The Next Generation

Obi Toppin
·16 min read

The thing about streetball is that there’s no hiding.

I grew up in New York City, and my earliest childhood memories involve places like Dyckman court in Inwood, West 4th Street and, of course, Rucker Park.

When you’re on those courts, there’s no faking it. You either ball or you’re gonna hear about it.

And when I say “hear about it,” I don’t mean a coach pulling you aside. I mean the announcer on the mic, the other team, everybody in the bleachers, and the people hanging out of windows — or 30 floors up on a roof — letting you hear about it.

When you have that level of pressure and the atmosphere it creates — there’s just nothing like it.

I grew up getting to watch some of the greatest playground legends ever, but my favorite player of all time goes by “Dunker’s Delight.”

Let me tell you about Dunker’s Delight.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out how he got his nickname. My man could throw it down from anywhere. Cradle-reverse dunk? Easy. 360 windmill? Might as well be a layup. He could fly.

He was on the Court Kingz, a streetball team that traveled around the country, kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters. He got his nickname for his dunking, of course, but what made him truly stand out was that there was so much more to his game. He could shoot from anywhere, make no-look passes, had unreal handle, and could get to the basket whenever he wanted. But make no mistake, if you thought of yourself as a rim protector, Dunker’s Delight was ready to put you on a poster.

There were so many young ballers who were inspired by his game, who dreamed of being able to play like him. Dreaming of one day maybe having that level of respect and legend status that he had every time he rolled up to a court.

Dunker’s Delight is my hero … and he also happens to be my dad, Obadiah Toppin.

That’s actually how I ended up getting a nickname of my own: “the Next Generation.”

Dunker’s Delight is my hero … and he also happens to be my dad, Obadiah Toppin.

That’s what they called me when my dad started letting me play in games with him when I was 12. Oh my God, you want to talk about nerves. I was just a scrawny kid out there, and because of my dad I was running with the most amazing players as they’re putting on a show. You know, just the other day, I was watching a YouTube highlight of me throwing him an off-the-backboard alley-oop. I still pull those videos up every now and then just to kind of take me back to those times.

Back then, the idea of playing in the NBA — or even in college — seemed far off. I wasn’t any kind of standout. As far as I knew, those games I played with the Court Kingz might have been my basketball peak. And honestly? That would have been O.K., because sharing the court with my dad is always going to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. My dad didn’t have to give me those experiences — it wasn’t like there were a lot of kids running around when the Court Kingz played — but he did.

Over the years my family really struggled while my dad attempted to live out his basketball dream. I can’t tell you how many times I moved growing up. Seriously, I can’t even begin to count. There was nobody who believed in my dad’s abilities more than I did, and seeing him struggle made me realize just what a grind it truly was to make a living playing this game.

We struggled a lot. We moved around to a lot of different apartments, and most of them weren’t places I want to remember. It’s easy to lose focus and fall down the wrong path in that situation. And that’s why I was lucky that my dad wasn’t the only hero in my family. My mom? She’s a real legend, too. Not necessarily for her game — although she did coach a little bit — but because she was the one who gave my family stability growing up. No matter where we were, she always held us together.

When it came to my own basketball dreams, I knew I just needed to be good enough for someone to give me a scholarship to play basketball in order to take the financial burden off my parents.

But just getting to play after high school actually seemed like kind of a long shot. Usually top prospects follow a schedule where they’re basically on track for big things by the time they’re sophomores. But I was a late bloomer. Didn’t dunk for the first time until the beginning of my senior year — and that one barely grazed the rim. (Still counts!) And by the time I finished high school, basketball still hadn’t really clicked for me. I wasn’t at the level I knew I had to be at to play in college. But I still believed that I could get there. Maybe not the NBA, but I could get that scholarship and maybe even play overseas, like my dad had.

Ultimately, I decided to go to prep school — to take one year to prove myself — and that was when my mindset changed. I began to have higher expectations and ambitions for myself, and I stopped letting other distractions get in the way. For the first time in my life, I truly focused all of my energy on my game. Just like at Dyckman or Rucker, I knew being average wasn’t an option.

During that year, I learned a lot about myself, my game matured, and my dunks weren’t just grazing over the rim anymore. Now I could do all the same dunks as my dad (and a few new ones of my own). And for the first time I started getting some recognition for more than being the son of a famous streetball player. College programs actually began to show real interest in me.

