It’s difficult to write an article about New York Knicks big man Kyle O’Quinn and focus solely on basketball. He is a talented player who has carved out a nice niche for himself, but there are many entertaining O’Quinn stories that the public needs to know about. He is widely considered one of the funniest players in the NBA, and over the years his sense of humor has helped unite locker rooms, led to some crazy interactions with celebrities and spawned some great pranks.
I first met O’Quinn when he was doing his pre-draft training at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas and a mutual friend introduced us. My colleague Steve Kyler and I shot some video of his workout and did an interview with him. He was funny and just seemed happy to be there since he never imagined he’d have a shot at being an NBA player (more on that later).
That night, O’Quinn and our mutual friend invited Steve and I to dinner with fellow draft prospects Ashton Gibbs of Pittsburgh, Maalik Wayns of Villanova and Xavier Gibson of Florida State. We went to Firefly, a tapas restaurant in Las Vegas, and noticed a party taking place in the back. We waited for a bit and when the players arrived, they guided us back to the party in the private section.
It turns out this wasn’t a casual dinner with a few players. Instead, we had been unknowingly invited to the birthday dinner for Floyd Mayweather’s sister.
It was a large event with a ton of family members and close friends in attendance. Floyd had left earlier, but we got the opportunity to chat with some of his close relatives and his business manager Leonard Ellerbe. When singing Happy Birthday, Steve and I glanced at each other and we had the same confused, “how-did-we-end-up-here” look on our faces. We weren’t complaining though. Everyone was extremely welcoming and dinner was delicious.
Immediately after dinner, the players decided that they wanted to get an additional workout in (even though they had just trained really hard at Impact’s gym earlier that day). After trying to find an open gym, they settled on a 24 Hour Fitness about 30 minutes away. We were unsure about going since we had to wake up early the next day and it was well past midnight. But I wanted to see these players do a private workout and persuaded Steve to come too.
When we arrived with the players, three ridiculously expensive cars pull up and Mayweather gets out of one. He’s surrounded by his Money Team entourage, and he’s apparently here to play pick-up basketball with the soon-to-be pros. We had no idea that this was going to happen. O’Quinn, Gibbs, Gibson, Wayns and Mayweather played against a team of random dudes who were just shooting around at 24 Hour Fitness at 1 a.m. and, obviously, destroyed them. At one point, Mayweather caught an elbow to the face from a guy in his early 20s as they were battling for a rebound. Initially, Floyd’s face turned extremely serious and he glared at the guy as he processed the pain. However, seconds later, he smiled, dapped the kid and complimented him for fighting for the board. He appreciated that the guy didn’t back down or give up the ball out of fear.
The game continued and while his talented peers were going relatively easy on the competition and having fun with their inferior opponents, O’Quinn was dunking on people, pinning shots on the backcourt and yelling at teammates who weren’t running full speed in transition. Sure, he was cracking jokes here and there, but he was going hard out there. I realized that O’Quinn is an extreme competitor who despises losing – no matter the circumstances. At Impact, he would yell at himself if he felt like he could’ve done better in a drill or scrimmage scenario. That’s understandable. But that same intensity was present at this random 24 Hour Fitness pick-up game.
“Kyle is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, but he takes his workouts seriously and he works relentlessly,” Gibbs told Basketball Insiders. “And Floyd had the same confidence on the court that he has in the ring, so they were playing hard.”
After the team of soon-to-be pros won convincingly, the group went back to Mayweather’s place to check out his cars (he owned several pairs of cars that were the same year and model, with the only difference being one was painted white and one was painted black) and tour his mansion. The next day, O’Quinn described the unexpected evening as one of the best nights of his life. He was inspired to see that Mayweather had built an empire and become an all-time great boxer through hard work, but was even more shocked by the way that Mayweather treated him like a peer.
“The thing that I remember most about that night is that it was my first time feeling like a professional athlete,” O’Quinn said. “I had just recently gotten to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, so I basically went from being in my dorm room at Norfolk State to hanging out with Floyd Mayweather at his mansion and he’s recognizing us – myself, Ashton, Maalik, Xavier – as fellow pro athletes and there was mutual respect. That was the first time that had happened to any of us and it was a special feeling.”
