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Oubre Jr.'s character forged by path he traveled with his dad

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Though it takes only a few sequences, as Warriors fans have discovered, to see and feel the intensity of Kelly Oubre Jr., understanding what pushes him to emotion’s edge and occasionally sends him over requires an illustration of history.

Oubre has, in the parlance, been through it.

See the strife and stigma of early childhood, of living in the Magnolia Housing projects of New Orleans, where respect for life and property can be fleeting. See his father, a single parent, save enough to move to a more comfortable place – only to have Hurricane Katrina bring broad devastation and mass displacement.

Kelly and his father, Kelly Sr., were among thousands of evacuees to land in greater Houston, getting there in dad’s silver 2002 Toyota Sequoia, which at times doubled as a home.

“There were nights when we had to hang in the truck,” Kelly Sr. says. “But, hey, we had walls around us.”

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The truck was perhaps the coziest place for a 9-year-old to sleep with his dad. It was what they had, all they could get, and a clearly better option than the rodent-infested budget hotel that they knew all too well. 

“I remember feeling hopeless because I couldn't help my dad financially and I couldn't help him emotionally,” Kelly Jr. recalls. “All I could do is just stay strong.

“And that was the time that I really realized that I have to make sure that we'll never feel this pain, and this hurt, again. Our backs were against the wall, and he got us out that time. But I’ve made sure that we will never have to face that type of adversity ever again.”

 

Kelly Jr. went from New Orleans to Richmond, a southeast suburb of Houston, to Las Vegas. Then to Kansas University in Lawrence. After one season with the Jayhawks, he was first-round pick (No. 15 overall) in the 2015 NBA Draft and signed a four-year rookie contract with the Wizards worth $9.2 million. He was traded to the Suns in December 2018 and six months later signed a two-year contract worth $30 million.

Junior and Senior had a new lifestyle. It was built on lessons from the old lifestyle.

The character tests kept coming and the Oubres kept acing them, displaying the resilience required to remain intact. After settling in Richmond, father and son found some encouraging signs both before and after Kelly Sr. and his wife split up.

“It didn’t faze us one bit when she left,” Kelly Sr. says. “I still had Kelly. All I wanted was my son. I knew as long as I had him, I didn’t have to worry about him. He would be fine, and we would be together. That’s all that mattered.”

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That’s the theme of their lives. Kelly Sr. had gained custody when he and Tonya Coleman Oubre divorced in 1999. Junior was 3 years old, and father and son have been each other’s support systems and sidekicks for more than two decades.

Kelly Sr. was there when Junior, at age 7, having watched his dad play pickup basketball whenever he could around New Orleans, decided he wanted out of martial arts training and into hoops. The reply dad: Finish what you started, son. Get your black belt. Do that, and you can turn to any sport you want. Junior did it.

Dad was there, having taught his son a few things about basketball, when young 11-year-old Kelly started playing basketball with and against young men in the Houston area. Junior later caught a growth spurt in his mid-teens, growing from 5-foot-6 to 6-foot-4.

Despite working three jobs – selling ads, attaching placards to shopping carts, the late shift at Sam’s Club or Home Depot – Senior was there when Junior joined the AAU circuit and began to attract attention from community “scouts” in the Houston area and beyond.

No agents, no runners, no new friends claiming to have the “hookup.” No $1,000-dollar handshakes, says Kelly Sr., even though that could have eased the financial strain. Just a father completely devoted to a son, and the two of them developing gifts now evident.

“It was almost like I was robotic,” Kelly Sr. says. “Sleep didn't matter to me. It was something I got when I could. I catnapped it for four or five years. I was catching games every chance I got, scouting the competition, taking notes, educating him on tendencies, go-to moves and counters of opponents.

 

“But we were never victims of anything. That was for somebody else. No. No. Hell no. I don’t raise victims because I’m not a victim. I told him that. We’re not victims of anything. In New Orleans, we were surviving. In Houston, after a while, we were living.”

