Photo Credit: Gallaudet Dance Company (left) and the Associated Press (right)
Photos of a basketball player donning a number 4 crimson and cream Indiana jersey adorn Kendra Oladipo’s room in the Living and Learning Residence Hall (LLRH6).
“That,” Kendra signed, pointing at the basketball player in the photos, “is my baby brother.”
As an Indiana native and a self-admitted lifelong Indiana University fan, not knowing the athlete clad in crimson and cream that Kendra was talking about would be an insult to the very essence of Hoosier Nation.
The same cannot be said for the rest of Gallaudet University.
“You see number 4 there?” I asked a group of friends, referring to the television in the Rathskellar playing the Indiana-Michigan State game. “That’s Victor Oladipo.”
“You know Kendra? That’s her brother,” I explained.
“You mean the former Bison with Attitude dancer? The RA at LLRH6?” my friend gaped. “Hot damn!”
Hot damn, indeed. Gallaudet may be the only place in the country where Kendra is the better-known Oladipo.
Kendra, 22, is a senior at Gallaudet, where she double-majors in communication studies and theatre. After losing her hearing at the age of eight, Kendra struggled early on to adapt to a world of silence, learning American Sign Language and searching for her place in the world. In a span of eight years, she went from being “the deaf girl” at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Waldorf, Maryland, to a Shakespeare-loving dance-aholic with aspirations of opening a school of dance and theatre for deaf children.
And then there’s her younger brother Victor, who—with all the publicity he’s getting these days—has no problem knowing that somewhere he’s just “Kendra’s brother.”
“Kendra is my big sister and I love her,” Victor said in an exclusive interview with The Buff and Blue. “She’s one of the strongest people I know.”
Victor, 20, is a junior guard for the nationally ranked (No.3), Big Ten Champion Indiana University men’s basketball team, which many consider to be the most complete team in the country and the odds-on-favorite to capture this year’s NCAA title. But the Indiana story is one thing. Victor’s is another.
Victor went from being an overlooked, 54th-ranked shooting guard of the 2010 high school recruiting class to a bona fide star pundits are placing atop the National Player of the Year race. Last November, Victor was ranked No. 110 on Chad Ford’s NBA draft board on ESPN.com. Right now he’s at No. 6 and rising, and there’s a growing sentiment that he’s a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick.
“Never allow the things said of you ultimately define you,” Kendra said.
For Kendra and Victor Oladipo, that couldn’t be truer. And so begins the story of two siblings divided by language and culture but forever connected by the way their lives have been shaped by each other.
The Early Years
Chris and Joan Oladipo immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in the early 1980s to begin anew and provide a life of opportunities for the family they intended to start.
First came Kristine, then Kendra, and twenty months later the twins Victor and Victoria. Being close in age, Kendra, Victor, and Victoria immediately became an inseparable three.
“We did everything together,” Kendra said.
But when Kendra was eight years old, the lives of the Oladipos took an unexpected turn. Kendra became severely ill, and although she was able to recover, her hearing did not.
“It was very difficult for my family to accept,” Kendra explained. “I became more distant. It was so much harder for me to express myself and relate with them [her family] in terms of everyday stuff.” But despite this, Victor and Kendra never stopped looking out for each other.
“He’s the only brother [in the family] so it’s only natural that he wants to protect his sisters, especially me.”
“But he’s also my kid brother,” she emphasized, “So whether he likes it or not, I’ll always be looking out for him.”
While Victoria is usually relegated the duty of being the family critic (she relentlessly dogs Victor), Kendra has enjoyed being a source of reinforcement.
“No drugs, no drinking,” Kendra counted with her fingers. “Be humble, always remember your roots. I’ll preach, and he’ll [Victor] just smile and nod.”
Them Versus the World
While Kendra was still searching for her place in the world, Victor was quickly growing into a basketball prodigy.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘One day he was this 5’5” munchkin, and the next he’s a foot taller,” Kendra chuckled, referring to her 6’5” brother. “I’d say to him, ‘Boy, how did you get up there?’”
Kendra recalled the summer after Victor’s freshman year in high school. He was competing on the AAU circuit, looking to make a name for himself before a freak accident left him with a broken ankle, sidelining him for the rest of the summer.
