University of Kansas

How KU’s Kelly Oubre rode out a storm and wound up in the Phog

KU freshman Kelly Oubre Jr. thinks of his trademark hair as part of his “brand.” “I just like to be unique,” he said.
KU freshman Kelly Oubre Jr. thinks of his trademark hair as part of his “brand.” “I just like to be unique,” he said. The Kansas City Star

The process started in the dark and lonely quiet of a hotel room, a squalid and temporary home in a neighborhood on the west side of town. They found dead cockroaches under the bed. The parking lot was littered with broken-down trucks and rusted-out lives. It was a Motel 6 full of evacuees, proud and resourceful people riding out a storm and waiting for their next move.

Every morning, as the days faded into weeks, Kelly Oubre Sr. would map out a plan for his 9-year-old son. He would figure out the next meal. He would try to massage his son with good vibes and positive thoughts. He kept asking the question that kept him up at night.

When could Kelly return to school?

It was just the two of them, and nothing about their existence seemed normal. How did they get here anyway? It had started on the night of Aug. 28, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina prepared to menace New Orleans. Kelly Sr. gathered his son, packed some belongings, and pushed toward the west, driving through the darkness toward Houston.

The next morning, when light came, the Oubres found themselves in a new city, finding shelter at a roadside motel, crowding around the television to watch the news.

“We saw people swimming in the flooded streets,” Kelly Jr. says. “We saw people standing on rooftops — people from our neighborhood.”


It is a cool afternoon in early November, and Kelly Oubre Jr. is moving through a hallway inside Allen Fieldhouse. His large hands are tucked into a baggy hooded sweatshirt. His brown eyes are hidden by black, wire-framed glasses — the kind a certain generation might call Buddy Holly glasses. On this day, his brownish hair is a combination of a curly fro and a Mohawk, vaguely reminiscent of the character Rufio from the movie “Hook.”

“These are prescription glasses,” Oubre says. “I guess a lot of people don’t really believe that, because they’re so big. I just like to be unique.”

Oubre has come from an afternoon film session with the rest of his Kansas basketball teammates, and now he is free. And to see him in this moment is to believe there is no way he is an 18-year-old freshman.

Oubre stands 6 feet 7, so that’s part of it — the winner of a genetic lottery that includes Stretch Armstrong arms and broad shoulders. He is a small forward, a top-10 recruit who could someday hear the NBA commissioner call his name on draft day. He speaks in clear and measured thoughts, exuding a hard-to-define wisdom.

“I think he’s mature beyond his years,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “He has a presence.”

And here’s the thing: Oubre, the McDonald’s All-American and future first-round pick, has arrived in Lawrence to help the Jayhawks chase an 11th straight Big 12 regular-season title and another Final Four. He could also have trouble earning a spot in the Jayhawks’ starting lineup — at least during the season’s opening weeks.

And for the moment, he’s completely cool with that.

“I don’t know what the future holds for me,” Oubre says, “but I’m just focusing on what Coach needs me to do right now. I have to buy into everything.”

More than nine years ago, the Oubre men left family in New Orleans and drove toward a new life in Houston. It was rough, Kelly Sr. says, the kind of raw memories that stay with you. But during those weeks at the Motel 6, as the Oubres waited among the cockroaches and fellow evacuees, Kelly Sr. wanted his son to know one thing: They had a plan.

“I can’t defer the process, because the process is what got me here,” Oubre says, sitting inside a room at Allen Fieldhouse. “Why stop now?”


Kelly Paul Oubre Sr. was born and raised in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, where the pockets of wealth and poverty were separated by a matter of blocks. Growing up in the Third Ward, Kelly Sr. knew a life of struggle and too much violence. A few neighborhoods away, he could pick out the house where a young Peyton and Eli Manning would toss a football in the front yard.

“On the other side of the streetcar tracks,” he says, laughing.

New Orleans was his home, and it would be his son’s home, too. But when the storm came in 2005, that all changed. The elementary school Kelly Jr. had attended, right there by the 17th Street Canal, was flooded and damaged. The neighborhood would take years to recover. And there was something inviting about Houston. It was bigger, of course, and that meant more opportunity. The crime rate was lower, too.

“I love New Orleans,” Kelly Sr. says. “But I had to be a realist about it. I didn’t want him to grow up like I did — guessing and wondering a lot about basic necessities.”

In the months after Katrina, the Oubres settled in Missouri City, a community southwest of Houston. In New Orleans they left behind Oubre’s mother, Tonya Coleman Oubre, and two half-siblings. Oubre’s parents split up in the months after the storm, but he remained close with his mom, older sister, Amber, and younger brother, Gared.

“The storm tore apart families,” Kelly Sr. says.

So here they were, together and alone, a single father raising a 9-year-old son in a new city. It was a vocation that required creativity. During the days, Oubre would be in school. But during the evenings and weekends, they needed an activity, something to share.

It quickly became basketball.

“Basketball was like babysitting to me,” Kelly Sr. says, “because we were in the gym all day.”

As the years passed, Oubre began to realize that basketball could be something more. From the beginning, he was a natural talent, a smooth and skilled left-hander, blessed with the height of his 6-foot-4 father.

Kelly Sr. never played basketball beyond high school — “I had to get a job,” he says. But he dedicated himself to training his son. He pored over tapes of NBA players, giving his son models and influences. He studied some amateur physiology, learning how the body’s muscles reacted to certain exercises. Other fathers might take their sons to the gym to shoot; he would run Kelly Jr. through plyometric exercises and build up his explosiveness.

Kelly Sr., who now works as a special-education instructor at a high school in the Houston area, enrolled his son in a private elementary school, where he could catch up academically and connect with a different world.

