Ever since the very first time I heard him speak, during an interview at his first Hoosier Hysteria event back in 2010, I thought Victor Oladipo had a chance to one day become an all-time favorite of mine.
I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember feeling such a genuine excitement about being Bloomington – my beloved Bloomington – coming from this East Coast kid with the big smile and bigger personality. And I remember feeling a sense of humility from him that, in conjunction with his clear confidence and self-absurdness, I thought would bode well for his development.
Of course, based on the scouting reports of him coming out of high school – great athlete but limited skill – I wasn’t sure if I should expect anything more than Steve Hart 2.0.
Fast forward to February 19th, 2013.
Victor Oladipo is not only the clear leader of the clear #1 team in America, he is among the small handful of candidates with a legitimate shot at being named National Player of the Year. He is also a likely top 10 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, which he will almost assuredly be a part of, seeing as how his Hoosiers are poised to achieve so many lofty team goals this season and he will already have graduated at the end of this, his third year on campus.
Furthermore, on a personal level, Victor has not only become a candidate for inclusion in my personal Mount Rushmore of IU Hoops, he has become the clear-cut #2 and the only player in the last 20 years of IU basketball that has ever made me question who my favorite Hoosier of all-time is.
That is how much Victor Oladipo has meant to the resurgence of IU basketball over the last three seasons. Something tells me a similar Mount Rushmore reshuffling is going on across Hoosier Nation.
Here is my reshuffled Mount Rushmore of IU Hoops:
Honorable Mention: A.J. Guyton, Brian Evans, Damon Bailey, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, D.J. White, Tom Coverdale, Alan Henderson
#4: Greg Graham
Like Oladipo, Greg Graham improved immensely during his four years at Indiana, culminating with some of the most spectacular player from an IU guard I’ve ever seen during the second half of the Big Ten season his senior year.
Graham and Calbert Cheaney (more on him in a bit) arrived in Bloomington together, at a time that coincided with me usurping my mom for season ticket privileges with my dad. I saw every home game these two played. I was also at an elementary school event where the two spoke, and Graham told the funny story of how he always ended up signing Calbert’s name because people got them confused.
Our sports heroes always seem a little bigger, a little better, and a little more pure when we’re younger. That’s why Graham hangs on to the #4 spot.
#3: A.J. Moye
In the same recruiting class as the much-heralded Jared Jeffries, Moye was still the one whose appearance on campus (which coincided with my own time as a student at IU) I anticipated the most. I remember reading quotes from the Atlanta kid from his senior year in high school about how excited he was to play for Coach Knight. There was a toughness and a confidence that emanated from his words, and boy did he ever live up to them once he arrived.
Chants of “A-J Moy-yay!” were ubiquitous at Assembly Hall during A.J.’s time. And, of course, who can forget his block of Carlos Boozer, one those moments right below The Wat Shot in the lore of IU basketball. Those three weeks in 2002, when the Hoosiers made their improbable run to the title game, were three of the most memorable weeks I had at Indiana, and A.J. was in the center of it all.
He is one of the toughest, grittiest, most badass players ever to wear the Cream & Crimson. I never thought anyone could bump him from #2. But, to quote Eammon Brennan, then Victor Oladipo happened.
#2: Victor Oladipo
What else can I say about Victor that hasn’t been said? Let me try, because this may sum him up the best: Victor has the soul of an Indiana ballplayer inside the body of one who grew up in Maryland.
People who don’t watch IU on a regular basis see the athleticism, they hear the MJ/Dwyane Wade comparisons, they see the highlight film dunks. What they may not know is that Victor is every bit the gym rat a guy like Jordan Hulls is, if not more. What they may not know is that Victor’s intelligence, which stems from endless film study, is every bit as important to his game as his athleticism.
What truly separates Victor, and what has taken this IU team to the next level, is his toughness, heart, and smarts. And his timing too. Victor may only score 13+ points per game, but they always seem to be important points. He just has a knack for making a big play when his team needs it most.
And he’s a great kid too by all accounts. Earlier this year, Tom Crean recounted the story of how Victor used his time off around Thanksgiving to fly home and give back to his community (passing out turkeys, I think).
When Victor gets his named called in this year’s draft, that team will immediately become my favorite NBA team. Here’s hoping Mark Cuban makes him a Maverick, so I can follow Vic from up close here in Dallas. There is no telling just how special his NBA career will end up being. But just like his college career has turned into something special when few thought it would, so too will his career as a pro. Because Victor is special, as a player and a person. That is why he so beloved by everyone who follows IU hoops.
#1: Calbert Cheaney
I thought about it. I really did. And I wonder…if this year’s Hoosiers end up winning the Big Ten and hanging Banner #6, which would surely involve many more moments of Victor being Victor, could my mind change? Could I possibly have a new #1? Maybe. (But probably not.)
For now, and likely forever, the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer remains my favorite Hoosier ever.
There is just a certain connection you have with a guy when you spent so much of your childhood in your driveway pretending to be him. And even though I wasn’t a lefty, I always wore #40 and I always wanted to be Calbert. (As much as I love Victor, I haven’t been going over to Lifetime, now in my 30s, and playing pretend games with myself pretending to be him.)
That Calbert is now back with IU basketball just makes the team’s current success all the more special for me, and I know for so many other Hoosiers fans. Like Victor, Calbert was and is a class guy who played the game the right way and who had a knack for spectacular and clutch moments.
Watching that 1992-93 team in Assembly Hall remains my most beloved sports memory. I never thought another team could compete with the adoration I had for that group of Hoosiers. But last year’s team came close, and this year’s team is coming even closer. They share a togetherness and a balance that is so rare and so special.
Now I just hope the ’12-’13 Hoosiers can do what the ’92-’93 Hoosiers could not: win it all.
You bet against Victor Oladipo at your own risk.
So there is my personal Mount Rushmore of IU Hoops. Who is on yours? Comments encouraged below.