“He was really upset,” she said. “He had been on a basketball team for as long as I can remember, and the fact that he was forced to sit out was killing him inside. Not that he needed reminding—I don’t know anyone who works harder than Victor—but I kept telling him to keep his eyes on the prize.”
But what Kendra had yet to realize is how much of an influence she has on her brother. When asked about his outstanding work ethic, which is arguably his most talked about attribute, Victor pointed to his big sister.
“I’ve learned so many lessons from her,” Victor explained. “But the biggest one is that you can go through adversity and still be able to live your life. My sister wasn’t born deaf and she had to change her lifestyle drastically to keep pursuing her dreams. That keeps me going. She’s why I believe I can get through anything.”
On paper, they may not appear to have much in common, but don’t let that fool you. When asked if she and her brother had any similarities, Kendra put on a face that read “you betcha.”
“First of all, I’m stubborn,” she said.
“Oh yes!” Kendra signed enthusiastically, her eyebrows raised.
“In a sense, we both have come a long way in terms of proving doubters wrong and tuning out the naysayers,” she added.
True, but exactly how true? Consider this:
Kendra, at age 8 (after losing her hearing): She’ll never be able to communicate. She learned ASL.
Kendra, at age 12: She’ll never be able to get her high school diploma. She ended up being one of over 600 graduates of the Eleanor Roosevelt High School Class of 2008.
Kendra, at age 18: She’ll never really fit in. She’s among the visible students at Gallaudet University.
And Victor, at age 14: He’ll be fortunate to garner interest from mid-major schools. He eventually signed with Indiana University.
Victor, at age 19: He’ll never be a go-to-guy for a Big Ten team. He’s arguably the Hoosiers’ MVP this season and not to mention a front-runner for the Naismith (National Player of the Year) Trophy.
Victor, at age 20, merely six months ago: He’ll be lucky to be drafted. He’s a projected pick in this June’s NBA draft and has the basketball world raving, with ESPN’s Dick Vitale going so far as to compare him to—no, this isn’t a typo—Michael Jordan.
So, what does Kendra have to say to the doubters now?
“Up yours?” Kendra guessed, laughing.
The Shaping of Two Futures
Overcoming deafness in itself is Kendra’s naysayer-squashing story, but as she prepared to make the transition from high school to college, her journey continued.
“[After graduating high school] I took a year off, so Victor and I ended up looking at colleges at the same time,” Kendra said.
She found out about Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s only institution of higher education that provides programs and services for deaf and hard of hearing students. Initially, Kendra was encouraged to consider other local colleges, but after a talk with Victor, she knew Gallaudet was where she wanted to go. “Do what you feel is best for you,” Victor told Kendra.
“Gallaudet was the best place for me to continue my journey,” Kendra concluded. “I just knew.”
Coincidentally, Victor had a decision of his own to make. After Victor was recruited by a number of high-profile schools, including hometown favorite University of Maryland, there was some pressure from the family-oriented Oladipos for Victor to stay close to home.
“‘Stick to the script,’ I told him,” Kendra recalled. “Do what you feel is best for you.”
After a weekend visit to Indiana in September of 2009, Victor made his choice. “I just felt [Indiana] was my home,” he said. “It was the place for me.”
So began the next chapter in their lives.
When she arrived at Gallaudet, Kendra initially wanted to major in theatre, but her parents were skeptical.
“My mom’s a nurse and my dad has a Ph.D.,” Kendra said. “So, to them, theatre isn’t exactly an ideal career path.”
So Kendra went to Victor and explained that despite her theatre aspirations, she would start looking at other majors. Victor urged her to reconsider.
“He encouraged me to try it, so I changed my mind and took a couple of theatre courses one semester,” she recollected with a smile, “and I absolutely loved it.”
While this has led to Kendra’s newfound dreams of exposing young deaf children to a world of dance and theatre, Victor has dreams of his own.
“He always wanted to make it to the NBA,” Kendra said. “That’s been his dream since day one.”
A year ago, Victor’s NBA hopes were considered by many to be farfetched. His offensive game was too raw. His jump shot was nonexistent. A scout said that at best, with extra work in the gym, Victor could only be an “above-average” player in the Big 10.
One has to wonder if there was ever a point where Victor lost hope. If you’re thinking “yes,” guess again, and Kendra’s a major reason why.
