Why was Kentucky Oscar Tshiebwe’s dream school?


Kentucky men’s basketball player Oscar Tshiebwe addresses the media after a basketball camp in the Joe Craft Center on June 29, 2021.

Barkley Truax

“I call myself a warrior. I fight,” Kentucky men’s basketball player Oscar Tshiebwe said. “You want to be at Kentucky, you want to be successful? Then you’ve got to fight.”

You’ve heard it a million times, Kentucky’s not for everyone. 

Tshiebwe didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 14 years old. Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, basketball wasn’t the sport of choice for children, soccer was. 

He went along with the norm, playing soccer until one of his brother’s friends urged Tshiebwe to step on the court. Once he finally took his advice, Tshiebwe took to the court like a fish to water. 

Tshiebwe began watching the NBA and believed that one day, he could make it to the big leagues one day. His biggest inspiration is Hakeem Olajuwon and the reason he wears number 34 on the court.

“[Olajuwon] is the best big man ever. He had good moves and he was unstoppable,” he said. “I watch him all the time and I want to play like him.”

Around the same age Tshiebwe got into basketball, he took up another hobby: riding a bike backwards. His high school coach saw him perform the maneuver one time and told him to never do it again.

“If I ever see you do that again, when practice starts, it’ll be you running the whole time,” Tshiebwe said, imitating his coach. Tshiebwe said, why? “Because if you fall, you might end your career.”

It’s safe to say that was the last time he pulled that stunt. At least around his coach.

It was around that same time that he was getting looked at by many coaches around the country, but never heard from Kentucky. His mom was always his biggest supporter.

“I was working so hard to get a Kentucky offer, but when it came to the time [to commit], I decided to choose West Virginia and she was cool with that.” But even when he was in Morgantown, he always had his eye on Kentucky. 

“[His mom] was jumping up and down,” when she found out her son was transferring to Lexington. It was a great moment for the whole family because it’s what he always wanted, but the road to get there wasn’t so easy.

When he first moved to the States, he knew nothing about college basketball but every time he sat down to watch, it always seemed like Kentucky was on the television. “It was like it was professional basketball,” Tshiebwe said, he knew that’s where he was destined to end up.

When he told his teammates about his dream, everyone made fun of him because it didn’t seem rooted in reality. “My coaches told me, ‘you can’t even play on the varsity team, you play JV (junior varsity), but you’re telling me you can get to Kentucky one day?” He said back to him, “Coach, I believe I can be at Kentucky.”

Tshiebwe’s father always told him that nothing is impossible. Something being impossible is only an excuse for someone not to try, everyone has a chance because God has given you the opportunity to do whatever you set your mind to.

So, how did he get on John Calipari’s radar?

“Coach Calipari came to watch me my junior year and said, ‘I think I like you kid,’” to which Tshiebwe replied, “Where’s the offer, coach?” A year passed, Tshiebwe said the same thing, “I’m still waiting on my offer, coach.”

It really started in Las Vegas against future No. 2 overall NBA draft pick and No. 1 overall recruit, James Wiseman. Calipari came to recruit Wiseman and Tshiebwe decided the only way to get his attention was to “kill” the future Memphis Tiger.

“I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do, but if today Coach Calipari doesn’t say anything, I have to forget about Kentucky,” he told himself. Despite leaving Wiseman with a 12 point, single rebound game and going off for 26 and 19, there was still no offer on the table.

The next morning, he woke up to a text from Calipari reading, “I think I like you kid, we need to talk,” he said. The very next week, Tshiebwe’s AAU team was heading down to Orlando for a tournament and Calipari was going to be there specifically for him. 

Tshiebwe was matched up against future Illinois star Kofi Cockburn and once again balled out, scoring 25 points and 18 rebounds. After the game, Calipari said, “I have plans for you, you can come to Kentucky. I have an offer for you.”

“When it came time to sign, I didn’t know where my mind was so I ended up going to West Virginia,” he said. Tshiebwe says his time in Morgantown was a great experience and he loves the people there. 

“I felt like that was a place God didn’t want me to be for a long time,” he said. “So I’m in a good place now and I’m thankful.”