Against the Wind: Kelly Oubre Jr.
Kelly Oubre Jr’s road to the NBA may have been filled with left turns, but he still got it right.
Photographs by Chad Griffith
“There are some things that you never forget,” Kelly Oubre Jr. says. At age 20, Oubre is in his rookie season as a forward with the Washington Wizards. But it was just over a decade ago that he faced a bigger challenge than the NBA will ever be for him.
“I remember us sitting at home in New Orleans, and there was a big debate in the house,” he says. “A storm had just passed through the area, and it didn’t do much damage. We were trying to decide if we were going to stay for Hurricane Katrina. People were like ‘Why are you scared? It’s going to pass.’ But my dad said, ‘No, we’re going to get up out of here.’ By the time the eye of the storm hit, we were on our way to Houston.”
Assuming that they would be coming back after the storm, Oubre’s parents didn’t pack very much: some clothes, the karate belts that Kelly Jr. had earned including his black belt, and his basketball jacket. When the family arrived near Houston, they checked into a rundown Motel Six. Roaches littered the floor, not the quality of life they had once known. At age 9, Oubre had to make a whole new life for himself.
“I think it would have been tougher had I been older,” Oubre says, remembering every moment of that trip to Houston. “Because I was 9 I could make friends pretty easily. You go to recess, you see what kids like what you like, and you go from there.
Oubre would miss the rest of the school year, as he couldn’t enroll back in school in Houston until the following year. “I missed a good part of fourth grade,” he says. “I was lucky they didn’t hold me back. They let me jump right into fifth grade. I had to do whatever I could to make it easier for my dad and my mom. That meant going to school, having fun, listening and learning.”
Now in Houston, Oubre’s dad found the best jobs he could. He was a hotel security guard during the day. At night, he worked at the local Home Depot. Whatever time he had in between, Kelly Sr., a former basketball player at the University of New Orleans, would shoot baskets with his son.
By the time Oubre was a sophomore at George Bush High School in Fort Bend, Texas, his love of basketball began to push him to develop his own game. “While I was in high school, we would have these great college coaches like Bill Self, Roy Williams and Rick Barnes come to watch us play. They were watching my teammate Cameron Ridley. But that was the first time I began to think I could play at a higher level.”
For his senior year of high school, with his father’s blessing, Oubre transferred to Findley Prep in Las Vegas to play under the tutelage of former NBA star Jerome Williams. “I was nervous that I wasn’t going to get the exposure I needed in Houston,” Oubre says. “I wanted to play where I could be seen against better competition. Along the way, I had to learn to cook for himself and do my own laundry. I basically learned not to be so dependent on my dad. It was an experience that definitely prepared me for the next stage of my life.”
When Oubre went to play at Kansas as a freshman, he was devastated to leave to friendships he had built over the previous year at Findley Prep. “When I first got to campus, I didn’t want to hang out with anybody,” he says. “My boys were back at Findley. I didn’t know any of these people and they didn’t know me.”
Eventually they did get to know each other and become close, even if only for one year. “I wouldn’t trade my time at Kansas for anything in the world,” Oubre says. “I played for a great coach [Bill Self] and met so many amazing people.”
Oubre made enough of an impression on scouts that he was projected to be a first-round draft selection after his freshman year. Once he declared himself eligible, he was selected fifteenth overall by the Washington Wizards. And while the transition from college life to the NBA may seem daunting, given Oubre’s past, it’s just another step in the journey.
“Now that I’m in the pros, it’s like starting over again,” Oubre says. “During your rookie year, no one respects you. You have to earn it. I have to dedicate myself to basketball 100% No matter how many minutes I get, I’m allowed to play the game every day of my life. That’s the most I can ask. Basketball has been a blessing to me. It’s always given me the drive to go out and be the best. That chip is always going to be on my shoulder because of the things I’ve been through in my life.”
One other thing Oubre aspires to be the best at is fashion. His love of clothing dates back to his days in high school, when he would buy and flip collectible sneakers on the internet to make a few extra dollars on the side. “A lot of the guys dress well on the team. John Wall is really into fashion. It’s a fun competition. Obviously, they have more money than I do, but I will try to outswag them, even if the stuff I get isn’t as expensive.”
Sometimes it’s hard for Oubre to imagine that it was only a decade ago that he was that young boy asleep in the car, leaving New Orleans with no idea that he would ever be able to come back home. Now, he has teammates that have been in the NBA longer than that. The journey from New Orleans to the NBA has made him realize how much you have to take advantage of every opportunity provided to you.
“My most vivid memory of New Orleans is still a game of horseshoes,” he says. “I was seven years old, and we were at a picnic. I had just thrown a horseshoe and I was going to go get it. As I was standing near the pin, someone threw their horseshoe and conked me in the head. I was out cold. I remember a guy picking me up and taking me to where my mom was. She took me to the hospital. I look at that moment as the moment I was born. I was real and life was real. You just have to adapt and survive.”