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After attending private Presbyterian middle school in Houston – 17 students per class, 1-1 student to iPad ratio – thanks to Kelly Sr. writing a hardship letter every year, Junior entered public George Bush High in Richmond and became a basketball star. So much so that after his junior season, father and son made the difficult decision to split for a while.

Senior already had missed most of Junior’s summer-league games because he, as the sole provider, couldn’t afford to miss work. They settled for daily and nightly conversations. And now he was going to stay in Richmond, while Junior headed to Las Vegas, where he would spend his senior season at national powerhouse Findlay Prep. 

“When I talk about it and I start thinking about it, I get emotional because that was tough,” Kelly Sr. says. “The Vegas thing was very hard. But I think I was prepped for it because of the summer ball situation for the five years previous.”

Dad’s mind was eased because a family friend, former NBA player Jerome Williams, was preparing for his first season as head coach at Findlay. Father and son weighed the pros and cons. They saw the growth potential.

Though Kelly Sr. had earned his college degree and teaching credential and had a job, his income was not enough to fund trips to Findlay. He made only one visit, in 2014, to see his son graduate.

“I would talk to him every day,” Kelly Sr. says. “And, you know, sometimes it was so detailed. I could hear his voice cracking, and sometimes he could hear mind cracking. But we forged ahead. I was able to lock into his temperament and mannerisms, so it was almost like we were just there with each other the whole time as he was growing.”

When national recruiters began circling, Junior would direct them to Senior, who acknowledges his heavy influence. He saw pathways his son did not, including the decision to remain in Texas rather than return to New Orleans, despite a heavy family presence there.

Junior eventually chose Kansas. After attending Late Night at venerable Phog Allen Fieldhouse, he canceled his trip to Kentucky. He was sold on one of the nation’s powerhouse programs.

“I never felt nothing like it in my life,” Oubre Jr. told the Kansas City Star in 2013. “I pretty much knew. That sealed the deal right there.”

After one year at KU, Oubre was drafted by the Hawks and traded to the Wizards in a prearranged draft-night deal. He spent three years in Washington, long enough for Kelly Sr. to move there from Houston, gain employment and start laying the groundwork for his own business. The goal of Beast Developmental is to create a model that prepares parents and children for success in sports. It’s designed largely on experience of father and son. 

 

After being traded to the Suns and signing his new contract two years ago, Junior examined his life and realized someone was missing. His father. So, he summoned him to Phoenix. And dad moved from Washington to the desert.

Kelly Sr. will move again soon. Ten days before Christmas, he was cleaning out his son’s home in Phoenix after movers had picked up everything for the move to the Bay Area.

“I told the realtor to let’s go head and put it on the market,” he said. “I guess I’m the ‘Ray Donovan’ of the operation.

“I’m doing it for him. You know, I love my son with all my heart. I’d cut off both arms for him.”

Kelly Jr., who turned 25 on Dec. 9, yearns for a place to lay roots. He got engaged to his girlfriend, Shylyn, a week after Thanksgiving. Even though he’ll be a free agent next summer, his life appears to be coming into sharper focus.

Not long after he was acquired by the Warriors on Nov. 22, Junior was asked if he could identify any coaches and teachers who have influenced him. His answer opened a door.

“One person I would say is Kelly Oubre Sr.,” he said. “He's the ‘Beast Developer.’ He’s somebody that I just give all the credit to, because he's made the sacrifices. He’s put me in positions to be who I am today, to learn the things that I have learned. Although, as an individual I had to learn on my own, growing up, but he's always stuck with me and to this day he’s just somebody that's a role model to me.

“He had to sacrifice his basketball career to raise me, so that that's pretty much everything. He could have gone on and played basketball, chased his dream, but he decided to be a full-time father and work and provide. So, I can only just provide for him for as long as i possibly can now.”

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Many Americans, particularly those of color, have had to overcome childhood disadvantages and lack of privilege to become successful in sports and other careers. Almost always, it’s a testament to character and perseverance.

So, there will be times when you can see young Kelly’s fire and feel how much it means. He knows struggle. Has slept with it, seen his father fight it – and defeat it – and never wants to meet it again.