Denton: O'Quinn's Father Proud to Watch His Son Flourish at Madison Square Garden

By John Denton
March 21, 2013

NEW YORK – Decked out in his blue No. 2 Kyle O’Quinn jersey and his black Orlando Magic hat, Tommie O’Quinn beamed with the pride of a proud parent as his son recorded several career highs in the same famous arena where the two of them used to come and watch NBA games a decade ago.

Then, like a flash of lightening, the incredible symmetry of what was transpiring Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden and what incredibly happened almost a year ago this week, hit the older O’Quinn.

``I didn’t know how to feel with him out there playing so well, but it made me think about Omaha, Nebraska, all over again,’’ Tommie O’Quinn said, referring to his son’s big moment in the NCAA Tournament last March. ``He got that double-double out there tonight against the (New York) Knicks and I just thought to myself, `There’s no stopping this kid.’

``Some fan, who was from Kansas, asked me after the game how I felt with the way Kyle played and I told him, `It’s like the bucket is full for us right now because I can’t believe what Kyle has accomplished,’’ Tommie continued to marvel, while shaking his head in amazement. ``Tonight is almost exactly a year later (from the 2012 NCAA Tournament) and it’s a reminder of what Kyle did in college. I tell you, I have to give it up to him because he’s accomplished so much.’’

What the younger O’Quinn did a year ago was help tiny Norfolk State pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Tournament. That moment propelled the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center into becoming a NBA prospect – an opportunity he has made the most of in a variety of ways.

Now a valuable piece of the Magic’s rotation, O’Quinn returned Wednesday night to the arena where he witnessed his first NBA game. And much like his NCAA performance a year ago this week, O’Quinn played the game of his NBA life by registering career highs in points (12), rebounds (14) and assists (four).

The fact that O’Quinn keeps overcoming the sometimes monumental odds stacked against him is no coincidence, Tommie stressed. Kyle didn’t start playing basketball until high school, but still earned a college scholarship. He played for one of the Davids of college basketball – 15th-seeded Norfolk State – and he almost single-handedly helped the Spartans fell a Goliath in second-seeded Missouri. And he took that performance of a lifetime and ultimately parlayed it into a NBA career.

Still somewhat in disbelief of all that his son has accomplished, Tommie stood in the stands at Madison Square Garden late Wednesday night and tried to process it all. ``Kyle’s just a fighter and a guy who goes to work every day,’’ Tommie said. ``He works throughout every game. It’s been proven so far that if you give him a few minutes, he’s going to give you a few points and a few rebounds. You give him more and he’ll give you more. He’s always been determined like that, from when he was a kid on up to now. He’s such a hard worker and it’s paying off for him.’’

O’Quinn, a rookie, has carved out a niche in the Magic’s rotation by earning the respect and trust of head coach Jacque Vaughn and of his teammates. They love that he asks important questions during film sessions, how he relentlessly works in practice drills and how he never stops going after rebounds and blocked shots in games. O’Quinn said it’s the only way he knows how to play and he’s not about to stray from that style considering all that it’s helped him achieve.

``These are the moments that are going to make me better down the line,’’ O’Quinn said. ``The coaches have the confidence in me to be in there in big games. Moments like this tell me that I’m here for a reason.’’

The reason O’Quinn is here is because NBA types feel that he has the right mix of physical tools and worth ethic to eventually become a steady stopper on defense and a knock-down jump shooter. O’Quinn has already shown the Magic that he has the toughness to guard centers and the lateral quickness to stay with power forwards. And what he doesn’t know, he’s made himself into a willing learner.

``Kyle has done a good job of staying ready and playing hard. When he makes mistakes, he gets through them by learning,’’ said Magic captain Jameer Nelson, who has taken O’Quinn under his wing and tried to teach him the ropes of playing in the NBA. ``And when he doesn’t know something he asks good questions. He really wants to get better and learn, and it shows.’’

That was never more apparent than Wednesday in New York when he tirelessly chased down five offensive boards, drilled a couple of face-up jump shots and once dished a no-look pass to fellow rookie Maurice Harkless for a dunk. He says that after some early struggles that the NBA game has finally slowed down for him and that his teammates can now count on him to make the right plays.

``I don’t want to say I (fully) know what to do, but you’re more comfortable doing the things you are good at,’’ O’Quinn said. ``Coach (Vaughn) has allowed me to get out there and trusted me on the court. That just shows improvement right there, so it gives you a comfort level.’’

There was little reason to be comfortable last spring when O’Quinn – the MEAC Player of the Year – took his Norfolk State team into the NCAA Tournament against heavily favored Missouri. He said that he played with the attitude that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And that’s just what he did by scoring 26 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the 86-84 first-round stunner.

``You have to play like that’s your last game and you just have to go out there and try to have fun,’’ O’Quinn remembered. ``The odds are really against you and it took a lot for us to win that game. The crowd was against us, everybody was against us, and it just took a lot for us to win that game.

``On paper it looked like you can take any team down and you look at them on film and think you can stop them,’’ O’Quinn continued. ``But when you are going against (a No. 2 seed) you realize that they are the No. 2 team for a reason. There’s only so much confidence that you can have before the game when you are going up against a strong team like that.’’

As it turns out, O’Quinn was plenty strong enough, and that opened the eyes of NBA scouts. O’Quinn’s performance got him invited to the Portsmith Invitational event for NBA prospects and he emerged as the MVP of that talent pool. That helped him become a second-round draft pick of the Magic. He earned a guaranteed contract with more strong play in the summer league. And he still wonders now where he would be had he not played the game of his life in the first round of the NCAAs almost a year ago.

``It did a lot for me and it made people want to see a lot more of me,’’ O’Quinn said. ``It gave me a lot more opportunities.’’

Playing in the NBA has allowed O’Quinn more opportunities to fulfill his lifelong passion of helping disadvantaged children. He was active in the Norfolk, Va., community while in college and that work has carried over to Orlando where he’s worked to become a role model. Just last week, O’Quinn interacted with children from Orlando’s Hungerford Elementary School and took part in a meal program that will feed approximately 13,500 students on weekends when they don’t have access to school cafeterias.

``Making a difference in kids’ lives has always been one of the biggest things for me. I don’t want to say that playing in the NBA wasn’t one of my dreams, but I knew if I ever made it on a platform like this, I wanted to try to make a difference,’’ he said. ``It’s easier to be heard, it’s easier to help when you are a NBA player. When you have this platform you can help people. Kids love being around NBA players, and it’s a blessing for me to be in this spot. I want to take full advantage of it.’’

As he reveled in the afterglow of his son’s dazzling performance on Wednesday against the once-beloved Knicks, Tommie was informed by Kyle of another measure of how their basketball lives have come full circle. Much like when Kyle was piling up career-best numbers earlier in the night against the Knicks, Tommie just shook his head in amazement.

``Kyle made me aware of this when he said, ``Daddy, do you remember who the Knicks played the first time I ever came to a NBA game here?’’’ Tommy recalled. ``I told him I didn’t know and he said, `It was the Orlando Magic.’ And now I’m looking down there on that court seeing Kyle play for the Magic against the Knicks. It’s really all pretty amazing when you think about it.’’

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