Victor Oladipo’s last three games before the NBA closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic were a tease.
The numbers show the Pacers’ guard was playing like himself, pre-knee injury, as the team gained momentum for a playoff run.
But in a wide-ranging discussion Thursday, Oladipo conceded he is not yet at 100 percent despite extra rest and strength-building time invested since all games were postponed in mid-March.
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Oladipo, 27, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound former Indiana University player, had blossomed into an all-star and the Pacers’ signature player, until he ruptured a quad tendon in his right knee in late January of 2019.
He did not play in another game for a year and there was rust evident when he did. It was not a seamless re-connection with the team on the floor. For starters.
However, in the Pacers’ most recent game, March 10, a loss to the Boston Celtics, he scored 27 points in about 29 minutes. In the two games preceding that, Oladipo scored 16 points each.
“It took me a while to come back,” Oladipo said. “To say I was 100 percent, I don’t know if I can say that.”
The timing of the cornovirus-NBA shutdown seemed particularly cruel for Oladipo. Instead of playing himself back into top form, he retreated to his garage. Oladipo said he has turned it into a weight room-gym.
“Every day I’m working out,” he said.
He is not even sure which method would have been best for his body.
“It’s hard for me to say,” Oladipo said. “It was great that I was back playing. This is an opportunity to build strength in my tendon. There’s a lot of pros and cons.”
At his best, Oladipo is one of the best players in the league. He was on a step-ladder of improvement until blindsided by the knee problem. He possessed a tricky fluidity that made him difficult for opponents to cover.
The competition level is so high in the NBA, players cannot sacrifice even a half-step to maintain their place. In the best hoops league in the world there is a survival of the fittest ethic akin to living in the harshness of the wild.
Guys claw their way to the top in terms of respect and achievement and everyone seems to acknowledge who is in the top 10. Any slippage and there is somebody poised to shove you aside.
Many fans refer to Oladipo simply as “Victor,” partially because they might struggle with his last name a little bit, or as a gesture of positive familiarity. Probably less than one in 10 Pacers fans can toss out his official given name of Kehinde Babatunde Victor Oladipo.
While born and raised in Maryland, Oladipo’s mother is from Nigeria and his father is from Sierra Leone. Going back to high school, Oladipo competed for famed DeMatha High. At IU, Victor was not an instant star, but a gradually glowing one and his initial on-court reputation stemmed from his defensive prowess.
That skill is often overlooked by fans, but not by pro scouts, which led to Oladipo being drafted second overall by the Orlando Magic in 2013 and evolving from there.
Whether it is a Michael Jordan tactic or not, Oladipo spoke as if he has conquered adversity every step of the way. Mostly, it seems, his adversity has been the knee issue, a Grand Canyon of an adverse circumstance that he is not past yet. Almost, though, whenever the Pacers return to action for real games.
On the enduring virus situation and the lack of any sports going on where teams can gather and spectators can congregate, Oladipo sounded as philosophical as Plato.
“Obviously, it’s a little weird,” Oladipo said.
As a professional athlete, it’s no surprise Oladipo believes sports helps make the world a better place.
“Sports has a way of bringing people together,” he said. “You don’t really realize it till now when there’s absolutely no sports at all. It brings excitement. It brings happiness. It’s been a major hit.I think it will be huge if we can bring sports back. It would be beneficial for the entire world.”
And for the Pacers, win or lose.