Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 | 2 a.m.
When Kevin Olekaibe was in sixth grade, he was cut from the basketball team at Harold J. Brinley Middle School. At the encouragement of his art teacher, who had taken over as the basketball coach, he tried again the next year and by then was probably the best player in his grade.
After tryouts, Olekaibe showed up to school early and went straight for the door holding up the sign with that year’s roster. He searched every inch of that piece of paper and his name was nowhere to be found.
It turned out the school’s janitor, who was friendly with Olekaibe, entered the school even earlier and erased Olekaibe’s name to prank his young friend. Olekaibe made that team, his first, and Monday he learned he had officially joined another.
After months of speculation, the NCAA finally approved Olekaibe’s hardship waiver, all but clearing the way for the senior to play immediately for UNLV after transferring from Fresno State. The Rebels are just waiting on approval from the Mountain West to grant relief from its penalties for transferring intra-conference.
“We’re very pleased for Kevin and his family,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said after practice. “We all know the adversity that his family has gone through with his father’s health. Just glad there’s some joy in their house tonight.”
If the conference supports the NCAA’s decision prior to tip-off, Olekaibe will start tonight at 7 in UNLV’s final exhibition game against Adams State at the Thomas & Mack Center. If not, the Rebels expect Olekaibe to be cleared by the regular-season opener Friday at home against Portland State.
Olekaibe went from Brinley to Cimarron-Memorial High, where he averaged more than 35 points per game as a senior. His father’s poor health brought Olekaibe back to Las Vegas, where he has walked on and will try to put up points for, rather than against, his hometown university.
In two victories against the Rebels last season, Olekaibe averaged 17 points per game. Those were a couple bright spots in a season marred by injuries and the mental distraction of being away from his family while his father’s health deteriorated.
Benson Olekaibe, who’s originally from Nigeria, suffered a stroke in 2008 and then another in 2009. Living in hospice care, Benson got worse in the last year. He’s now mostly paralyzed and can’t communicate.
The family, including many of Kevin Olekaibe’s six siblings and his mother, Esther Olekaibe, spend a lot of time at Benson Olekaibe’s bedside. According to Kevin Olekaibe’s Twitter, that’s actually where Esther Olekaibe was when she saw the news about her son’s eligibility on TV.
“(It’s great) to put a smile on their face; just to get their mind off my father,” Kevin Olekaibe said after practice.
It took a long time, but the NCAA reached the conclusion everyone expected when they examined the situation. Approval from the Mountain West’s faculty-athletic reps figures to be a rubber stamp, considering the Bulldogs fully supported Olekaibe’s transfer.
The Rebels started practicing at 2:30 p.m. and about 15 minutes in, Rice got word about the NCAA’s decision. He gathered the team to announce the news and Olekaibe probably hasn’t stopped smiling since. In between a couple of drills, he attempted and made eight consecutive 3-pointers. Only the last one even glanced the rim.
“Now I can get on the floor and let all the pressure go,” he said.
Last season, Olekaibe averaged a career-low 8.3 points per game. As a sophomore, though, he put up a team-leading 17.8. With a clearer mind and family members eager to find an escape for two hours in the Thomas & Mack Center, Olekaibe is confident he can get back to that level if that’s what the Rebels ask him to do.
“People may have forgotten that old KO,” he said, “but I’ve improved since then.”
While national writers and even former Rebel Jimmy Kimmel put on a full-court press to make sure the NCAA made the right decision, Olekaibe went about his day. The communication major was asked to speak at a teachers’ workday about the inspiration he drew from his instructors in the Clark County School District. That’s how Olekaibe found himself telling a gym full of middle school teachers about the janitor’s prank and making his first basketball team. Hours later he was officially a Rebel.
A lesson from that tale: Sometimes decisions are out of your hands, so control what you can and take full advantage of any opportunities that do come your way.
Olekaibe’s eligibility and his father’s health were both decided by outside forces. Olekaibe responded by putting himself in the best possible position — with his family in Las Vegas — to help and letting others decide his basketball future. Once he cleared the NCAA’s hurdle, Olekaibe knew how he was going to celebrate.
“I will be back in here later to get some more shots up,” he said.
It doesn’t solve his family’s issues, but sinking a ball through the net is the part Olekaibe can control. That’s been his release and distraction from the real world since seventh grade, and his entire family wants him to take full advantage of this new opportunity.