“I kind of got introduced to the ‘rich kid’ life,” Oubre says. “I could see how some of those kids had money. It’s how I got acclimated to being able to communicate with different people.”

Kelly would grow to 6 feet 7. He became a prep star at Bush High School in Richmond, Texas. He climbed the national recruiting rankings during a breakout summer. He spent last year at Findlay Prep, a basketball powerhouse in Las Vegas.

Then came last October, and the Oubres found themselves at Allen Fieldhouse for Late Night in the Phog. As the weekend visit began, they sat down with Self, who mapped out a plan for Oubre’s time in Lawrence.

“I don’t want somebody who’s going to kiss his (butt),” Kelly Sr. told Self. “I need somebody that’s going to help him grow as a basketball player.”

That night, Kelly Oubre walked into a packed Allen Fieldhouse for the first time. If he didn’t know yet, he knew then.

“It caught my heart,” he says.


On a chilly spring day in early April, Kelly Oubre walked into a hallway at the United Center, the famed arena that sits just west of downtown Chicago. It was media day at the McDonald’s All-American Game, and as the nation’s best high school basketball players gathered in one building, Oubre stood in front of a bank of cameras and microphones.

In the age of the one-and-done college star — where one YouTube highlight video can send a kid to stardom, where high school players are thought of as commodities for shoe companies — Oubre seems to understand his place in this ecosystem better than most.

It’s partly why he thinks of his trademark hair as part of his “brand.” It’s partly why he embraces his need to be unique. Before he even arrived on a college campus, Oubre had more than 15,000 followers on Twitter and NBA scouts present at practices. So as he prepared to enter the college basketball machine, Oubre wanted to make sure he used the system as much as it would use him.

“It’s become a business,” Oubre said then. “Everything about this aspect is business. It’s not just basketball. My dad has been preaching that to me from an early age, because he wants me to become aware of it now.”

But in the age of the one-and-done college star, Kelly Oubre is an anomaly in other ways. Namely this: He’s not convinced he is a one-and-done player. Yes, he is projected to be a top-10 pick in the 2015 draft, according to DraftExpress.com, following in the footsteps of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Yes, Self will say that Oubre is so talented that he may not be on campus for all that long.

“I think Kelly is as good a prospect as we have in our program,” Self says.

But as he sits inside Allen Fieldhouse, Oubre admits he is not the type to be worried about the destination or the result. When he arrived at Kansas last summer, he never thought about whether his stay would be for one year or two years or whatever. He just thought about the next part of the plan.

“I love the process,” Oubre says. “I love getting better every day. I love Coach pushing us.”

He transitions into a story from one of his first practices at Kansas. On that day, Oubre had missed an instruction and found himself in the wrong spot on the floor. Moments later, he could hear Self’s voice echoing across the gym.

“When Coach chews you out, it’s kind of like: ‘This is for real now,’” Oubre says. “It’s full speed ahead now. No turning back.”

For now, Oubre’s first task is earning a permanent spot in the rotation. The Jayhawks have a glut of solid perimeter players, including probable starters Wayne Selden and Frank Mason and fellow freshmen Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. At practice, the competition is fierce and grueling.

Self has discussed using Oubre at the power forward spot — an idea that Oubre welcomes. But Self can also envision a scenario where Oubre is starting by midseason. Perhaps even earlier.

“He’s just a ‘comfort level’ away,” Self says. “He can get there.”

Back inside Allen Fieldhouse, Oubre sits down at a table and his mind drifts back toward the weeks inside that roadside hotel. If he could go back to that Motel 6 and talk to that 9-year-old boy, he would probably tell him that everything would be just fine.

The storm would pass. The light was coming. In some ways, his new life was just beginning.

Maybe he would tell him about the plan. The years in Houston. The days in the gym with his father. The path toward Kansas.

“We got closer, because we were just together the whole time,” Oubre says. “He sacrificed everything so I could keep going.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

Kansas men’s basketball preview

Probable starters

P

No.

Player

Ht.

Yr.

PPG

F

2

Cliff Alexander

6-8

Fr.

F

34

Perry Ellis

6-8

Jr.

13.5

F

12

Kelly Oubre

6-7

Fr.

G

1

Wayne Selden

6-5

So.

9.7

G

0

Frank Mason

5-11

So.

5.5

▪ Last season: 25-10 overall, 14-4 Big 12 (first place), lost in round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament

▪ Player to watch: Perry Ellis, a 6-foot-8 junior forward from Wichita, should be poised to break out even more this season. On the offensive end, Ellis can be so quietly efficient, as to appear almost boring at times. He averaged 13.5 points per game while shooting 55 percent as a sophomore. With Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid gone, he’ll need to carry part of the load on offense. One caveat: While is offense can be elite, Ellis also needs to be more sound and active on the defensive end.

▪ Games to watch: It’s another loaded schedule for Kansas. The fifth-ranked Jayhawks will play No. 1 Kentucky at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Nov. 18. KU will also play host to Florida at Allen Fieldhouse (Dec. 5) in a rematch of last season’s loss. Then the Jayhawks have two big-time matchups with Texas during the Big 12 season. The Longhorns return all five starters and could be Kansas’ biggest threat in the conference race.

▪ Outlook: Last season, Kansas finished 25-10 — the most losses of the Bill Self era — and lost in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament to Stanford, a No. 10 seed. This season, the Jayhawks might not have the lottery-pick stars (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are gone), but they have great depth and more experience in returning starters Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden. There are questions at point guard and on the defensive end, but Kansas is positioned nicely to compete for an 11th straight Big 12 title and earn another one- or two-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

| Rustin Dodd, rdodd@kcstar.com

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