The Rise of Obi Toppin

Life has been a series of big leaps for the dominant dunker who emerged from prep obscurity to put Dayton in the spotlight. Next up: the NBA.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterNovember 18, 2020

He ascended from the ocean. He hugged the black volcanic rock as the salt water slid down his skin. The lapping tide splashed his ankles. He swept the salt from his eyes and studied the path to the summit. From the water, his teammates watched. From the beach, his coaches watched. All he could see was 20 vertical feet of black rock before him, but he could sense their eyes on him. He smiled. There was no turning back now. He found a foothold, lifted his leg and began to climb...

A few hours earlier, Obi Toppin had climbed out of obscurity. For two days, Dayton's redshirt sophomore had dominated the Maui Invitational, dropping 25 points on potential No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards' Georgia Bulldogs in the opening game in Hawaii and splashing in another 24 in a semifinal win over Virginia Tech. By the time the title game tipped off against Kansas, Jayhawks coaches had taken notice of the Flyers' 6'9", 220-pound sledgehammer. He spent most of his minutes as a small-ball center, but he was just as likely to dunk a lob off a pick-and-roll as he was to stretch out to the perimeter and pull up from three. Kansas doubled him whenever it could spare a man, but it didn't make much of a difference.

With 2:45 left in the first half, Toppin took the ball on the wing and eyed the pair of defenders blocking his path to the basket. Instead of crashing into them, the big man showed off his skills and simply stepped back. He launched a three. Before the ball had even crested, he turned his back to the basket. By the time the shot started falling, Toppin was staring down the entire Jayhawks bench.

Bleacher Report CBB @br_CBB

That’s cold, Obi. Turned around and stared down the Kansas bench before the shot went in 🔥 (via @marchmadness) https://t.co/AzrwZ9Ty27

In college football, elite players tout their "Heisman moments" in pursuit of the sport's top individual award. This was Toppin's Wooden moment, but it was also something more. Before Maui, Toppin was a diamond in the rough-and-tumble Atlantic 10. Coaches in the conference had known his name. So had opposing fanbases and even a few eagle-eyed NBA scouts. But after Maui, he was a diamond on display at Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue. The week of the Maui Invitational, Google searches for his name spiked dramatically. Everyone wanted to know who Toppin was, where he'd come from, and if he could be a Player of the Year contender and an NBA draft lottery pick.

"After Maui, it was crazy," Toppin said in an interview in April. "I was getting so much attention. My stock was on the rise. But that stuff doesn't matter much to me. I still don't know what will happen next. Whether I'm drafted No. 1 or No. 30, it will be a dream come true just to play in the NBA. It'll be great just to play again."

Now 22 years old, he is expected to go in the top 10 of Wednesday's NBA draft.

A year ago in Maui, the Flyers would fall to the Jayhawks in overtime, but the bad taste left their mouths more quickly than a splash of salt water in a snorkel. A few hours after the game, most of the team was either staring at the Pacific from the sand or swimming in it. That's when Trey Landers, a senior guard, asked Toppin if he'd be brave enough to jump off Black Rock. Toppin didn't reply. He just started swimming.

Native Hawaiians believed Black Rock was one of three leina. Legends passed down for generations told tales of brave warriors who had leapt from this rock and into the afterlife. By the time Toppin reached the summit, he found himself surrounded by tourists, each one a little more intimidated than they'd have cared to admit. From the water, the peak looked close enough to touch. But by the time you reached the peak, the water was a distant memory.

Reclining on a beach chair, Dayton coach Anthony Grant wondered if Toppin was having second thoughts. Toppin walked to the edge and back twice. In truth, he wasn't deciding whether to jump, but how. When he leaves his feet with the basketball, he relies only on instincts. But he wanted to be a little more careful jumping off a cliff. He turned his back to his teammates and coaches, just as he had a few hours earlier after he'd released that career-changing three. He closed his eyes. And then Toppin backflipped into his new life.

