and returned to the farm with a few magic beans. At one point during the premature adjudications, Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard, an Oklahoma native, received texts from friends back home that linked to a tweet from the official account of the Oklahoma City Police Department: “Thanks for the tweets regarding the ‘theft’ of Paul George by @okcthunder. Our investigative findings: totally legal & very savvy.”

Seasoned — Oladipo’s rise to NBA All-Star was anything but a fast break. He developed his game slowly, learning something at every step.

In truth, both of the marquee players in the trade (the Pacers also acquired Domantas Sabonis) had somewhat failed to live up to expectations, unrealistic and otherwise. George was the brand name, a brilliant but unhappy All-Star who always seemed to play with an eye trained West, a Los Angeles–area kid who never had the swag of another Los Angeles–area kid beloved for playing his entire career as a Pacer and making Indiana his. Then there was the guy who starred at Indiana University. Before being selected No. 2 overall by the Orlando Magic in 2013, Oladipo had unofficially become the 897th Second Coming of another “athletic shooting guard” you’ve probably heard of who won some games and kicked around the league for a bit. “Oladipo compares very well to [Michael] Jordan,” concluded a pair of basketball-analytics gurus for ESPN.com at the time.

Then, in 2016, after three good-but-not-Jordanlike seasons in Orlando, Oladipo was shipped to Oklahoma City, where he partnered in the backcourt with the phenomenally talented solo act, Russell Westbrook. During that campaign, in one of the finest single-season performances in NBA history, the ball rarely escaped Westbrook’s orbit, and afterward Oladipo was jettisoned to Indiana. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, one NBA blogger rightly and wryly tweeted, “I hope the Russell Westbrook in your life sets you free so you can be the Victor Oladipo you deserve to be.”

But the wisdom of that bon mot had yet to be appreciated at the time of the Indiana-OKC trade, which gave birth to The Victor Oladipo Story and a script so fanciful that if it had co-starred a basketball-playing dog as Vic’s sidekick, any right-minded Disney exec would’ve passed along heavy edits. Too unbelievable. Lose the kid—the dog stays in the picture.

Still, what no one saw coming had been under our noses all along, the secret to the season past—and more importantly, a leading indicator of the one that begins this month: “I believed I could be great,” says Oladipo.

No one taught Kehinde Babatunde Victor Oladipo, the son of Nigerian immigrants, how to play basketball. Not his father, not an older sibling, not a coach who spotted raw talent on the playgrounds around the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the community where Oladipo was born and raised. When the child practiced, he flung his body across the neighborhood courts, constantly crackling with an unrefined energy. Always running. Always moving. Running. Moving. Then he’d go home to study Kobe and LeBron on TV. Then back at it: running, moving, running. Buddies called him “Taz.”

His parents weren’t around to control their son’s energy. They were working too much. Chris and Joan Oladipo had four kids to put through school and knew that such a responsibility meant a demanding schedule of employment. That left the parenting to Victor’s oldest sister, Kristine, who handled the bulk of watching Victor, his twin, Victoria, and a middle sister, Kendra, who became deaf in the second grade.

Victor’s days were spent banging around courts and showing off his defense, an area of confidence for Oladipo, and an aspect of the game where hustle has a fighting chance against God-given talent. Mostly, he watched everybody else, other players who seemed to have more instruction, more polish, more ability. “It seemed like all my friends and classmates were so special, so much more gifted,” he says. “My whole life up to college, I was like, Those guys can shoot better, they can do things I can’t. It made me so frustrated sometimes.”

One evening when he was in middle school, Oladipo took in a game at DeMatha Catholic High School—an institution that has produced countless college stars and more than 20 NBA draft picks—and found a basketball home with structure. There, he grew to 6’4” and played well enough out of position as an undersized power forward to become a consensus 3-star (out of 5) player, according to recruiting services (Rivals ranked him the 144th-best player in the nation—hardly the credentials of a can’t-miss guy), but little more. Heading into his senior season, only Maryland had offered a scholarship, which it rescinded when Oladipo didn’t immediately sign. But then Tom Crean came calling, and after watching a single game, the then-Hoosiers coach had the kid with boundless energy signed, sealed, and delivered to Bloomington.