“He’s right, that’s true,” Gibbs said. “The night with Floyd was epic.”
The players respected Mayweather’s athletic greatness, intense work ethic and ability to overcome every obstacle in his way (including the serious ones he brought upon himself) to achieve his seemingly impossible dream.
O’Quinn always seems to have a positive attitude and be in a good mood, perhaps because he never thought he’d be in this position when he was growing up. He was a late bloomer when it came to basketball and, in fact, he almost gave up on the sport as a junior in high school due to a lack of playing time. He planned to focus on football full time, but ultimately decided to stick it out and play his senior basketball season. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as he thrived. He received a scholarship offer from Norfolk State University and was thrilled, since he never expected to get a full ride to college from basketball. O’Quinn was ecstatic that he could play at the next level. After that, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Try to play overseas? Find a job outside of basketball? Had you told the Queens native that he’d be playing in Madison Square Garden for the Knicks, he likely would’ve laughed in your face.
Fast forward four years later to O’Quinn’s senior year at Norfolk State, when the Spartans shocked everyone in the NCAA Tournament by upsetting the second-seeded Missouri Tigers. This was in large part because of O’Quinn’s 26 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks and two assists (while shooting 62.5 percent from the field). America fell in love with him right after the win when he admitted on national television, “We even messed up my bracket!”
After Norfolk State’s surprising March Madness run ended, O’Quinn thrived at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (where seniors can showcase their skill set in front of NBA talent evaluators before the draft). He averaged 11.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks at the tournament, and once again showed off his clutch gene when he tallied eight points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in the event’s championship game.
Despite starting behind many of his peers, he eventually grew more comfortable in his large body and worked extremely hard to improve. He realized that doing the dirty work that other players shied away from allowed him make an impact each time he stepped on the court, even if his opponent was more talented or athletic. By his senior year at Norfolk State and certainly after the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, it was clear that he’d be drafted. Even still, he had doubts. He checked mock drafts frequently, asked reporters for their thoughts and considered what he would do if he didn’t get picked. When someone would congratulate him that his NBA dream was close to becoming a reality, he’d pump the brakes and pepper his response with “maybe” and “hopefully” and “we’ll see.” The NBA never seemed like a realistic career path, so he was scared to get his hopes up and be crushed.
Unlike some of today’s prospects, who grow up believing that being drafted is a foregone conclusion and become quite big-headed from a young age, Kyle matured and went through four years of college before realizing the NBA was in his future. Coaches and teammates believe this is a big reason why he has remained down to earth and never acts entitled, since he’s essentially playing with house money after exceeding his wildest basketball expectations.
O’Quinn was, in fact, drafted on June 28, 2012. The Orlando Magic selected him with the 49th overall pick. This didn’t guarantee he’d make the team, though, as most players picked that late end up outside the NBA, sometimes before they even suit up for the franchise that drafted them. But O’Quinn won over Orlando’s decision-makers and teammates right out of the gate.
In the Orlando Summer League, O’Quinn played very well and wasn’t afraid to be himself. He dominated No. 9 draft pick Andre Drummond in one game, holding the lottery pick to three points and three rebounds in 21 minutes (while O’Quinn had 11 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes). And he trash talked throughout the entire contest, making sure Drummond knew he was being worked by a late second-rounder who was essentially obscure just one year earlier. Drummond was rattled, to the point that some teammates were trying to comfort him and get his confidence back up throughout the contest. At one point, Drummond told O’Quinn, “You know, I was the No. 9 pick.” O’Quinn says he responded, “I know, I went 40 picks after you. There were a lot of motherf***ers like you taken before me.” Remember, this was a Summer League game.
Another center (who shall remain nameless because Kyle is nice and didn’t want to embarrass him) received similar trash talk whenever the two bigs matched up. O’Quinn always felt that he was better than this individual prospect, but he lost all respect for the other center when the two were at a pre-draft workout competing against each other. Halfway through the workout, the team’s talent evaluators asked the centers to run sprints. Everyone was exhausted, but started running anyway. Everyone except this unnamed center, who told the front office personnel, “F*** it, you aren’t picking me anyway,” and proceeded to leave the gym and not return. O’Quinn cracked up, and still laughs anytime the story is brought up. However, from that point on, O’Quinn was understandably frustrated that he was picked after that center (who went in the first round).