Five months after Maui, Toppin went home. On Thursday, March 12, he sat in the ballroom of a Brooklyn hotel listening to a coach describe the schedule for the A-10 tournament. Toppin's mother, Roni, had purchased him a second phone after Maui so that her messages wouldn't get buried among the hundreds he'd started receiving each day. The second phone normally didn't buzz much, but on this morning it was pulsing faster than his heart rate before a big game.

When the meeting broke, he saw that conferences across the country were canceling their tournaments because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some teammates believed they'd still play, but Toppin knew right then that his season was over. The Flyers wouldn't get to extend their 20-game winning streak. They wouldn't get to improve their No. 3 position in the AP poll. They wouldn't get to add an A-10 tournament title to their regular-season crown. And they wouldn't get to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

By noon, Toppin was in his room stuffing his clothes back into his bag. By 4 p.m., he was buckled into his seat on a plane at John F. Kennedy Airport. Then, his phone began buzzing again. The NCAA tournament was canceled. As the plane ascended, the team was silent. Some players put their headphones on to shut out the world. Others closed their eyes to disguise the tears. Toppin looked out the window and watched New York City's chaos zoom out into its organized grid. He looked over the courts where he'd learned to play the game as a boy and where he'd made a name for himself as a young man. He didn't want his Dayton career to end like this, but he'd learned long ago that a little turbulence didn't stop you from landing at your destination. He watched New York City slip beneath the clouds.

In his second season, Obi Toppin led Dayton to a 29-2 record.
In his second season, Obi Toppin led Dayton to a 29-2 record.Aaron Doster/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Toppin's father, Obadiah, was a basketball player too. He'd played briefly for junior colleges in Oklahoma and New York, and professionally in the ABA and the Dominican Republic, but he was best known as a streetballer. On New York's iconic courts, he was known as Snoop or Dunker's Delight. One author described him as "a delightful guy whom fans instinctively want to watch." Obadiah's reputation even landed him a role in a 2006 Gatorade commercial starring Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade and Ben Wallace. In the commercial, the players brought down hoops with their dunks, which was only a slight exaggeration of Obadiah's abilities. During one pro game in the D.R., Obadiah threw an alley-oop to himself off the backboard, passing the ball between his legs before slamming it home.

By age five, Obi was mimicking his dad's moves and begging him to let him in games. "He would let me play when he could," Obi said. "He'd tell me just to stand in the corner and shoot. I never played defense. My only assists were alley-oops."

When he couldn't get on the court, Obi would still find a way to play. He broke his right wrist on a jungle gym near Rucker Park at age five, and again in middle school while doing backflips in science class. (During the second break, he learned to play hoops left-handed.) When he moved with his family to Florida, he'd practice flips off the ubiquitous green electrical boxes and play tag on the roofs of houses. He even learned how to jump off a house without hurting his knees.

"Obi has always been a daredevil," Roni said. "He always found a way to have fun. Even when I grounded him, I'd go into his room and find him laughing and playing with a piece of thread. The only thing he complained about as a kid was that he didn't want to grow up. He wanted to be a kid forever. He told me that from the time he could talk till he was 15 years old."

At 14, Obi was playing summer basketball for coach Rob Terry at Melbourne Central Catholic in Florida. Terry remembers Toppin as a "fawn trying to stand on ice. ... At no point in his time here at MCC did I think he would turn into a lottery pick, but at no time did I think he would grow nine inches either."

That spring, the elder Obadiah and his twin brother, Octavius, were arrested in connection with a fatal shooting in Palm Bay, Florida. Obadiah pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact and was given probation. Octavius took his case to trial and was found not guilty of second-degree murder. Neither brother could be reached for this story, and neither appears to have been convicted of a crime in the years since. Nonetheless, by the time Obi was 15, he was back in New York with his mother and his little brother, Jacob. And he was all grown up.