In the past, Crean had had notable success with penny stocks, finding value in Dwyane Wade before the world knew Dwyane Wade. With Oladipo, the coach saw another diamond in the rough who was willing to grind. “Victor was not an entitled guy,” recalls Crean, now head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. “We knew he had a humility about him, that he’d been formed through days and nights at the gym with nobody else around. But it was still, Are we missing something? Nobody else seems to be seeing this.” But thanks to his history with Wade, another player lightly recruited in high school, Crean trusted his snap appraisal of Oladipo. “You learn to not worry about where people are in the recruiting food chain.”

Soon, even some of the recruiting gurus belatedly began to take note. Here, ESPN’s prescient evaluation: “An athletic and powerful swingman who is tough as nails, Oladipo impacted this game (Hoophall Classic) in a variety of ways by simply outworking everyone else on the floor.”

As a child on the playgrounds, he constantly crackled with an unrefined energy.

Oladipo arrived at Indiana University with plenty of Taz. “Vic came in with this energy that could not be matched,” says Derek Elston, who played with Oladipo from 2010–2013 and is now in his fourth year as the school’s director of player development. But the unrefined effort came with a downside. “You couldn’t stop Vic from getting in the paint, but he was always tripping over his feet and falling out of bounds. I was like, Man, this guy is so high-energy, but always out of control.”

Still, Oladipo roared on, hoping to follow the Crean-Wade script from the duo’s time at Marquette based on a fairly rudimentary comparison and pluck. “I felt I could relate,” says Oladipo. “I thought, Well, if Wade’s around my height, I can do the things he does.” It also didn’t hurt that Oladipo and his Hoosier teammates had adopted a pretty Spartan existence. “It was, ‘Let’s get in the gym, stay in the gym, eat, and then go back to the gym,’” says Elston. “We lived it.” Jordan Hulls, another college teammate, watched things lock into place for Olapido. “Not everyone saw it coming on the outside, but all of us who were with him every day saw the strides he was making,” says Hulls. “[Victor] put in the work. He had a hunger for getting better every day.”

Oladipo’s coming-out party came midway through his sophomore year, when IU traveled to Purdue and entered Mackey Arena with a roster of beat-up guards. “That game was a huge, huge step for us,” says Crean. “It was right after the Super Bowl in Indy. We’d gotten beat at Michigan on a Wednesday, and Verdell Jones got hurt. Victor was obviously a very good player at that point, but now he had to take on a different role.” Crean tasked Oladipo with handling point-guard duties, and from that position he led the Hoosiers to a 78–61 win over their rivals with team highs in points (23), rebounds (8), and assists (4). “My career changed from that game.” No one, says Oladipo, knew he could dribble. “People were like, Whoa, he can do that? It opened people’s eyes a little bit.”

Riding the confidence wave as a point guard over the next two seasons, his development as a player paid off in the form of a Big Ten Championship, back-to-back Sweet 16s, and a No. 2 draft pick by the Orlando Magic.

That’s where four years ticked by. Oladipo watched coaches come and go in Orlando, scrambling to adapt to all of their new styles and strategies. In Oklahoma City, he ran into the significant issue of establishing his place next to a guy having one of the greatest individual seasons in human history. “The Oladipo and Westbrook pairing was incredibly intriguing, but it just didn’t work,” says Berry Tramel, sports columnist and a 27-year veteran of The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. “The Thunder had two guys who needed the ball, and only one ball was available. But [Victor] never made it an issue. He never griped about it.”

But Oladipo didn’t break out, either, and to some of his friends, he wasn’t the same guy. “When Vic went off to Orlando,” Elston says, “it was awesome. But when he’d come back, he just wasn’t the same. He wasn’t that happy-go-Vic. When he went to OKC, you could see that energy starting to get back a little bit, but it still wasn’t the Vic that I was used to hanging out with.”

When Elston came to one of Oladipo’s early Pacers practices, he ran into someone familiar. “I hear this huge yell, I turn around, and it’s Vic. And I was like, Oh my God, I haven’t seen this guy in awhile. This is the guy. This is the Vic that I know.”

