Once an afterthought, Indiana's Oladipo now among nation's best

by | College Basketball Insider
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Victor Oladipo was prepared to make his college decision in a matter of hours, ready to give Tom Crean and the Indiana Hoosiers a verbal commitment. That was when his father, Chris, came to him with a suggestion, the recommendation that instead he head to China to study Karate.

"It was crazy," Oladipo said. "Nuts."

It wasn't as though Oladipo was a troubled youth who needed the structure to set him straight. Oladipo always had been an above-average student and diligent worker, a kid whose most flagrant offense was running out into the street against the wishes of his father to get up some shots.

"He was a great kid who never really got into trouble," said his mother, Joan Oladipo. "I was shocked. I told him this wasn't happening. No way. Not over my dead body -- and that was the end of that."

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This was Oladipo's dream while growing up in Upper Marlboro, Md. Not necessarily his father's, but just about everyone else in the house -- from his mother to his three sisters -- wanted to see him earn a college basketball scholarship. The other kids used to poke fun at Oladipo back when he was in middle school and even in high school because he couldn't shoot and could hardly dribble, but Oladipo kept working on his skills in hopes of one day playing college basketball.

"He was air-balling and bricking everything," said Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant, who first met his best friend in the eighth grade. "Nobody paid any attention to him as a player back then."

Recalling his high school days, Oladipo said, "They never, ever ran a play for me. Maybe a lob and that was about it. I wasn't very good. I wasn't really a basketball player."

Despite an ankle injury he suffered Saturday vs. Purdue, Oladipo is expected to play for No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday at Michigan State.

Oladipo grew up in a modest home with his parents -- both natives of Nigeria -- and three sisters. He shared a crib with his 20-year-old twin sister, Victoria. The family moved out to the countryside when Victor was about 13 because, as both Victor and his mother put it, Chris Oladipo was antisocial, wanted to be away from people and also wanted his family to be as far away from more crime-prevalent areas as possible.

Oladipo admittedly wasn't much of a player as a teen-ager, but that didn't stop him from sprinting into the street to shoot jumpers as soon as his father would leave the driveway. Team Takeover's Keith Stevens recalled the first time he saw a 14-year-old Oladipo, a skinny, frail long-armed kid who couldn't shoot, dribble or even dunk.

"He played hard, though," Stevens recalled.

Oladipo began playing summer ball with Stevens and his outfit, but his first AAU campaign didn't go as anticipated -- as he broke his foot in his first tournament in Virginia. Oladipo figured it would just a sprain, though, and continued to play through May and June before finally getting it checked out at the hospital and being told it was cracked. When Oladipo returned, it was as a different player.

"I was so much more athletic," he said. "I rehabbed hard and went from being an average athlete to a really good athlete."

Adds Stevens: "I don't know how it happened. But some of the dunks after he came back were unreal."

Oladipo could jump higher, but he was still the same player. Unskilled. Not a high basketball IQ. Now he was just an athlete playing basketball. His mother would be at just about every game, his sisters also often in attendance. However, Oladipo would look up in the stands in search of his father. He still hasn't seen him to this day, although his Dad claims otherwise.

"I've asked him before and he says he'll try to go," Oladipo said. "But at the end of the day, if you keep asking and it's the same thing, you just give up. ... It doesn't bother me as much as it used to."

It's one of the few topics, maybe the lone topic in which Oladipo gets quiet. Everything else, there's an incessant smile on his face -- and a genuine yearning to talk.

What's not to be happy about these days. Oladipo is a self-made star, turning himself from a hard-playing, mid-major recruit who played out of position throughout his entire high school career to a lock-down defender who is shooting better than 50 percent from 3-point land and is squarely in the National Player of the Year conversation. Oladipo is averaging 13.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 steals while shooting 64 percent for the top-ranked Hoosiers.

"He's dealt with success and notoriety really well," Crean said. "He's got a gift to get back to base really quite -- and it's due to his incredible sense of character."

Oladipo hasn't forgotten his roots, either. He flew back home to Maryland for Christmas the morning after the win against Florida Atlantic, leaving campus around 4 a.m. to catch an early morning flight out of Indianapolis. When he arrived, he didn't go straight home to see his family, instead going from the airport to meet Stevens and a bunch of 13- and 14-year-olds from the Team Takeover program hand out turkeys to those less fortunate.

"That's just who he is," Crean said. "He's special."

Then it was off to help a bunch of 8-year-olds in practice before finally heading home to see his family. The next morning at 9 o'clock, he was in the Bishop McNamara gym working with Stevens.

"That's his motor," Stevens said. "Always."

Oladipo is a rare breed. He'll graduate this May in only three years with a GPA that'll be somewhere in the 3.3 range. When he's in Bloomington on Sundays, you can find him at one of the two churches in town -- even if that means he has to make the 2½-mile walk. Everywhere he goes, he's smiling. Grant said Oladipo often approaches girls he has never met and will serenade them with songs.

"He's a people person," Grant said. "He just loves to make people smile."

Back in the day, though, it wasn't so easy for Oladipo to crack a grin. He was always second-guessing himself, pouting with his head down. But his mother would constantly tell him to believe in himself -- and his abilities. Now Oladipo has established himself as a likely first-round pick in June's NBA Draft, if he elects to turn pro and bypass his final season of eligibility in Bloomington.

"It's surreal," said Victoria. "I still feel like I'm dreaming sometimes."

Adds Victor: "So do I."

Oladipo doesn't talk about his NBA prospects. Not with his mother, sisters, Stevens or anyone on the Indiana coaching staff. That time will come after the season, but now he's just enjoying the ride that began as a raw, mediocre athlete who was mocked only a few years ago. Even as recently as last season, Oladipo was considered a non-shooter, making only 21 percent of his shots from deep, who was pegged as an overseas player when his college career concludes.

"Back in the day, I'd be the last person that would be in this position now," Oladipo said.

Oladipo is the first to admit his relationship with his father isn't ideal, but it doesn't consume him. Sure, he'd love to look over in Assembly Hall and see him sitting with the rest of his family. However, he's come to grips with the fact that may not be a reality. He still gets a chuckle when recalling the story about his Dad wanting him to study martial arts instead of playing basketball.

"Luckily my mom put her foot down," Oladipo said. "Or else, who knows. ... I'd probably be the Karate Kid."

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