The opportunity to play college ball and really try to take basketball as far as I could was about more than me. I was living out this dream for my dad, too. He’d made a name for himself, and I was the next generation. That honor has never been lost on me.

I visited a few different college programs, and they all had certain things I liked. But then I went to this place I’d never been before in Ohio. It was called Dayton.

And I never wanted to leave.

Couresy of the Toppin Family
Couresy of the Toppin Family

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was home the moment I set foot in Dayton.

As soon as I landed at the airport, I had random people somehow recognizing who I was and telling me to come play there. And it wasn’t just at the airport — when we walked around campus, everyone seemed to be in on it. Everyone we passed had huge smiles, and they’d be chatting up my mom about what a great school it was and how tight-knit the community was.

You have to understand, having moved around to so many places growing up, I wasn’t accustomed to really walking around somewhere and having people say hi and ask how I was doing. And like, really mean it.

Everywhere you looked, there were flags and signs supporting the team. It was clear that basketball at Dayton was a very, very big deal.

Coach Grant knew that I wanted to play at the next level, and the only thing he promised me on that very first recruiting visit was that he’d do everything he could to prepare me. And he also told me that if I ever was ready to make that jump, he’d let me know. He didn’t promise me the moon, but he also didn’t tell me it would be impossible to get there. It was on me.

The outside world might see Dayton and think of it as just a mid-major program that makes some noise from time to time — but they don’t really get it. Dayton is a town that lives basketball. It’s the thing that really brings everyone together, and only when you’re part of that do you feel how important it is.

Everybody in Dayton loves the basketball team — and I just happened to play for it. It really wasn’t hard to put your whole heart into the game because everyone else did, too — the players, the coaches and definitely the fans. That was just the culture. Not surprisingly, the more time I spent there, the more I started growing as a person and a player.

At the end of my second year on campus, I met with Coach Grant. I’d been named to the All-Conference team and gotten a few other awards, too. He told me that I wasn’t ready for the NBA, but that I should test out the draft process to get a feel for it, and so I could get feedback from teams. Then he said something else, something that I still remember vividly, “After that, come back here, put on a show and leave a legacy.”

Courtesy of Obi Toppin
Courtesy of Obi Toppin

As my father’s son, the word legacy means a lot to me. I had a belief that the NBA would be there for me later, but I knew that I still had another dream to chase.

Everybody else in the college basketball world might have been sleeping on us, but Coach knew we were building something. It wasn’t just because of me — we had Jalen Crutcher, and seniors like Trey Landers and Ryan Mikesell, just so many guys who could ball. We knew we had a team that could play with anybody. We just needed to prove it.

Our opportunity came in Maui.

The Maui Invitational usually attracts some of the biggest programs in college basketball. It wasn’t even that we weren’t the favorites there — we weren’t even a team most people looked twice at. We were basically expected to just be a warmup for the bigger schools.

But that expectation changed pretty quickly after our first game.

We played Georgia, which was led by Anthony Edwards, a name familiar to anybody keeping up with the NBA draft. We went into that game with zero expectations from anybody, and we didn’t just win, we dominated. Then we did the same thing to Virginia Tech, and at that point right there, we knew, O.K., this is the team we are.

That championship game against Kansas, well … I still think about it a lot. What I never appreciated when I was watching those Maui games on ESPN growing up, is just how tiny the arena in Lahaina is. You’re basically in a high school gymnasium, playing these super high-stakes games. And against Kansas — I don’t know how they got so many fans in there, but it was loud. I still remember Jalen trying to say something to me during the game and just seeing his mouth move but not hearing any noise come out.

We ultimately took them to overtime before losing. It was a great game, but we knew that if we saw them again, it was going to be different. We wouldn’t drop the next one.

The season after that point, man, it’s like a blur to be honest — just like ... too many good times.

Look, we won 20 games in a row heading into March. If I’m lucky I’ll get to experience a lot of great things during my basketball career. But I know for certain, that 20-game run with my best friends is something I’m always going to treasure. It was difficult to really describe what the excitement and hype around Dayton was. The town had gone through multiple tragedies leading up to the season, so for us to serve as this positive thing to be excited about — and all the energy the fans there gave us — it was amazing.

