Shoes to Fill


Today I have a tough question to answer. It’s about where I’m going to college.

Before that, real quick, I’ll get some easier questions out of the way.

Yes, Manute is my father.

I’m 7′ 1½”.

No, I’m probably not going to put on 50 pounds of muscle. I’ve been trying. Not happening.

I have no idea how many pairs of shoes I own. It’s a lot. (Size 14, by the way.)

That’s a good place to start, though — shoes. I’ve always been really into them. It goes way back. My dad passed away when I was 10. One of my favorite memories of him before he died involves a pair of LeBron 3s. I was six or seven, and we were at a Foot Locker in a mall in West Hartford, Connecticut.

They only had one pair of 3s left, and I wanted them — bad. I had to have them no matter what. So they brought the last pair out, and my dad helped me lace them up.

Bridget Bennett/The Players' Tribune (L)

Right away, he knew it and I knew it — they were way too small.

But I wasn’t about to let that stop me.

“You sure these fit?” my dad asked with a smile.

“Yep, they fit,” I said. “Definitely.”

I wore my LeBron 3s out of the store that day. I was so happy, even though my feet hurt because they were too small. My dad — he was happy, too. He was such a giving man. He just wanted the best for me.

I’ve been thinking about my dad these last few days, while I’ve been making my college decision. I wonder what he would have done if he was alive right now. What would have been the most important factors in choosing a college? What advice would he have given me? My father had a special NBA career. What would he want for my basketball career?

Here’s what I know. I know my dad would want me to represent my family well. I know he would want me to pursue my interests outside of basketball, like music, fashion and eventually, the humanitarian work that he began in Sudan.

Most of all, I know he’d want me to be my own person.

I have a lot of friends and family who care about me, and some of them have had advice about where I should go. One thing I take pride in is making sure I make my own decisions in life.

So with that, I should probably just tell you where I’m going instead of dragging it out.

Next year, I’ll be an Oregon Duck.

Bridget Bennett/The Players' Tribune

About a week after I made my official visit to Eugene, I knew that that was where I wanted to go.

Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a hard decision. It came down to Oregon and Kentucky — which is kind of funny that it was those two schools. Because when I was a kid, after my family moved to Kansas, everyone on my AAU teams and school teams was a Jayhawks fan. As someone who likes to do his own thing — and yeah, troll a little bit — I always rooted for Kentucky. In Kansas, cheering for the Wildcats is like against the law. So I started telling telling people that I was cheering for Kentucky because I wanted to go to school there. Then when I got older, as a recruit, I really liked how Coach Calipari went about developing young players. That speaks for itself. Kentucky had been in my mind my whole life, so it was a little mind-blowing to me that I was offered an opportunity to be a Wildcat.

Oregon was just the opposite, in a way. I didn’t know much about the school until I started getting recruited by Oregon’s assistant coach, Tony Stubblefield. And then later by Coach Altman. Before that, I knew they had a lot of jerseys, a lot of different shoe combinations, but that was about it. But it was really those first few meetings with Coach Stubblefield that impressed me the most. He was accessible. He got to know me. He was really real with me.

And he was honest about the fact that Oregon has never really gotten a top recruit when it was between the Kentuckys and Dukes. He didn’t shy away from that. What he did was lay out the vision they had for me.

I felt like the whole coaching staff knew my game — and I’m not just saying that. Both Coach Altman and Coach Stubblefield broke down why my style is a bit different from just any other big man. I’m tall (obviously), but I’m not my dad. He was a true big man, a guy who played in the paint and blocked shots. But I like to work from the perimeter. I like to put the ball on the floor. I get a lot of satisfaction from passing to someone who’s more open than me.

And throughout all those talks with the Oregon coaching staff about what they envisioned for me, they mentioned all those things.

They said my perimeter game was one of the things they were most excited about. They prepared film for me — some of it was of my AAU games and some of it was of old Oregon games. And I could picture myself in their offense. I could picture myself on that court, in their jerseys. I don’t know how else to explain it — I could just feel it. They made me believe it. Coach Altman even said that even though he wants me to get strong, he doesn’t expect me to gain more weight than is actually possible. It was one of those little things he said that made me feel like, I don’t know … like he got me.

Bill Alkofer/OC Register/ZUMA

During my official visit — it was on a recent weekend — we got to go into a room someone said was known as the Phil Knight room. It was this special room where they showcase all the new Oregon gear Nike is working on.

What I saw in there blew me away.

Shoes lined up on chairs. Custom Oregon colorway Jordans. Like 13 different jersey combinations. Nike stuff that hasn’t come out yet. Those Jordan 4 Oregon retros that LeBron was wearing recently — they had those in there. Rare ones. I was going crazy in there, man. For a kid obsessed with shoes, that was like heaven.

The last thing I loved about Oregon was that the university has one of the biggest social media brands in college sports. And if you follow me on IG, maybe you know that I’m really active on social media. I like to connect with people, have fun. It’s allowed me to meet so many new people and create so many experiences that have made my life more interesting — and also made the world feel smaller. I loved that Oregon and the athletics program want to have their own style and their own identity. I feel the same way.

Bridget Bennett/The Players' Tribune

I made my final decision to go to Oregon pretty recently. It was during a long car ride. I had made my official visit to Kentucky a few days before that. So I had a lot to think about. I was super stressed. Kentucky had been my dream school ever since I was a kid. I respect Coach Calipari a ton.

I had no idea what I was going to do. But then I calmed down and thought about it.

What team would be best for my unique game?

What school would provide opportunities around my sport that tapped into my passions?

And what school would give me the opportunity to reach the most people?

I thought about all that. And I thought a lot about my dad and what he might tell me right now. And when I broke it all down like that, I just knew.

So I’ll see you in Eugene. I bet they might even have a pair of LeBron 3s that finally fit me.

My dad, he would definitely smile at that.