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  • Contributed photo Kelly Oubre Sr. with his son, Kelly Oubre Jr. Being Kelly Oubre: KU freshman thrives with help from biggest role model he’s known Jayhawks open NCAA Tournament on Friday in Omaha

    Posted: March 18, 2015 - 8:07pm Back | Next

    MIKE GUNNOE/SPECIAL TO THE CAPITAL-JOURNAL Kelly Oubre Jr. thrives on and off the court due to the relationship he shares with his father, Kelly Oubre Sr., who helped pave the way for his son’s college basketball career.

    Read more KU stories at HawkZone

    By Jesse Newell LAWRENCE — The notes were posted on his door every week, reminders that hung over Kelly Oubre Sr. every day.

    The Villages of Kirkwood apartments weren’t located in a particularly rough neighborhood of Houston, but that didn’t mean they were immune to crime. There’d been a rash of break-ins, and the messages from management were clear: Keep your doors locked and your valuables in a safe place.

    Kelly Sr.’s son would have to grow up quickly.

    Kelly Oubre Jr. was only a fifth-grader, having moved to Houston about a year earlier with his father from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They were essentially on their own in the new city — no other family, no babysitter — which meant that when Kelly Sr. landed a $10-an-hour job as a night-shift stocker at Sam’s Club … well, his son was going to have to be good by himself.

    “I love you,” he’d tell his son each night, and Kelly Jr. would try his hardest to always fall asleep before his father left.

    Sometimes that didn’t help. When a bad dream would rattle Kelly awake in the middle of the night, the 11-year-old would climb out of his bed, make his way to the apartment’s other bedroom and curl up under the sheets of his father’s bed.

    If he couldn’t have his dad, the next best thing was to be in the same resting place as the strongest person he knew.

    It’s a Thursday afternoon, and Kelly Oubre Jr., having just completed his best game as a Jayhawk, smiles as he settles into the seat in front of his Sprint Center locker.

    All around the 6-foot-7 freshman — barefoot and leaning back in his chair — reporters toss out questions about his 25-point effort against TCU in Kansas’ Big 12 Tournament opener.

    “It was a blessing to get that win today,” Oubre says, “but it’s on to the next one.”

    It’s March, which means Oubre understands the significance of what’s to come. The next loss will end the Jayhawks’ season — and quite possibly his college career as well.

    Projected as a consensus lottery pick in this summer’s draft, the slashing wing has already been through a roller-coaster season. In the span of just a few months, he’s gone from McDonald’s All-American to struggling rookie to reliable starter to one of KU’s most consistent players while averaging 9.3 points.

    But listen to Bill Self describe the standout of last year’s recruiting class, and a certain trend begins to emerge. Inevitably, the 12th-year coach comes back to how polished the freshman is, how he carries himself with a sense of maturity uncommon for a kid his age.

    There’s a reason for that, according to Oubre. During a rapidly changing childhood, he always had a backbone, an example to look to, a friend to keep him centered no matter what.

    And though Kelly Oubre Sr. always was around to protect and provide for his son early, he also instilled in him a certain independence, the resolve to handle whatever life happened to throw at him.

    “I owe my dad the world, because if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in right now,” Oubre says. “He made sure that I was successful, no matter if he had to sacrifice his life.”

    During the morning drive to elementary school, Kelly Oubre Jr. had one job: Keep his father awake.

    After he and his dad grabbed breakfast — Chick-fil-A was Kelly’s favorite — the son had to stay alert in the passenger seat, tapping his father on the shoulder when he noticed he was starting to doze off.

    Following the night shift at Sam’s Club, Kelly Sr. was determined to get his son to school even if he was drained.

    “I would always just keep him up,” Kelly says, “just touch him all the time and just make sure I had his back.”

    It was the least Kelly could do for the man who spent his nights stocking shelves just to make ends meet.

    The two already had endured a lot.

    After Kelly Jr.’s parents divorced in New Orleans when he was 2, his father gained primary custody. Both parents remained in the city until Hurricane Katrina, when Kelly Sr. chose to escape the storm by heading to Houston with his fourth-grade son.