By the time we made it to the Atlantic 10 tournament, our ambitions were huge. We wanted to win it. We wanted a No. 1 seed. And we wanted another shot at Kansas.

I was really excited about the conference tournament because it was played in Brooklyn, so it felt like a kind of homecoming. Leading up to it, we’d heard some rumors about games maybe being postponed because of a virus or something, but my focus was on what we had to prove there.

I remember the night we arrived, the plan was to watch the end of the Fordham-Duquesne game and then go to bed because we had an early workout at the Nets’ facility.

As halftime was ending, I noticed the teams weren’t coming out of their locker rooms to warm up for the second half. At first I thought, Oh, that’s weird. Where are they? Then it clicked in my head what was actually going on. It was at that moment that my stomach just dropped.

I knew it was over.

The season was going to get canceled.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Not long after that, Coach called us in for a meeting and made it official — there wouldn’t be a conference tournament or an NCAA tournament. It was over.

And like that we were on a bus back to Dayton. The 20 wins, the No. 3 ranking, the legacy we were building — they were all gone.

There were a lot of tears on that bus ride. It just didn’t feel real. Like, How could this be how the story ends?

We were hurting not just for us, but also for the community. We knew how much our team meant to it, how we’d become this source of hope. Our fans deserved to enjoy watching us play, and to get their moment in the national spotlight.

And I just felt terrible for my teammates. I’d built up a name for myself throughout the season, but the tournament was when I knew Jalen, Trey and Ryan would get their chance to show what they could do. And on that huge stage, the world would finally see what I saw in every game and every practice — that we had a team good enough to beat anybody. A team that expected to beat anybody.

My heart still hurts over us not getting that chance to truly prove ourselves. But with time, I’ve gotten a little more perspective.

If you’d told me three years ago — when I was trying to figure out some way to keep playing basketball — that one day I’d be on a D-I team that won 20 games in a row? I probably wouldn’t have believed you. If you told me that six years ago, I for sure wouldn’t have believed you.

And while I didn’t get to end my career at Dayton the way I wanted to, that doesn’t take away from what we did accomplish. I don’t think anybody who was part of what we did will ever forget it.

Not long after we got back to campus, Coach Grant pulled me into his office. We’d had a lot of meetings over the years, but this one was really short. He just looked me in the eyes and said, “It’s time to leave. You’re ready.”

I didn’t get to experience a lot of things that I hoped I would last year, but that one moment of validation is one that I know will always stay with me.

My heart still hurts over us not getting that chance to truly prove ourselves.

We all have dreams, ones maybe we just keep in the back of our minds but never really express. You work toward it and work toward it for a long time, usually never knowing if you’ll ever get anywhere. Most of my life, I didn’t know if I’d ever be ready for the NBA. Such a small fraction of people are. Me and my family appreciate as much as anybody how hard it is to pursue this life, the sacrifices it takes.

Being pulled aside for a “You’re ready” from someone like Coach Grant — someone I just respect so much — and knowing he meant it, I just started crying. No, it wasn’t how I thought my career at Dayton would end. I never got to cut down those nets with my teammates, or run around the court celebrating on national TV.

It’s easy to get swept up in the things you can’t control — particularly in the time we’re living in now. But this whole experience has taught me just how important it is to maximize what I can control — to put my focus on building up myself and my relationships so that I’m ready for whatever happens.

Like right now, did I expect to be thinking about the NBA draft in November? With everything done remotely? Uh, no. That wasn’t how I quite dreamed it up.

But that doesn’t take away from the big picture. To be on the brink of being drafted into the NBA, having the chance to represent my dad, and feel like I truly earned that name the Next Generation? Well, that means everything. That’s what matters.

I didn’t get to this moment the way I imagined, but at the same time, I’ve never really taken the traditional path to anywhere. I’ve just always been really lucky to have the right people in my life to guide me along.

I still get asked all the time: How do you think you guys would have done in the NCAA tournament?

And speaking as a soon-to-be-professional who handles things very professionally, I don’t like dwelling on the past and talking in hypotheticals.

O.K., that’s out of the way.

Now, in my heart, as a Flyer, do I truly believe we would have been the last team standing at the end of March Madness?

Hell yeah.

No doubt.