Oladipo says that before, he simply wasn’t seasoned enough. “Yeah, I’m a late bloomer,” he says. “I embrace it, too. I’m glad my skill came later. It benefited me. I wasn’t ready to be that focal point. My path was a little different from everybody else’s. Not everybody can be as gifted and as talented as everyone else. It took time for me.”

It took time on the playground, time playing the wrong position in high school, time marinating in college, time watching Westbrook, and then, when the time was right, bursting into flames.

“Do you know what you are watching?” wrote WTHR sports columnist Bob Kravitz on April 5, 2018. “You are watching Victor Oladipo and you are watching one of the greatest single-season performances ever produced by an Indiana Pacer.”

It’s hard to hold back a smile when someone writes that about you, and when those words are read back to him, Oladipo doesn’t. But in typical Midwestern fashion, he first shakes his head to deflect the praise. “On paper, yeah, [the trade] looked like a steal for OKC.”

It wasn’t. At mid-season, Oladipo was named to the NBA All-Star roster, and as part of the weekend-long festivities electrifying the crowd (and, later, the YouTube set) he performed during the annual dunk contest with a bit of clever cosplay: In one of his attempts, he wore a Black Panther mask, handed to him by Chadwick Boseman, star of the comic-book hero film. Other super-human feats: In the 2017–18 season, Oladipo increased his scoring total by 63 percent from the year prior. He put up career highs in field goal percentage (.477), 3-point percentage (.371), rebounds (5.2), assists (4.3), steals (2.4, most in the league), and points (23.1, ninth in the NBA). He led a team expected to notch 30 wins to 48 and led it to a fifth seed in the playoffs. There, the Pacers stunned the league by pushing LeBron and the Cleveland Cavs to seven games and came a handful of buckets away from toppling the greatest player in the world.

“[Training] saved my career. It saved my life, honestly.”

For those efforts, Oladipo received the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and a Pacers-specific prize, the Backbone Award, voted on by his teammates. “Best I’ve ever gotten,” says Oladipo. Almost too good to be true, says his coach. “I need to knock on wood,” says Pacers coach Nate McMillan, “because you’re just waiting for something to change. It’s like, You can’t be this good.” Oladipo credits the successes, in part, to attitude. “[It’s about] positivity, from the bottom up,” he says. “If you give positive vibes, you get positive vibes. I learned in Orlando that people’s opinions matter very little. People are going to believe in you or they’re not. You can’t control that.”

In the weeks following the end of the season, Oladipo enjoyed the many benefits that come with running a city, and began giving early indications about how he’d address the exploded attention that comes with being a marquee athlete. On nearly the one-year anniversary of the trade, he accepted the NBA award in a tailored printed black-and-silver suit that almost outshone the crimson-red number he wore the previous night to the BET Awards. He drove the pace Corvette at the Indy 500, resplendent in a black leather jacket in flagrant defiance of 90-degree race-day temperatures. (He basically showed up 6’3” flag-waver Chris Hemsworth, who, for the record, opted for a sensible white linen shirt.) He took his coined adjective “feathery” from a signature word to a trademark. He began popping up in stories throughout the community, like the one about the viral letter he’d written to Cameron Kirk, a 10-year-old fan battling leukemia. He wrote a piece for the Players’ Tribune website that was an essay-length version of a trade-day text he’d sent to Sabonis. (“I told him, if we came here and won, the fans would embrace us.”) A budding recording artist, he put in work on the follow-up to his 2017 debut EP, Songs For You. The R&B offering with a judicious seven tracks that revolves around a Donny Hathaway cover had at least three big fans: Billboard (“silky vocals”), USA Today (“fantastic”), and Jamie Foxx (who, upon bumping into Oladipo during All-Star Weekend, produced it on his phone). “Jamie’s one of my all-time favorites,” Oladipo says. “He sees me, Bluetooths his phone, plays my song, and starts singing along. I was like, This is the highlight of my life.”