    Because it was just the two of them, Kelly Sr. found himself filling a number of roles in his son’s life: dad, coach, best friend.

    The beginning was rough. The two spent the first six weeks in a Motel 6 in southwest Houston before settling into their first apartment.

    Kelly Sr.’s career had washed away along with the levees. Though he’d driven 15 years for UPS in New Orleans — and the company offered a position in Houston — he’d decided against a transfer because the job required long hours and a rigorous schedule; he wanted more of an opportunity to see his son grow up.

    “(Stuff) was tight,” Kelly Sr. says. “I’ve got to admit, man. I had no money.”

    So he picked up almost any job he could. Kelly Sr. sold Yellow Page ads, worked for a small-time marketing company, sold insurance.

    He worked at Home Depot and then at Xerox, where Kelly Jr. watched his father put on a suit for two years — something he knew his dad hated. For a while he went to the local grocery stores, trying to convince managers to allow him to put business placards on their shopping carts.

    “It was all worth it. I never thought twice about it,” Kelly Sr. says. “We’ve gotta eat. I’ve got to pay the bills, and we’ve got to eat.”

    The night shifts didn’t keep him from his other responsibility, which was getting his son to school each morning through the Houston traffic.

    Though the Oubres moved frequently, a routine emerged. Kelly Sr. would drive his son to school, come home for a couple hours of sleep, arrive at a part-time job in the afternoon, then return to pick up his son.

    “It was crazy as hell,” Kelly Sr. says.

    With home too far away, the two would go to the gym a couple hours before the son’s scheduled basketball practice, which ended up being Kelly Sr.’s favorite time of day. Not only did the sport provide a good outlet, but the youngster also was emerging as a special talent.

    Kelly Sr. knew early on there was a future in basketball for his son, and it was about that time that he started formulating a nine-year plan. The end goal was getting Kelly Jr. in a position to pick out the college of his choice during his senior year of high school.

    Kelly Sr. didn’t settle. He applied for tuition assistance and was able to get his son into Presbyterian School of Houston, a private middle school in Houston’s Museum District. He also stood up for his son when other basketball parents didn’t see his talent, upset instead that the new kid in town was playing over their own children.

    He also decided to stick it out in Houston even after Kelly’s mother, Tonya, had returned to New Orleans from Dallas. Though he had been raised in New Orleans and loved the city, Kelly realized the best place for his son to prosper was in Texas and not their old hometown, where familiar playgrounds were still filled with FEMA trailers.

    Though there were financial struggles — back-to-school shopping some years was done at neighborhood thrift stores — the two lived by a simple mantra: “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”

    “No matter how difficult it may sound, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” Kelly Sr. says. “As parents, we have this vision: We can’t predict the future, but for our kids, we’re going to go above and beyond.”

    Kelly Oubre Sr. was determined to make it to Memphis, though it was taking a little longer than planned.

    His 2001 Toyota Sequoia wasn’t running normal. The vehicle’s oil light was flashing, and he noticed at one point that he’d passed the same dog on the side of a road three different times.

    “I was going around in circles, I was so tired,” Kelly Sr. says, “but I was so driven.”

    The seventh-grade AAU nationals were in Memphis, and Kelly had already told his son he couldn’t afford to go and watch. But after quietly saving up enough gas money, Kelly headed out of Houston immediately after a shift at work.

    As Kelly took his seat in the stands and began cheering for his son’s Houston Hoops team, his son immediately recognized his voice.

    Kelly Jr. looked up to the stands and smiled at his father.

    Kelly Sr. only had enough money for the gas back home, so on the first night, he found an apartment tenement around the corner from the FedEx Forum. He parked right outside the project, sleeping in his truck while a security guard made his rounds nearby.

    Kelly Jr.’s team went on to win the national championship that week.

    “That was life-changing for us,” Kelly Jr. says, “because I saw that he supported me no matter where I was.”

    Kelly Sr. remained a primary source of support even when he didn’t have the means to travel with his son.