“One moment that’s really special to me was when I watched [Kendra] graduate from high school. I remember how happy she was,” Victor said. “She was so happy; with all the trials and tribulations she endured, it was as if she proved everyone wrong, made it through all the tough times, and still came out on top.”
To this, Kendra could do nothing but shake her head, stare at the photo of Victor in her room, and allow her 100-watt smile to speak for itself. “Soon, it’ll be his turn to come out on top and experience that happiness.”
The Ultimate Silver Lining
Kendra’s deafness brought upon the Oladipo family unforeseen challenges, especially communication. She explained that when with her family, she resorts to speaking and lip-reading, all while wearing a look of disdain.
“It’s just not accessible for me,” Kendra said of oral communication. “There’s so much information I miss.” Instead, her language of choice is American Sign Language, which she said gives her unlimited communication access. “When I’m around people using ASL, I don’t miss a beat,” she said.
Yet, for many years, none of her family members knew ASL. Not anymore. With the help of sign language courses at Indiana University, Victor has committed to changing this.
“He signs now!” Kendra beamed. “They [her family] all have said they want to learn [ASL]—my mom would trade the world to learn my language—but Victor’s the only one who’s done it.”
And as a result, Kendra and Victor are closer than ever.
“My relationship with [Kendra] has grown strong, especially over the past few years,” Victor affirmed.
Kendra, who communicates with Victor frequently via text messaging, said she especially enjoys the light-hearted moments they share, and she relived such an instance from earlier this year.
“Victor hurt his eye during the Northwestern game last January and had to wear a patch afterwards,” she explained. “So I texted him asking if he was okay. He said, ‘Yes,’ and that the patch was only precautionary. I was glad, but I urged Victor to wear [the patch] for as long as possible.”
“To keep all them hoochies away!” she laughed, ever the big sister. “Who would want to date a one-eyed basketball player?”
Kendra’s laugh soon turned into a look of sincerity. She briefly paused, then began, “I guess that’s why those moments are my favorite. My deafness? His newfound stardom? They both cease to exist,” she explained, “And for a fleeting moment, we’re just Kendra and Victor.”
So when the scouts come calling, looking to weigh and measure every intangible they can muster in attempt to discern between the legitimate prospects and the likely busts, they should remember Victor Oladipo.
There have been life-long blue chippers, those who have had red carpets rolled out for them before they’ve even hit puberty. There have been can’t-miss prep stars driving Hummers and signing lucrative endorsement deals before logging a single second at the professional level. More often than not, these players come with “character issues”—excess baggage that include drugs, criminal records, or the tendency to be affiliated with “shady” people.
Don’t count Victor Oladipo among them.
“Mom always talks about the consequences of playing pro sports, about how at that level there are no rules,” Kendra said. “There may not be rules, but for Victor there will be. He’ll make his own.”
And finally, embedded within Victor is a commodity so rare nowadays in professional sports that it’s become somewhat of a myth: Humility.
“[Kendra’s] deafness has humbled me to the point where I’ll never take things for granted,” Victor said candidly. “She has helped me understand that if I believe and have God on my side, there is nothing I can’t do or accomplish.”
In the end, the reason for these admirable character attributes traces back to Victor’s roots—his strong Christian upbringing, his family influence, and Kendra.
“Not a lot of what people could have gone through what she did and still have a smile on their faces,” Victor said, adding that he has nothing but admiration for his sister. “It was hard [for all of us] at times; [I remember] her wanting to be ‘normal’ so badly that she was willing to do anything, but she soon realized she couldn’t.”
“She’s beautiful just the way she is,” Victor concluded. “She has become a true inspiration in my life and is a major reason I wake up and work hard everyday.”
The basketball player donning a number 4 crimson and cream Indiana jersey in the photos in Kendra Oladipo’s dorm room has already been named first-team All-Big Ten and conference Defensive Player of the Year. Today he was chosen as the Sporting News National Player of the Year, and over the next several weeks, he might have a lot of other names. One might be All-American, or even the Wooden Award winner. Another might be National Champion, and in June, perhaps NBA lottery pick.
None of it means much to Kendra Oladipo.
“Victor may be a superstar. He’ll probably get drafted, sign a mega shoe contract, even,” Kendra said, rolling her eyes. “That’s nice and all, but at the end of the day, he’ll always be my little brother, and that’s the only thing that matters.”