You know something’s up when your mom is calling you by your full name.
“Victor. What is going on?”
“I don’t know, Ma. I really don’t.”
It was last June. I had just landed in Baltimore from OKC and my phone went crazy when I turned it on. I knew the Pacers trade was real, but seeing it everywhere online really made it set in. Even the positive comments were getting under my skin. I was sitting there like, do they mean “locker room guy” as a compliment?
You know, you always hear the expression about sports being a business. But it’s also life. I’d been through a trade less than a year before that, from Orlando, and so in that moment it was hard not to take it personal — two teams for whatever reasons seemed like they’d given up on me. That’ll hurt your feelings, doesn’t matter who you are or how much you believe in yourself. So when my mom was wondering why teams kept moving me … I didn’t really know what to say. I couldn’t just tell her it was a “basketball decision.”
Doma was my next text. Had to be. Doma is Domantas Sabonis. That’s my guy. He was really the only person who was going to understand.
We’d done this before. Doma was in the trade to the Pacers with me, but we’d also been together since pretty much the moment he got drafted by the Magic in 2016. We got traded together to OKC. Now to Indy. So I knew Doma wouldn’t want me to sugarcoat anything, but I had to check in with him — let him know what I was thinking. I texted him what I knew was true:
I promise, if you win here in Indiana, they’ll embrace you like no other.
I felt a little better right away. I called my mom back and told her everything was going to be all right. I really believed it, too. I couldn’t have told you exactly how it was gonna work out or how we’d get there, but I knew. I just knew. Because I knew that not every trade is the same, just like not every state is the same.
And I knew this wasn’t just any trade. It was the Pacers. It was Indiana, and I knew Indiana.
I wasn’t going to just another team. I was coming home.
I got to Bloomington, Indiana in 2010. Coming out of high school in Maryland, I chose Indiana because of the program’s history, but really I had no idea how serious people in Indiana took basketball. I think even right now very few people outside of Indiana recognize how much basketball means to the state. There’s a basketball hoop in every driveway. It’s all Hoosiers and Pacers flags. And a big high school game pretty much shuts an entire community down.
And when you’re on the IU team, they know. Like, they really make a point to get to know you.
But it was funny, nobody knew how to pronounce my name when I first got to Indiana. I remember the first week of classes freshman year, I had to go through the same conversation with every teacher.
Oh-la-DIppo, Oh-la-DYE-poe, Oh-la-PEE-do. And every variation in between.
Other than that, my name didn’t get said very much by anybody freshman year. When I arrived on campus in the summer — they had just opened up Cook Hall — I was getting shots up in the gym by myself when this dude on his way out stopped to talk to me. Didn’t know who he was. It was late at night so I worried I wasn’t supposed to be in there.
“What are you doing here so late?”
“Gotta be in here every night if I want to play in the NBA.”
That’s what I told him.
“Man,” he shook his head. “NBA? You got a long way to go.” And then he kept shaking his head and just walked out!
But for real, I had some confidence issues early on. I remember even months after that, when I had been training all summer, on the first day of practice Verdell Jones came in and tore me apart. He scored on me at will, and I couldn’t get anything going on him offensively. I sat down on the bench after practice in shock. I had tears in my eyes, literally. I had worked hard all offseason, and it looked like it was all for nothing.
Then it happened again the next day. Like an exact repeat of the day before. The thought crossed my mind that I was never going to be good enough to play college ball. Maybe that would be the last anyone heard of Victor Ooh-lay-PEE-do.
I got a few starts late my freshman season. By the time sophomore year rolled around, I was a starter. I wasn’t a national name … but man, they were getting to know me in Indiana.
And it wasn’t like they just knew how to pronounce my name. No, they knew me everywhere in Bloomington. For my 8 a.m. class every morning I’d have to wear headphones from the time I went out the door to the time I sat down at my desk, just so I wouldn’t be late because of all the people who would come up and try to talk to me. I wouldn’t even be playing music most of the time, so I could hear people whispering my name.
I wanted to talk to everybody. I really did. It was a thrill to be known like that. Every time somebody said my name or pointed me out, it made me want to work that much harder and be that much better the next time I stepped on the court.
Those three years in Bloomington were just — they changed me. Yeah, I became a better basketball player, but it was also the first time I saw an entire community be so passionate about a single thing. About a game we were playing. I learned that interacting — even just taking the time to stop and talk once in a while with the community — can actually change people’s entire outlook on life.
I learned that basketball can help you be a part of something bigger than yourself.
I ended leaving for the NBA after my third year at IU but I’d gotten enough credits to get my degree a year early. After the commencement ceremony was over for our graduating class, that guy from the first day in the gym tapped me on the shoulder. He asked if I remembered that night, when I told him I was going to make it to the NBA.
His name was Dave. Dave had been more right than I knew.
Today Dave works at CAA, and he’s one of my best friends. Dave was never the kind of guy to blow smoke. He said it’d be a long road, but he also didn’t say it was impossible.
I see you, Dave.
Guess where my first away game was my rookie year? Indiana. When I was introduced, I got a standing ovation.
That’s love. I felt at home.
I can’t tell you how special it feels when you think about how in only a few years, you can go from nobody knowing how to pronounce your name, to 20,000 people chanting it in unison. And I was on the opposing team.
It was like that every time I came back. If I was playing for Orlando, Oklahoma City, it didn’t matter. If I ever went out in Indiana I was embraced by the people. Everyone remembered the years I played in college and talked about them like I was still on the team. Even when I was away, I was tied to Indiana.
And now here we are.
Maybe you’ve never been to Indiana. Or maybe you’ve just visited once or twice. Never even really thought about it. It’s a flyover state, right? One that’s easy to glance over on a map.
And I bet that when you heard about the Thunder-Pacers trade, you were thinking about Paul George. Doma and I — we were a package deal, traded for the second time in a year, going to a non-contender in a flyover state.
We know what it feels like to be overlooked.
And so do a lot of guys on our team. And a lot of people in our arena. We know what it feels like when somebody gives up on you.
That’s all over now. Nobody’s giving up on anybody this year.
It goes back to what I texted Doma the day we both got traded. I knew Indiana would embrace him — embrace all of us — in the way only this state can.
And we’re gonna need you right now, Indiana. The rest of the league might have forgotten about us, but you haven’t. Forget what the standings say. Forget the MVP race. Enough with all of that. We know who we’re playing for. You know what this team’s about. We’re ready to make a run in these playoffs. Right now.
To everybody else, yeah, maybe we’ve got a lot to prove.
But that’s never stopped me before.