UNLV vs. Portland State November 8, 7:30 p.m., $15-$90. Thomas & Mack Center, 739-3267.
When Kevin Olekaibe was in sixth grade, he was cut from the basketball team at J. Harold Brinley Middle School in Las Vegas. At the encouragement of his art teacher, who had taken over as the basketball coach, he tried again the next year, and by then was probably the best player in his grade. After tryouts, Olekaibe showed up to school early and looked for his name on the list with that year’s roster. It was nowhere to be found.
It turned out the school’s janitor had erased Olekaibe’s name to prank his young friend. Olekaibe made that team, his first, and last Monday he learned he had officially joined another.
After months of speculation, the NCAA approved Olekaibe’s hardship waiver, all but clearing the way for the senior to play immediately for UNLV after transferring from Fresno State. The Rebels are waiting on approval from the Mountain West Conference to grant relief from its penalties for transferring in conference.
If the conference supports the NCAA’s decision prior to Friday’s season opener against visiting Portland State, Olekaibe should begin giving the Rebels much-needed help in the backcourt after Bryce Dejean-Jones, arguably their best player, injured his hamstring last week.
Olekaibe went from Brinley to Cimarron-Memorial High, where he averaged more than 35 points as a senior. His father’s poor health brought Olekaibe back to Las Vegas, where he has walked on and isn’t on scholarship.
In two Fresno State victories against the Rebels last season, Olekaibe averaged 17 points per game. Those were a couple of bright spots in a season marred by injuries and the mental distraction of being away from his family while his father’s health deteriorated.
Benson Olekaibe, who’s originally from Nigeria, suffered a stroke in 2008 and then another in 2009. Living in hospice care, Benson got worse over the past year. He’s now mostly paralyzed and can’t communicate.
The family, including many of Kevin Olekaibe’s six siblings and his mother Esther, spend a lot of time at Benson’s bedside. That’s where Esther was when she saw the news about her son’s eligibility on TV.
“(It’s great) to put a smile on their face; just to get their mind off my father,” Kevin Olekaibe said.
Last season, Olekaibe averaged a career-low 8.3 points per game, but as a sophomore he put up a team-leading 17.8. With a clearer mind, Olekaibe sounds confident he can get back to that level if that’s what the Rebels ask him to do. “People may have forgotten that old KO,” he said, “but I’ve improved since then.”
As national writers and even former Rebel Jimmy Kimmel put on a full-court press to make sure the NCAA made the right decision, Olekaibe went about his day. The communication major was asked to speak at a teachers’ workday about the inspiration he drew from his instructors in the Clark County School District. Olekaibe found himself telling a gym full of middle school teachers about the janitor’s prank. Hours later he was officially a Rebel.