With the Magic, O’Quinn’s hard work, positivity and swagger were contagious. These things were important during the team’s post-Dwight Howard rebuilding years, and O’Quinn became a key rotation player. Due to his sense of humor, hustle plays and the fact that he was always the first player off of the bench to congratulate or console a teammate, he also became a fan favorite in Orlando. It wasn’t uncommon to see O’Quinn jerseys and fake beards around the Amway Center.
One child wore an O’Quinn jersey and fake beard to each home game, so Kyle autographed it, took him in the locker room occasionally and insisted that the boy give him a signed Pop Warner football jersey in return. O’Quinn could barely fit into the child-sized jersey, but he’d squeeze into it for fun every now and then to show the little boy that the fandom was a two-way street. As a kid, it’s a relief when your favorite player is nice the first time you meet him. For this kid, it doesn’t get much better than the events that unfolded after he met O’Quinn and actually became his friend.
“Kyle is the guy who makes you want to come to work every day,” said former Magic teammate E’Twaun Moore, who now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. “Kyle brings positive energy to the team and he works really hard. He’s definitely the type of guy who brings a team together. I think he is the ultimate teammate.”
At one point during his stint with the Magic, O’Quinn tried to cheer up his teammates in the middle of a losing season. O’Quinn is constantly cracking jokes, and he decided to pull a prank on his locker-neighbor Nik Vucevic. Rather than pulling one of the same unoriginal pranks that NBA players have been doing for years, O’Quinn got creative – and, well, personal.
One day, he decided to tape a picture of Vucevic’s girlfriend to the front of his locker. He never said a word about the image, but would tap it for good luck or do things to draw attention to it. I asked him about it during some small talk before a game and, after making sure Vucevic wasn’t around, he smiled mischievously and explained that he had put it up several days prior and couldn’t wait for Vucevic to notice. Finally, after quite a bit of time, Vucevic asked about it and the whole team (including Nik) had a huge laugh.
“I’m not gonna lie, I forget exactly how long [it took him to notice],” O’Quinn said, recalling the prank with laughter. “But it was so funny.”
“Kyle is a great teammate, who keeps things light,” Magic point guard Elfrid Payton told Basketball Insiders. “But he also knows when to be serious. He was always asking questions, trying to learn about the game and get better. He’s a very hard worker.”
When players praise O’Quinn’s work ethic, they aren’t lying. Not only does O’Quinn work hard individually at Impact Basketball and his team’s facility in the offseason, he also makes an effort to travel to where his teammates are training so that he can work out together and strengthen team chemistry. In the past, he has encouraged others to do the same, getting multiple teammates together in the summer. It’s that kind of extra effort – plus his attempts to keep the locker room a fun place and make sure everyone feels included – that has won over countless teammates.
When O’Quinn’s deal with the Magic ended, the New York Knicks rewarded him with a four-year, $16 million contract (through a sign-and-trade with the Magic). Born and raised in New York, this made O’Quinn’s life seem even more surreal.
Last season was O’Quinn’s first with the Knicks, and he averaged 4.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists and .8 blocks in 11.8 minutes per game. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 76.7 percent from the free throw line. In Orlando, he started 41 games and played a larger role, but he did what was asked of him last year in New York and approached his reserve minutes with the right attitude.
He produced when given playing time, as evidenced by his incredibly impressive per-100-possession averages of 20.8 points, 16.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.3 blocks.
Oftentimes he was doing the little things that every team needs from role players, such as fighting for loose balls, making hustle plays and altering shots. However, O’Quinn did block his fair share of shots too. In fact, his 3.1 blocks per-48-minutes ranked seventh in the NBA – ahead of notable interior defenders such as Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Nerlens Noel.
“As someone who does the dirty work myself, I appreciate Kyle’s hard-nosed approach to the game,” Los Angeles Lakers big man Larry Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “If you don’t match his energy and effort, he’ll make the game extremely difficult for you.”
