Growing up in the Congo, the idea of playing basketball competitively wasn’t even on Oscar Tshiebwe’s radar, let alone making a career out of the sport. If anything, the Kentucky newcomer had dreams of playing soccer at the professional level, as that was the area’s most popular sport and one he had thrived in throughout his childhood.
At age 14, though, his brother’s friend introduced him to the game of basketball and pushed him to give it a shot, where he fell in love almost immediately. Despite being brand new to the sport, Tshiebwe knew right away he had found his calling.
“I ended up loving basketball and realized I wanted to be great,” Tshiebwe told reporters Tuesday. “I started watching the NBA and said, ‘I’ve got to practice more, I think I can play in the NBA one day.'”
In an effort to reach his NBA dreams, he moved to the United States in November 2015, just one year after learning to play for the first time. Upon arrival, Kentucky basketball was one of the first things he learned about in America, regularly huddling around the television with his Mountain Mission School teammates to watch the Wildcats play.
“I didn’t know anything about college basketball,” said Tshiebwe. “The first time I came to the U.S., we stayed in a school dorm and everyone – my teammates when we were living together – everybody was talking about Kentucky. Every time Kentucky was on TV, we were watching Kentucky.”
At first, the 6-foot-9 center didn’t understand why his teammates turned on the television when Kentucky played, but not when other colleges such as Duke and North Carolina took the floor. Their answer? “Kentucky is a school that’s like professional basketball.”
Tshiebwe’s eyes lit up, quickly responding back, “Wow, I probably need to go there.”
The standout big man’s thinking-out-loud moment was met with laughs not only from teammates, but his coach, as well.
“Everybody started making fun of me, they were like, ‘No you can’t play for Kentucky. You are not that talented,'” Tshiebwe said with a laugh. “My coach said, ‘You can’t even play for my varsity team, you’re playing on the JV team! You’re telling me you can play at Kentucky?!’ I said, ‘Coach, believe in me! I think I can get to Kentucky.'”
He thought back to a lesson he learned from his father back in the Congo, a phrase regularly thrown his way when times got tough: “There is no impossible.”
The journey may not be easy, but with faith and hard work, anything is possible. Instead of lowering the bar for himself, he set out to prove he can play at a high-profile program like Kentucky and reach his dreams of playing in the NBA.
“Impossible is an excuse for somebody not to try. Everybody has a chance,” said Tshiebwe. “God gives you a chance to do whatever you want to do. If you say, ‘I really want to get that,’ if you put in the work — my dad used to say, ‘It’s not people who are going to give it to you, it’s God who gives.’
“… You can’t really pay attention to people, what they’re telling you. You just have to stay focused and listen to what God has to say. For me not to try and pull myself down to (believing) what they’re saying is the truth, ‘Maybe I’m not talented, maybe I can’t play for Kentucky.’ What I did instead was say ‘I’m going to show you. I’m going work and spend a lot of time in the gym, I’m going to do what I’ve got to do to be a Kentucky basketball player one day.'”
Tshiebwe set out to earn a scholarship offer from John Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff, a process that took years of patience and hard work. His sophomore and junior seasons were dedicated to getting on UK’s radar and putting himself in position to pick up the prestigious offer.
The interest came as a junior, but Calipari was hesitant to pull the trigger right away.
“Coach Calipari came to watch me my junior year, he was like, ‘I like you kid.’ I said, ‘Where’s the offer coach? When are you offering?’ My senior season, we played and he came to watch, said, ‘I like you kid.’ I said, ‘Wow. I’m still waiting for the offer, coach.'”
It wasn’t until a head-to-head matchup with then-No. 1 prospect James Wiseman at the Adidas Summer Championships in Las Vegas that things started heating up between the two sides. Knowing Calipari would be in the stands to see the top prize in the class, Tshiebwe knew he had to “kill” the 7-foot center.
If a scholarship didn’t come at that point, it would likely be time to give up on his dreams of signing with UK.
