KRAVITZ: The Oladipo-Indianapolis love affair reaches a new level – with no end in sight

Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson (8) drives on Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Bob Kravitz

CLEVELAND (WTHR) - In less than one season, Victor Oladipo has embraced Indianapolis, and been embraced by Indianapolis, in a way Paul George never experienced and never could have imagined. Sure, it helped that Oladipo went to school at Indiana University, that he developed from an afterthought recruit into a college Player of the Year while in Bloomington, but it has gone far beyond all of that. Indy looooves Oladipo – for his play, for his relentless energy, for his personality and maybe even his singing voice. And Oladipo, who came here in the widely-panned George trade that included Domantas Sabonis, looooves Indy for all of its small-city charms.

Here is part of what Oladipo wrote – OK, he talked and somebody else ghost-wrote it – in the most recent Players Tribune:

“Maybe you’ve never been to Indiana. Or maybe you’ve just visited once or twice. Never even really thought about it. It’s a flyover state, right? One that’s easy to glance over on a map.

“And I bet that when you heard about the Thunder-Pacers trade, you were thinking about Paul George. Domas (Sabonis) and I – we were a package deal, traded for the second time in a year, going to a non-contender in a flyover state.

“We know what it feels like to be overlooked.

“And so do a lot of guys on our team. And a lot of people in our arena. We know what it feels like when somebody gives up on you."

I’m not going to compare and contrast George and Oladipo to any great extent except to say this: I always felt like George, who now calls himself “Playoff P,’’ saw himself as being too big for our smallish city. I always felt like he was more Hollywood than Zionsville, that he was more concerned with having his own shoe and being a national corporate spokesman than he was with being an integral part of our community. Maybe that’s fair and maybe that’s unfair, but that’s always been my sense.

I get a completely different vibe from Oladipo, although he is just now getting his first taste of stardom (and yes, fame can change a person). But when he points to the floor after a big shot, screams, “This is my city" to the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, you feel like you can believe him. This is the area where Oladipo became a college star, and now it’s the place where he’s becoming a star, with a chance to earn superstardom down the road. There is a connection, one I never quite sensed with George and the city of Indianapolis.

Crazy thing: When George failed to qualify for a max contract, the Pacers organization and their fans were deeply disappointed, frustrated that the media had the power to alter the trajectory of a franchise while knowing it might open the door for George’s exit. Now, it appears it was the best thing ever to happen to this team. Whether George remains in Oklahoma City or not – he won’t, right? – the Pacers won this trade, and would have won it if it was a one-for-one trade, Oladipo-for-George. Now throw in Sabonis and the fact those two players will be Pacers’ centerpieces for years to come, and it’s complete larceny.

No question, Oladipo took a star turn Sunday, showing the country on national TV what kind of player he’s been all season and will no doubt continue to be. He was the best player on the court on a day when LeBron James shared the floor, finishing with 32 points in 37 minutes, adding six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Yes, James had a triple-double, but it was the most passive and ineffectual triple-double you’ve ever seen, which probably says something about James’ greatness. I mean, we’re diminishing the quality of his latest playoff triple-double, right?

After Sunday’s game, a reporter asked Oladipo about an old comment made by the Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert, who was frustrated about his team’s failure to work a three-team trade with Denver and Indiana to secure George for the Cavs. Indiana would have received Indy natives Gary Harris, Trey Lyles and a low draft choice.

“I will say that Indiana could have done better than it did,’’ Gilbert said after Kevin Pritchard pulled the trigger on the OKC trade this summer.

Oladipo shook his head.

“I already had fuel,’’ he said quietly. “You could say it added fuel to the fire…That was so long ago. It came up recently because we’re playing the Cavs in the series. I’m aware of what he said. Can’t control his opinion. All I’m focused on is myself and becoming the best Victor Oladipo possible."

Oladipo has always had the motivational juice, having developed from a hyperactive but underdeveloped high school in the D.C. area to a College Player of the Year to an NBA All-Star. Does he use slights, both real and imagined, to fire himself? Sure he does (although he says he goes on a social-media blackout during the post-season). But it goes deeper than that, much deeper, as I found out before Monday’s practice when I asked him this question:

“What inspires you?" I wondered. “And are the things that inspire you now the same things that inspired you when you were younger?"

“I don’t think it’s changed – trying to be the best, that’s what inspires me," he said. “I wake up every morning and chase greatness. I want to be the best at this game. That’s how much love I have for this game. I’m truly in love with it. When you love something, words can’t really describe why; you just know you’re in love with it. I’ve been in love with the game since I was 5-years-old and my motivations has always been to be the best at it."

I asked, “What do you love most about it?"

Oladipo: “Guys say it all the time, but it truly has saved my life. I mean, it’s been my confidante, it’s something I could always go to. It’s always the same: Two baskets, always 10 players, one team trying to be the other team. There’s one goal and that’s to win."

Now my antennae were up.

“How did it save your life?" I asked him.

“Because I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t playing basketball," he said. “Maybe an engineer, maybe a doctor, but basketball opened up everything for me. It taught me how to speak to people, how to be a gentleman and a scholar, taught me the value of leadership, the value of teamwork. It teaches you how to be a man almost."

In the Pacers, Oladipo found a home. And in Nate McMillan, he found an inspirational touchstone. McMillan acknowledged Monday he didn’t know a whole lot about Oladipo when the trade was made last summer, but during preseason conversations, he made it clear to him that he needed to stop being a nice guy and acquire more of a (bleep)-you attitude.

Asked what McMillan has meant to him, Oladipo said, “Words can’t really describe that. Nate has believed in me since I got traded to the Pacers. The first conversation I had with Nate was how he believed in me and how he was going to expect a lot out of me and my role will be different with this team and they would ask me to do a lot. My entire career, no one had done that. It was great, man. He believed in me since Day One and I trust him, he trusts me and we just have to continue getting better and blossoming our relationship off the court."

As much as Oladipo has grown this year, there’s also been remarkable growth within the season. After the All-Star break, opponents began throwing two defenders at him in the high pick-and-roll, began forcing the ball out of his hands, and his statistics took a mild dip. But here were the Cavaliers Sunday, doing that very same thing, and after two early Oladipo turnovers, he made them pay time and time again with timely passes or by splitting the double team.

That’s what great players do: They adjust to the way teams adjust to them.

Oladipo is a star, and in time, he will enter the realm of greatness. His game will not stop growing. Nor will the relationship between him and his new city. This love affair, it’s just beginning.

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