    While Kelly Jr. played for Houston Hoops, his father would drop him at the airport nearly every weekend — more than 100 times in all — to send him on his way to another tournament.

    On one trip, Kelly Jr. remembers a particular message from his father: “I have no more tears to cry. You’re not here during the weekend, so it’s your time to go shine.”

    Kelly believed his father was joking. Despite the struggles, he’d never seen his father sad — let alone tear up.

    “He never saw me cry,” Kelly Sr. says, “but I cried my butt off.”

    When later opportunities arose, Kelly Sr. was quick to help his son take advantage. That included a decision to let him attend Findlay Prep in Las Vegas for his senior year of high school to help his basketball career.

    “At the age of 16, 17,” Kelly Jr. says, “he taught me how to grow up.”

    It’s not surprising, then, that Oubre has withstood a rocky debut season in Lawrence.

    The toughest stretch came during the Orlando Classic in November. Oubre played just 18 combined minutes in the three games, and because they were nationally televised, old teammates jokingly teased him about his lack of minutes.

    Some national analysts also began labeling’s sixth-ranked player as a potential bust.

    “I think the critics didn’t realize,” Kelly Sr. says, “it was making him even hungrier.”

    Kelly Jr. studied extra film and went over practice tape to figure out where he could improve. He realized he was hesitating too much, unsure when to pass or shoot.

    Kelly Jr. also reached out to old teammates in the same situation he found himself — like Arizona’s Stanley Johnson — and realized others were going through similar pains.

    “After a while,” Kelly Jr. says, “we all started thriving.”

    Oubre’s ascent began on Dec. 20, when he scored 23 points against Lafayette in a career-high 25 minutes.

    He quickly built upon that, finishing as the Big 12’s top freshman scorer since the beginning of conference play (10.5 points per game).

    “Kansas was perfect,” Kelly Sr. says. “I can’t look at any college — all the people that recruited him — I can’t see Kelly fitting in on any of those teams other than Kansas. I really can’t.”

    It’s 1:28 p.m. Wednesday, and Kelly Oubre lowers the blue adidas duffel bag from his right shoulder in Allen Fieldhouse before grabbing a black Sharpie.

    A few steps away from the team’s charter bus headed to Omaha — site of the Jayhawks’ first NCAA Tournament game — Oubre stops in front of a 9-year-old boy in a blue Kansas sweatshirt, bending over to sign his red-and-white cap.

    “There you go, man,” Oubre says while handing it back.

    “Good luck,” a meek voice responds.

    If the Jayhawks are to advance past the opening weekend and perhaps make a run to the Final Four, Oubre’s play will be vital. With teammate Perry Ellis battling through a sprained knee and freshman Cliff Alexander being held out with eligibility issues, even more responsibility will be placed on Oubre as the Jayhawks work toward making this a memorable postseason.

    Through it all, Kelly’s greatest support will continue to come from his father, whose daily message remains the same whether it comes via text, phone call or FaceTime.

    Kelly Sr. — now a special education teacher in Houston — likes to end his conversations with his son with the same thought.

    Be the person you’ve always been. Don’t let people change you.

    “Be Kelly Oubre,” he says.

    But while the father has continually urged Kelly to be himself, the son has reached this point by doing the opposite.

    Since those sleepy drives to school all those years ago — since those afternoon shoot-arounds in an empty gym to those early mornings when he curled up in a different sleeping spot — Kelly Oubre Jr. has always tried to emulate someone else:

    The man who shares his name.

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    MORE 2193 POINTS Joe Hyde 03/18/15 - 08:32 pm 00Wow! Great story! Oubre Sr. is one fantastic dad and I hope life and work both get easier for him from here on.

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    Kelly sr and jr

  • Great article, as a father of 5 kids 9 years old and younger, this was very inspiring.

  • @Jayrawks1 you are busy!!! I love this story, I wonder about Oubre’s mom. Hate to see him go!!

  • Great read. My daughters AAU team mate knew about Kelly’s talent in Houston and was a fan before he went to play in Henderson/Vegas. Kind of embarrassing as SHE, a high school kid was watching him/knew about him and told me who he was before he signed with KU.

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