Posted Apr 21 2012 11:25AM
In the last month, Norfolk State center Kyle O'Quinn, previously little known outside the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference he had dominated so thoroughly this season, has been whisked away on his own little magical mystery tour. The stops included the NCAA Tournament, where he personified March Madness, and the Portsmouth Invitational, where he was chosen MVP.
O'Quinn hasn't quite had time to wrap his head around what's been happening to him, and who could blame him? How could a guy who, only because he had sprouted to 6-foot-7 was basically forced to play basketball as a high school junior, go on to bask in that One Shining Moment all college basketball players dream about but few experience, and then three weeks later strengthen his chances of becoming an NBA Draft pick with his play in the PIT?
That question was posed of O'Quinn, an intelligent, well-spoken and funny person. It took him a few seconds before coming up with an answer.
"Staying on the same path," O'Quinn said. "Staying consistent. Never venturing off."
That path was more or less thrust upon him just before his junior year at Campus Magnet High School in Jamaica, N.Y. after he'd grown five inches over the summer.
"Basketball was something I walked in to," O'Quinn said. "It basically smacked me in the face. I was 6-7, and people were telling me, 'you've got to be ready to play because we're graduating our center. We need you.' "
That first season, O'Quinn logged a lot of bench time -- "This is what you drug me out here for?" O'Quinn recalls thinking -- but as a senior he was tossed into the fray. "I had two choices," O'Quinn said. "I was either gonna play, or just be that tall kid that misses layups and can't catch the ball."
Fortunately for O'Quinn, he had a foundation. He's quick to point out how fortunate he's been to have a support system in place, starting at home and continuing through college. Neither of his parents played basketball. All they knew about the game was that if their son wanted to play, they would provide every opportunity for him to be successful.
"They said, 'we're going to invest in you and get you what you need,' " O'Quinn said. "It was a family choice. No pressure, but if I was going to do it, my parents wanted me to put my best foot forward."
That was good advice, because basketball changed his life. O'Quinn eventually topped out at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds. College coaches weren't exactly beating down his door, but one day in 2007, Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans, like O'Quinn a native New Yorker, stumbled onto the big man while recruiting a point guard. Evans had wisely reasoned that the key to success at Norfolk State, which had struggled at the Division I level, was to recruit battled-hardened players from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Little did he realize how well that strategy would pay off.
"[O'Quinn] was 6-10," Evans said during the NCAA Tournament. "In the MEAC, you don't get that every day. We wanted a kid who wanted to be at Norfolk State who was looking for opportunity. And we saw the skill and potential in him."
Thus the second tier of O'Quinn's support system entered his life. The first thing Evans and his staff had to do was tamp down some of O'Quinn's natural, uh, enthusiasm.
"We wanted to rein him in a little bit," Evans said. "Because he wanted to be the class clown. You wanted to run practice and Kyle is telling jokes on the sideline or pouring water down somebody's back. Those things happened as a freshman."
Evans had help. The parents of one of O'Quinn's teammates, Antoine Perry, basically adopted the big man.
"I walked into their family," O'Quinn said, repeating a phrase he uses a lot, as though his life has been one long series of lucky breaks. "They treated me like a son from day one. And they didn't take no mess. I walked into another check point that helped me stay on that path."
By O'Quinn's sophomore season, he was second-team all-conference. As a junior, he moved up to the first team and was also chosen the MEAC's Defensive Player of the Year. This season O'Quinn was chosen MEAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He also won the Lou Henson Award, given to the nation's best mid-major player, and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) player-of-the-year award.
But all those honors paled in comparison to what O'Quinn and his teammates and coaches pulled off on the night of March 16. Behind O'Quinn's 26 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, Norfolk State, seeded 15th, knocked No. 2 seed Missouri out of the NCAA Tournament. It was the first 15 over 2 upset since 2001.
"That night really hasn't sunk in yet," O'Quinn said. "It felt so good ... being in that moment, being able to celebrate on the winning side of March Madness. It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling, and we got the full experience of actually winning a game. That feels a lot better than just going to the tournament."
The Spartans were themselves ousted two days later by Florida, but that win over Missouri had been their own Final Four. For O'Quinn, one night, one game, did more for his national profile than the four seasons he'd spent quietly turning himself into a player.
If the public wasn't aware O'Quinn could play, NBA scouts had an inkling. One day during O'Quinn's junior season, a professor Googled his name and came up with a story that listed the big man as an NBA prospect.
"My coaches had been telling me that scouts had been coming to see me play or had come by practice," O'Quinn said. "But seeing somebody writing about me, as an NBA prospect ... that's when I thought maybe this thing could work out."
O'Quinn jumped at the chance to become the first Norfolk State player to be invited to the PIT.
"Going into Portsmouth, my mindset was that I hope I get on a team that's a team," O'Quinn said. "I'm not an individual player. It's hard for me to play like that."
O'Quinn's wish was granted. Among his teammates were Georgetown's Henry Sims, one of the best passing big men in the country, Tennessee Tech's Kevin Murphy, a high scorer who knows how to give the ball up when he draws defensive attention, and Florida point guard Erving Walker, a fellow New Yorker.
"We knew each other, but had never crossed paths," O'Quinn said of Walker. "He's a great point guard. He got me a lot of touches, and he taught me some things on the court, things I hadn't learned. He's just a competitor and a good ball player. Playing on the same side with somebody that small [Walker is 5-foot-8] and with such a big heart, you have to step your level of play up."
Walker was equally happy to find that O'Quinn was on his side.
"It was good to have somebody who trusted me," Walker said. "When Kyle grabbed rebounds, he'd find me with the outlet pass. He was great to play with. And he's a great player.
"I've played against some good big men, and except for Anthony Davis, who was in a class by himself, Kyle's up there with the best of them."
O'Quinn and Walker's Portsmouth Sports Club team advanced to the PIT finals before losing. And after averaging 11.7 points, 11.7 boards and 3.6 blocks, O'Quinn earned MVP honors. Here was something that even the self-effacing O'Quinn couldn't say he'd walked in to.
O'Quinn's magical mystery tour will continue for the next couple of months heading into the NBA Draft. He's already lining up individual workouts. NBA general managers are going to love this guy when they sit him down for interviews. Consider how he begrudgingly describes his game.
"I think I'm a pretty good rebounder and a pretty good defender," O'Quinn said. "A presence in the paint. But my biggest plus is I haven't reached my peak. I have room to grow, and I'm willing to grow.
"I don't think what I've done so far has been that great. It's good for my university, which gave me the opportunity, but I still think I can do better. With the right teaching, the sky's the limit."
O'Quinn, who had only one Division I scholarship offer, knows all about what comes next. When it comes to draft day, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. If a single NBA team believes he can fill a need, the best is yet to come.
"That's something I realize from being at Norfolk State," he said. "All it takes is one."
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