Obadiah “Obi” Toppin leaned forward, wearing a T-shirt with DAYTON across the front, red UD shorts and what is becoming his trademark, effervescent smile, and said with self-deprecating delight:
“Here’s a funny story.
“When I was getting on the plane to come out here, the board said Dayton, Ohio. I thought I was going to Daytona, Florida. I’m looking at it and finally I call Coach (Ricardo) Greer.
“I was like, ‘Aaaahhh…it says I’m going to Ohio, not Florida!’
“And he says, ‘Yeah, the school’s in Ohio.’
“I was like ‘Aw snap….Dang!’”
But the 6-foot-9 Toppin – who grew up in Brooklyn and now calls Ossining, N.Y. home – said his disappointment was short-lived: “When I was on the plane, people were like ‘So you’re coming in for a visit at Dayton?’ I was like, ‘Wow! How do people already know that?’
“And when I got off the plane people wanted to take pictures with me and stuff. I felt the vibe, like they wanted me here and were accepting me already.”
He said that’s when he realized being a Flyers basketball player in Dayton must be a pretty big deal.
“When I got to the campus it was just beautiful,” he said. “I felt like I belonged here.
“And when I met Coach (Anthony) Grant, we connected right away. It was like that with all the coaches.”
As he sat in the Cronin Center the other day, Toppin took a moment to look back before talking about the far more anticipated debut ahead.
The redshirt freshman – who’ll be one of the instructors in the Dayton’s four-day camp for grades 2 through 9 that begins Monday – is preparing for his first season on the court for the Flyers.
Sitting out last season to meet the NCAA academic requirements, he was able to practice with the team, but spent game nights relegated to the bench in street clothes.
And that’s when he really showed what he was made of.
It was a roller coaster season for the 14-17 Flyers and while a couple of scholarship players spent part of the year in a funk while sitting a seat or two away from him, Toppin instead aligned himself with the walk-ons at the end of the bench who are de facto cheerleaders come game time.
“On the bench our job was to keep everyone’s energy up,” he said. “When the other guys are on the court playing, I felt my game was pumping them up so they stayed hyped.”
At the team’s awards banquet after the season, he won the Dr. George Rau Spirit Award. It was the first-time ever that the honor went to a non-active player.
Born to play
“He had basketball sheets in his crib,” said Roni Toppin, Obi’s mom. “His first toy was probably a basketball, too. Definitely, we were a basketball family.”
She said his father – also named Obadiah — ‘’became a legend in New York City basketball.”
He made his reputation in some of the well-known hoops parks in the city and with the Gauchos, the famed New York AAU team whose alumni includes trumpeted players like Rod Strickland, Kenny Anderson, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, Jamal Mashburn, Stephon Marbury, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, John Salley and Kembra Walker.
Although he starred with the Gauchos, he did not have the same success in college ball.
“He was from the streets and getting him into a classroom was another story,” Roni said. “There were a couple of coaches who tried, but he wasn’t a classroom person.”
He played for a while with the Brooklyn Kings in the USBL and the Harlem Strong Dogs in the ABA and then played pro in the Dominican Republic.
“My dad took me under his wing when I was younger and took me to parks with him,” Obi said. “They called me Second Generation.”
Roni said the family moved to the Melbourne, Florida area where her husband’s grandparents needed assistance.
Obi played his freshman season at Heritage High in Palm Bay and the following year at Melbourne Central Catholic.
After that, he, his mom and his younger brother, Jacob, moved back to New York and eventually settled in Ossining, north of New York City.
Obi played two seasons at Ossining High. As a 6-foot-4 senior, he averaged 20.6 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.
“That senior year we weren’t sure he was ever going to play college ball at all,” said Roni, who is a special education teacher in the Washington Heights section of NYC. “Same as his father, the classroom wasn’t always for him.”
Except for a junior college, Obi said he had no offers.
But Roni said he “blew up” over the next year or so and grew over four inches.
Obi said his godfather, Victor Manaros, had a connection to Mt. Zion Prep in Baltimore. There Obi averaged 17 points and eight rebounds and got offers from Georgia, Rhode Island, Fordham and Georgetown, but chose UD.
“I wasn’t looking for a really big school,” he said. “I wanted a place where I could play and stand out. “
First, though, he had to sit out.
“I wasn’t mad,” he said. “I looked at it as another cheat year where I could get stronger and develop. It was the fuse I lit to get better.”
Sea of cheers
His UD roommate is Jalen Crutcher, last season’s freshman point guard out of Memphis.
“He’s only been to the city once, for the Rumble in the Bronx (basketball tournament) and he said he didn’t like it,” Obi said shaking his head. “But he needs someone to help him explore. I’m gonna bring him the next time.
“I’ll show him Rucker Park and some of the other best places (for basketball). I’ll show him good food spots like Katz’s Deli and Junior’s cheesecake. I’ll show him Times Square and Central Park.”
As he thought about his hometown, especially the Bushwick section where he grew up, he smiled:
“Man, I love Brooklyn.”
He gets his New York fix when his mom comes to Dayton, which she has three times already. This season she hopes to be at a lot of the UD games.
She’s Italian and while she said her son “loves my eggplant parm,” she said he “really loves when I make Spanish beef patties. They’re like Jamaican beef patties. In New York, the Puerto Rican and Dominican places make them, but I make them my own way.
“When I come, I bring 50 of them and they eat them all.
“But I found a Spanish grocery store when I was in Dayton, so we’ll be able to do them here, too.”
She said Dayton “is a great fit” for her son: “The coaching staff is amazing. I know they’re helping mold Obi into a man. He’s got a vision for the future now.”
On the immediate horizon for both mother and son is the Flyers’ home opener when Obi will run out of the players’ tunnel into a sold-out arena where the crowd is roaring.
Roni plans to be in the stands: “When he goes onto the court I’m going to be crying.”
Her son will feel the emotions, too: “I already have it set in my head. I know my heart is gonna be beating fast…I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment.”
So he’s over landing in Dayton, not Daytona.
“Oh yeah,” he grinned. “I lived in Florida before. I saw all that. I wanted something more than just the palm trees and the ocean.”
Soon he’ll have a sea of cheers washing over him.