Most importantly, he authored what will likely go down as 2018’s Most Viral Text to a Trainer, minutes after Game 7, probably in the locker room, probably still dripping. “When do we start?” he texted David Alexander of Miami’s DNC Fitness, who’s worked with LeBron. “I’m ready to take it to another level.”

This, it is generally accepted, was a good move. Alexander popped it on Instagram before most people had left Quicken Loans Arena and sped up Indiana’s grieving process by weeks. “A lot of athletes talk about having a work ethic, but they really don’t,” Alexander told GQ. “If he could have, he would’ve flown to Miami that night and gotten a workout in.” But what people didn’t see, according to McMillan, was everything happening at the breakfast hour later that week. “After the season was over, he continued to show up at 7:30, 8 a.m. and go through his workout,” says McMillan. “I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’” And he said, ‘I want to play in the Finals. And I’m going to work out until the Finals are over.’” He pauses. “When you have one of your main guys doing that, good things normally happen.”

“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you.”

Oladipo says he’s spent the summer adhering to basically the same militant routine that Alexander had him on last summer, where he cut out refined sugars, fast food, flour, and gluten and, according to an Instagram pic, promptly developed abs in a month. “I’ve kind of perfected the basics, what David calls Phase 1,” he says. “Now it’s about taking everything to another level.” He worked out twice a day, adhering to the strict rigors of the gym’s meal-prep service (basically, only things that ran, swam, or grew from the earth). He got into yoga, to augment his flexibility. He drank a gallon of water a day. And he slept better, eschewing many of the things you’re thinking about Miami. “I don’t even like sand,” Oladipo laughs. “[Training] saved my career. It saved my life, honestly.”

His text to Alexander wasn’t news to anyone who was familiar with Oladipo’s practice schedule, but it was a master class in what would have been branding, if Oladipo were into that sort of thing. In one shot, Oladipo reclaimed the Game 7 narrative, turning a heartbreaking loss into a case study in Midwestern workaholism and general badassery, adding an exclamation point in the postgame press conference. “If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now,” he said, “I have no respect for you.” The ring might have to wait, but the city’s crown was ready.

The price of all of this, of course, is comfort. Oladipo doesn’t have it, not with the bloom in effect and the team around him. “It’s not a bad thing,” he says, “Last year, three years in Orlando, the year in OKC, helped me never be satisfied in my life. It’s just, now I’m always going to wake up and think, I gotta go to work. I have to get better, somehow. Why play this game just to be OK at it? I’m gonna get there.” He pauses. “Either that, or I’m gonna be 80 years old trying to get to the NBA Finals.” He’s hungrier now than last year, he says, having tasted the playoffs. “We can go to an elite level, this team, this organization, this city.”

That aggressive optimism is fueling the Pacers’ sense of stability. Kravitz, who wrote one of Earth’s only positive post-trade columns, concurs. “He owns this city in that way Paul George never did,” he says. As the 2018–19 campaign begins, Oladipo’s got the city. He’s got the country’s attention and the respect of his peers. He has the scientific fact that he play best when playing on courts in Indiana. He has a still-burning taste of playoff glory. And he has the quiet power that comes from making a lot of hot takes seem very cold.

The Pacers may have earned their share of the Midwestern spotlight, but with LeBron powering up in L.A. and DeMarcus Cousins joining the roster of basketball Avengers operating as the Golden State Warriors, most eyes are out West. Oladipo knows this. He also knows he’s going to see a significant increase in defenders and an upgrade in the attention they afford him. Last year at this time, everything was underdog. Every scrap of unexpected success was a big deal. But when the spotlight is on—that’s a different story. In a season of gains, he lost one key thing: Oladipo will never be the underdog again.

There’s only one way to respond to any of it. Twenty minutes following his post-season press conference where he claimed how much can change in a year, he’s on an elevator, improvising a little hook called “I’m Going Down” for the audience of Pacers executives. The doors open and he heads back into the gleaming practice gym, which is empty, everyone having left to taste April’s first sunshine. Behind heavy gray doors, he’s again alone on a practice court, singing to himself, his voice echoing back at him from every corner, circling around in the air, his city and his world somewhere underneath him.

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