Entering the 2016-17 season, O’Quinn knows he must be ready to produce at his highest level yet. Expectations have increased significantly since the team added Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings to a core that already featured cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. The playoffs are a realistic goal, and O’Quinn wants to be the junkyard dog that makes life easier for his star teammates.
“When I saw the moves, I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re really trying to make a push, we’re not trying to develop,’” O’Quinn said excitedly. “I think this is one of the first teams I’ve been on where it’s pretty clear cut that they went after guys who they think could help win now. In the past, it’s been, ‘Okay, we’ll give this guy a chance,’ or we were signing guys who were trying to find their way into the league.
“Now, I think if we stay healthy, everyone feels [the playoffs] are possible. When I saw the moves, of course I was excited. Playing with Carmelo is exciting enough, but then you add guys like D-Rose and Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee? That’s so exciting. Now, we’ll just try to create a strong locker room with those guys and enjoy the process.”
Creating a strong locker room is one of the things that O’Quinn does best. He brought people together with his sense of humor in Orlando and he has done the same thing in New York, according to his teammates.
“Kyle is hilarious,” Cleanthony Early said after playing with O’Quinn last season. “He’s a jokester and he’s a good energy to be around. He works extremely hard, and he’s a good person. Every team needs guys like that.”
And it’s not forced or some kind of act. He’s just being Kyle.
“I mean, it’s pretty easy coming in the locker room and just being myself,” O’Quinn said. “I think that is the biggest part, just being comfortable with who you are. You’re coming in and letting everyone know who you are, speaking here and there. Some guys don’t speak and I think that’s the first thing you need to do just to ease the mood. Communication and relationships are important.”
In addition to the notable players New York added, they also hired a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. O’Quinn has talked with the new sideline general and is very impressed thus far.
“I think it’s a great hire,” O’Quinn said of Coach Hornacek. “He showed what he can do out in Phoenix. With the team he had, being in the battle for the playoffs in the tough Western Conference was impressive. It goes to show you that he’s had success, he knows how to win. From just hanging out with him for a week down at Summer League, he’s very personable, very straightforward and easy to talk to. I think those are qualities in a coach that are underrated because sometimes as a player, it’s a little scary to talk to coaches. I mean, they determine so much – playing time, plays, everything – so you kind of want to come correct at all times. But I think as a coach, being open and willing to talk to players is a good trait. I’ve talked to him a little bit and we’ve had nothing but positive interactions to this point. I know he wants to up the pace and I think that’s just on us. We have to be in the best shape we can be going into training camp and just really adapt to what he wants to do.”
To be in the best shape of his life, O’Quinn has been grinding at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas.
“Kyle has had an excellent summer of training,” Joe Abunassar of Impact Basketball said. “We were able to bring his weight down and get him in elite shape to be able to play at a fast pace this year and be active in all areas of the game. He has been working out at least two, and sometimes up to three, times each day and now that we are getting into September, we are really focusing in on basketball specifics. His overall game will be much improved this year because of the work he has put in. His consistency is impressive and his focus has been at another level. I have seen dozens of players mature and be able to raise their games, and Kyle has definitely hit that point this summer.”
“I’m just trying to get ready to gel with these guys as quick as I can when I meet up with them at training camp,” O’Quinn added. “We have made a lot of additions to the roster. A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump-shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”
His role as class clown was solidified long ago, and continues in New York.
“Kevin Seraphin is obsessed with social media, so I unfollowed him on all of his accounts during last season,” O’Quinn with a laugh. “I just didn’t say anything and left him unfollowed for a few days. He was so confused. He really cares about that stuff, so he came to practice and was really concerned. It messed with his head. Carmelo played along and told him, ‘If a teammate unfollows you, he’s lost all trust in you. You need to fix this.’ Other teammates went along with it too. Kevin was confused for a few days and then at a team dinner in, I think, Utah, I gave a big speech in front of everyone. I talked about how mistakes were made, but I was willing to give Kevin a second chance and put my trust in him again and rebuild our bond. He was smiling like a kid in a candy shop. Then, everybody just busted up laughing. Jose Calderon was cracking up, sounding like a little kid. That’s when Kevin realized that I was messing with him the whole time and he started laughing too.
“That was my favorite semi-prank this past year,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t done anything too crazy to teammates in New York. Yet.”
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