“I was playing against James Wiseman and I said, ‘Coach Calipari is here, this is my great opportunity for Coach Calipari to offer me because I’m playing against the kid who is No. 1 in the country. For Coach Calipari to give me an offer, I have to kill this kid. I have to kill him. I have to do whatever I’ve got to do. If Coach Calipari doesn’t say anything today, then I’ve got to forget about it.'”
Kill Wiseman, he did, finishing with – as he recalls – 26 points and 19 rebounds compared to the five-star center’s 12 points and one rebound. Not that he was keeping track or anything.
“I was going crazy,” he said of his stellar performance.
Tshiebwe spent the evening checking his phone, hoping a text or phone call would soon come from Calipari. After falling asleep, the former McDonald’s All-American woke up with the message he had been looking for. Well, sort of.
The UK head coach was close to pulling the trigger on an offer, but wanted to see him in person one final time before making it official.
“I had a text (from Calipari), ‘I think I like you kid, we need to talk,'” said Tshiebwe. “I said, ‘Coach Calipari!’ I went to see my AAU coach and said, ‘Coach Calipari texted me, says we need to talk and that he’s going to come watch me.’ We were going to Orlando to play a game, he said, ‘This coming week I’m coming to watch you in Orlando. After I watch you, I think I can give you a scholarship and you can come play for us. We really want you.'”
There he waited at his game in Orlando, watching the clock tick down close to tip off. Several coaches were in their seats ready to watch his highly-anticipated matchup against Kofi Cockburn, a former four-star recruit who would ultimately become a consensus Second-Team All-American at Illinois.
Shortly before tip, Calipari walked over and sat down in the front row, ready for Tshiebwe’s final test. And it was one he aced.
Taking on a 7-foot, 280-pound tank in the frontcourt, the 6-9, 250-pound center quickly realized he wouldn’t win the head-to-head battle with pure strength and post moves. Instead, he’d have to out-run Cockburn and beat him with endurance and motor.
“I decided to make him run a lot, because at 280 (pounds), you can’t keep up a lot. So I ran a lot, ran a lot, dominated that game,” said Tshiebwe. “I think I finished that game with like 25 (points) and 18 rebounds. I killed the game.”
Tshiebwe was rewarded with an immediate scholarship offer, with the UK head coach telling the prized recruit he would push him to reach his dreams.
“Coach Calipari said, ‘I have a surprise for you. You can come to Kentucky, I have an offer for you. You’ve got to come, this place is going to help you and it’s a great place for you.’ He told me a lot of good things.”
Thing is, Tshiebwe ultimately decided to turn down Calipari’s offer the first time around, instead opting to play for Bob Huggins at West Virginia. Despite begging for a scholarship and openly calling Kentucky his “dream school,” the five-star center decided to sign with the program with close ties to his host guardians, who also housed former Mountaineer center Sagaba Konate.
Even while suiting up and finding success at WVU, Tshiebwe knew he made a mistake.
“When it came time to sign, I don’t know where my mind was,” he said. “… I was always like, even when I played for West Virginia, ‘I wish I could play for Kentucky, that was my dream school.’ (My mom) didn’t like that, she was like, ‘Why didn’t you make your move the first time?'”
When given a second chance to play for Calipari and suit up as a Wildcat, the standout big man refused to pass up on the offer.
“God said, ‘You’re crying too much, it’s time to go,'” said Tshiebwe. “So I said, ‘Mom, I’m getting my stuff and I’m going.’ She was like, ‘If that’s where you feel you can be happy, then you need to go.’ She was happy with that, everyone (at home) thought I made a good move.”
Morgantown was good to Tshiebwe – he earned All-Big 12 honors after leading the Mountaineers in scoring and rebounding as a freshman – but his heart was always in Lexington.
“West Virginia was a good place, good people, they treated me really nice,” he said. “I just feel like I was not at the place God wanted me to be for a long time, but I’m in a good place now. I’m so thankful for being welcomed here, all the coaches, Coach Calipari, the fans, everybody, they really care about us.”