The family settled in Ossining, a sleepy suburb about an hour north of New York City. But every chance he got, Obi would return to the courts of his childhood. Sometimes he'd play in as many as five games on five different courts per day, hopscotching from Dyckman Park to Orchard Beach to Rucker. To those communities, whatever Obadiah had or hadn't done beyond their fences didn't matter. Dunker's Delight would always be a legend, and his son would always be welcome.

"To me, basketball is..." said Obi, pausing to find the perfect words. "I love basketball. I would play it even if I didn't get paid. If I'm sad, playing will pick me up. If I need to clear my head, I'll go to the gym. This game has given me and my family so much. I love it with a different kind of passion. People who don't know me can't appreciate it."

How the world saw Toppin changed after the Maui Invitational. But how Toppin saw himself changed in the summer before his senior year at Ossining High School. For years, Roni had promised both her boys that they'd be late bloomers, but at times it had been hard for Obi to believe. As a junior, he was a 6'2", 150-pound backup guard. And the son of Dunker's Delight couldn't dunk. Every day he'd try, and every day the rim would rebuff him. Then, a few weeks before the start of his senior season, he was messing around after practice and finally threw one down.

"It was pure relief," Toppin said. "And then it was excitement. It had taken so long. That's why I still dunk every time I can now. I just started dunking for real like three or four years ago. It's still new to me. It's still such an amazing feeling every time."

At Dayton, his first two field goals were dunks...so were his final five...and so were 190 buckets during his two-year career. Last season, he led the nation and set a school record with 107 slams. From the day he first dunked, as an anonymous high school senior at a small school, he never stopped rising. And the story of how he landed here, on the brink of becoming a top-10 pick in the NBA draft, was punctuated by a series of emphatic slams.

The spring after his first dunk, at Ossining's first home playoff game in over a decade, Toppin got a steal and crossed a defender at the foul line before leaping and throwing down a left-handed tomahawk. "I'd be lying to you if I said, 'Yeah, I knew he'd be an NBA player from the moment I laid eyes on him,'" Ossining coach Mike Casey said. "You always encourage kids and want them to reach their potential. But I definitely didn't see him being a lottery pick. I thought he'd be able to grind his way to Division I."

The summer after he graduated, Toppin balanced basketball with a job at Marshalls. He participated in an elite camp at St. Thomas Aquinas, a D-II program. The coaches offered him a roster spot after seeing him posterize Justin Reyes, an All-American who now plays for the Raptors' G League affiliate. But Toppin would have to pay his own way the first year, and he couldn't afford tuition. "We thought: 'Here's a kid who's gonna be a stud for us,'" Spartans coach Tobin Anderson said. "He was clearly a D-I prospect that'd fallen through the cracks. No one said, 'That kid's an NBA player.'"

By the middle of the summer, Toppin was on the brink of signing with Monroe, a junior college in nearby New Rochelle. Then he reconnected with his godfather, Victor Monaros, who had played with Obadiah in New York and in the Dominican Republic. After watching Obi play at Rucker Park, Monaros asked Roni for her cellphone. He found Monroe coach Jeff Brustad's number and texted him that Obi would be playing at a prep school. "He was really skilled," Brustad said. "I thought he could play for us. I didn't think he'd be doing dunks between his legs in D-I games."

Four days later, Monaros had secured a spot for Toppin at Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore. During the first practice of the open recruiting period that summer, Georgia coaches offered Toppin a scholarship after watching him run a single drill: a three-man weave. It didn't hurt, of course, that he'd grown to 6'9" and weighed closer to 180 pounds.

"I'd seen this movie before," said Monaros, an assistant coach at Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn. "When I watched Obi, he looked exactly like Big O [Obadiah]. He was a late bloomer. I could see what Obi could be, but no one else could. I didn't want him to go through what his dad went through, wondering, 'What if I'd played in college?' He was almost at the point where he'd start having regrets. I said: 'No, sir. You're coming with me.'"

A few weeks into the season, Toppin considered quitting when Monaros fell into a coma following a failed liver transplant. A second transplant saved Monaros' life. When he awoke, still foggy from the sedatives, his first call was to Toppin. He told him they were fighting for their futures together.

