Denton: Oladipo and Burke Share Special Bond

Burke and Oladipo

By John Denton
March 21, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY – In the afterglow of last June’s NBA Draft, after Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke had made appearances on TV and had been pulled around from various interviews to meet-and-greet sessions with fans, the two of them finally shared an embrace in an out-of-the-way hall.

Oladipo and Burke went to rival colleges and Burke was the player who beat Oladipo out for the Big 10 and National Player of the Year honors, so there should have been a healthy dose of dislike there between the two of them.

Actually, just the opposite couldn’t be truer. Even though Oladipo graduated from Indiana and Burke attended rival Michigan, the two have always shared a bond through their underdog status as basketball players. They were both vastly overlooked and under-recruited players coming out of high school, but they worked their way into becoming elite NBA prospects – albeit by occasionally beating up on one another.

So when Oladipo was picked No. 2 by the Magic and Burke was the ninth selection by Minnesota and later traded to Utah, the two of them finally found time to celebrate the culmination of their climb last June. Oladipo –the player with just one college scholarship offer – and Burke – the too-small point guard passed over by Ohio State even though he had grown up in Columbus, Ohio – had defied the odds together and made it to the highest level of basketball.

``He knows my story and I know his story and we have a mutual respect for one another,’’ Oladipo said on Friday. ``During the pre-draft process we didn’t work out against one another, but he was always there and I was always there, so we always interacted. He was somebody who I had played against for so long. He loves to compete like I do and he has a similar story, so it was easy for us to relate to one another.

``I finally saw him after the draft after we had done some commitments and I was able to congratulate him and he did the same to me,’’ Oladipo remembered. ``That guy is good. He is going to be just fine in this league.’’

Oladipo and Burke have justified their high selections in the NBA Draft, evolving into top rookies this season for their respective teams. Oladipo ranks second among rookies in scoring (13.8 ppg.), while Burke is third (12.7 ppg.). Burke is second in assists (5.4 apg.), while Oladipo is third (4.1 apg.). Both players have had 10 20-point games, and while Oladipo has had two 30-points performances, Burke’s one 30-point night came against Oladipo and the Magic on Dec. 18.

The two rookies have remained in contact this season through the occasional phone calls and the random texts when the other has a good game. They laugh because their close friendship and bond never fit the narrative of two guys from bitter rival schools who should have despised one another. Instead, they appreciate each other’s climb to the NBA and they are there for one another as a support system of sorts for one another.

``Me and Vic have got a really good relationship off the court,’’ Burke said recently. ``We had the opportunity to be around each other at The Wooden awards out in Los Angeles (last spring). That was great. He’s a hard worker and I had the opportunity to play against him the last two years. They made it a rivalry, but it’s always been fun playing against each other. We’re just two rookies going at it.’’

SIMILAR STORIES

As Oladipo and Burke were competing at Indiana and Michigan for two seasons, their respect for one another grew as they learned of each other’s story. Oladipo grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and many there doubted that he would ever get a college scholarship, much less play at the Division I level. But Indiana coach Tom Crean saw a work ethic and a drive to improve and offered him the scholarship that nearby schools such as Georgetown and Maryland refused to do.

As for Burke, he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, just miles away from the massive Ohio State campus. He was childhood friends with Jared Sullinger and the two teamed together to form one of the most powerful teams in Ohio. Their dream was to both play at Ohio State, just as close friends Greg Oden and Mike Conley had done years earlier.

However, while Sullinger went on to become a star at Ohio State, the Buckeyes instead opted to sign highly coveted point guard Shannon Scott out of Georgia instead of inking the small, but highly productive hometown hero in Burke.

Burke initially committed to Penn State, but backed out and ended up at Michigan after signing with the Wolverines just months before the start of the school year. Despite there being big concerns about Burke’s 5-foot-10 size, the signing proved to be a coup for the Wolverines.

Oladipo’s Hoosiers got the best of Burke’s Wolverines last season, winning twice – once to unseat top-ranked Michigan and another time to clinch a share of the Big 10 title. Burke had a 25-point night in Indiana last season, while Oladipo pumped in 14 points, 13 rebounds and three assists on Michigan’s home court late last season.

While Oladipo’s Indiana squad was unable to figure out Syracuse’s zone defense early in the NCAA Tournament, Burke led Michigan to the NCAA Championship Game. He had a poor first half because of foul trouble, but finished with 24 points as Michigan narrowly lost to Louisville. A Burke blocked shot that was incorrectly whistled as a foul was a turning point late in that game.

ORLANDO TIES

Burke’s first workout as a NBA Draft prospect was in Orlando. Returning to Central Florida earlier this year reminded him of that day going through drills in front of Magic coaches. He also competed in the Summer League in Orlando last July, and even though he played quite poorly, it motivated him to be ready for his rookie NBA season.

``Orlando is actually my first team that I worked out with. It feels like I was just here the other day, staying at the Grand Bohemian and that’s where I stayed for my workout as well. It brings back some memories,’’ Burke said in December. ``I only worked out with (the Magic) once and I got a chance to talk to them at the pre-draft. I know I had a pretty good workout (in Orlando).’’

The Magic ultimately went with Oladipo, and the rookie has had a first season filled with highs and lows as he’s made the adjustment to the NBA. He’s been used at both the shooting guard and point guard positions and he has shown signs of greatness throughout the season.

Sometimes, such as Wednesday in Phoenix, Oladipo has played well and played poorly in the same game. In the first half, he had 11 points and six assists and just one turnover in 16 minutes. However, he was trapped all over the floor by the Suns after intermission and he turned the ball over five times in a poor second half. Magic coach Jacque Vaughn hopes that the night taught Oladipo a valuable lesson.

``In this league, they get to know you extremely fast and coaches make adjustments throughout the course of the game,’’ Vaughn said. ``I think their ability to apply pressure was part of the reason (for Oladipo’s turnover problems). Again, it’s just about keeping things simple and making the simple play.’’

There was nothing simple about the route that Oladipo and Burk took to the NBA, but both are proud that they were able to overcome the odds and reach the highest level of the game simultaneously. Saturday night in Salt Lake City, they will go at each other hard just as they did in two years of college. Then, they will likely embrace one another and celebrate their underdog stories all over again. That, Burke said, will never get old.

``Vic’s a guy who is like me who wasn’t highly recruited and has had to prove himself the whole way,’’ Burke said. ``I’ll always have respect for a guy like him.’’