A few weeks later, Toppin attended the Governors Challenge, a holiday basketball tournament in Maryland. He soon found himself in the finals of the tournament's dunk contest. A little more than a year after his first successful slam, he tapped a teammate to go up to the rafters and bounce the ball to him off the floor, so he could put it between his legs before flushing it home. Toppin couldn't complete the dunk in time, and he finished in second place—which was good: It convinced him there was still room to rise.

Only two dunks have ever brought Toppin trouble. The first was when he was in middle school in Florida. His neighbors had a hoop with an adjustable rim. During a heated battle with Jacob on an eight-foot hoop, Toppin's head touched the net on the way up. And the net ripped an earring out of his ear on the way down. The second was when he was a redshirt freshman at Dayton. On a fast break in a tight nonconference contest against Georgia Southern, he pulled off an instantly viral between-the-legs jam.

After the game, Grant, Dayton's coach, invited Toppin and teammate Jalen Crutcher to his house. He told Toppin he loved his passion for the game and never to lose it. He also told him never to do that in a close game again. "Every time you see Obi, he has a smile on his face," Grant said. "After the challenges and adversity he faced as a young man, and the doubt that he experienced, he appreciates every opportunity. And he has so many more in front of him."

After leading Dayton in scoring with 14.4 points per game and winning the A-10 Rookie of the Year Award as a redshirt freshman in 2019, he entered his name in the NBA draft. He was assured that he'd be selected, but he wanted more than that. He'd seen how much he'd improved during his sit-out year, and how much more he'd improved after a full season with the Flyers. He figured, with one more year, he could play his way into the NCAA tournament and then into the NBA draft lottery.

After winning the Atlantic 10 regular-season title, Toppin and Dayton soon found that their season was over with the sports shutdown caused by the coronavirus.
After winning the Atlantic 10 regular-season title, Toppin and Dayton soon found that their season was over with the sports shutdown caused by the coronavirus.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"Obi started from the bottom," Monaros said. "Nothing has ever been handed to him. Nothing has ever been given. That's made him patient. He knows he'll get to where he wants to go, even when no one besides me and his family can see it."

In 2019-20, he averaged 20.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, shot 63.3 percent from the field and 39.0 percent from three, and led the nation with 1.2 points per possession, per Synergy. He became the Flyers' first-ever consensus first-team All-American, and he was named the national player of the Year by just about every college basketball body that gives such an award. But he never got to play in the Big Dance, and that's given him an edge as he trains for the draft.

"It was definitely upsetting not to play in the tournament," Toppin said. "All the hard work we put in just got thrown away. Still, I'm grateful for what we accomplished. Having the chance to be named Player of the Year and be a top-10 draft pick, that all feels good."

For the past few months, Toppin has been back in the New York area, training for a once-in-a-lifetime NBA draft in November. Monaros found a private gym for him in New Jersey. Every day, he was able to work out with Monaros, play one-on-one against Jacob (who recently transferred from Rhode Island to Kentucky) and visit with his mother. Monaros likes to joke that you could lock Toppin in a gym all day, and he wouldn't notice the difference because he'd never reach for the door.

The uncertainty around the draft didn't faze him at all. Perhaps more than any other prospect in this class, he knows what it's like to wait for his opportunity—and to capitalize on it when it comes.

"It didn't always feel like this when I was going through it," Toppin said, "but looking back, everything in my life happened at the right time. Whatever happens next will happen at the right time too."

At the New Jersey gym, Toppin's favorite drill involved five cones planted along the baseline, the wings and the top of the key. He sprinted between each, catching a pass from Monaros and then crashing the rim for a dunk. By the fifth station, he should have been tired. If he was, he never showed it. Instead, when he caught the pass, he'd spike it off the floor so that it bounced toward the backboard, and then he'd leave his feet. He caught that kiss off the glass midair and put the ball between his legs as he did a 180. As gravity pulled him back to earth, he stretched his hands toward the hoop.

By now, you should know what Obi Toppin did next.


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