That light-up-the-face grin – the one that washes over him as he lopes back up the court after one of those soaring, alley-oop dunks, feeding off the connection he’s again made with the roaring fans and his own, charged-up teammates – she remembers a similar joyous look from many years ago.
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Back when her son Obi was a toddler and they were living in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, Roni Toppin would put him in his stroller and roll him to the neighborhood park.
“As soon as we got there he’d start waving to everybody and just saying, ‘Hi! … Hi! … Hi!’” Roni said with a laugh. “He wanted to make a connection with everybody he saw. He wanted to talk to everybody, wanted to make friends. And he’s still that way.
“When he was little, I always said: ‘One day Obi’s gonna be the mayor.’”
And now that day has come.
At least with Flyers fans and especially this March, Obi Toppin — the toddler who grew to 6-foot-9 — is the Mayor of Dayton.
Nan Whaley may have won the job at the ballot box, but Obi — thanks to his above-the-rim wow and down-to-earth charm — has captured the popular vote in his basketball-loving town.
As the Dayton Flyers open Atlantic 10 Tournament play Friday night at the Barclays Center with a quarterfinal matchup against the winner of Thursday night’s Saint Louis and Richmond game, there is not a more hyped player in the league right now than redshirt freshman from UD.
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Three days ago he was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, the first Flyer ever to win that award.
He also became the first freshman in 20 years to be named First Team All Atlantic 10. The last player to be so elevated was Lamar Odom, who played for Rhode Island in the 1998-99 season and then went on to 16 years in the pros, 15 in the NBA.
Toppin is second in the nation this season with 80 dunks. His 67.3 field goal percentage ranks fourth in college basketball.
He leads the Flyers in scoring (14.4 points per game), is second in free-throw percentage (71.8), third in rebounds (5.6) and tied for third in assists. He’s set UD records for most dunks in a season (80) and both most points (447) and highest scoring average by a freshman.
As the conference season has progressed, he’s upped his scoring average each month.
In January, he was averaging 12 points per game. That jumped to 17 in February and in March it’s 19.3.
But as Flyers hopes have risen with him, there’s also been a gnawing concern in the many UD hearts.
They hope they haven’t elected a one-term – one-season – mayor.
Like Odom, who played just one year in the A10, will Obi try to jump to the NBA after the season?
While the 6-foot-10 Odom had a longer build up – he was a two-time Parade All American in high school and the national player of the year – Obi, in this age of social media, has gotten more exposure.
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Asked this week at a press gathering whether he’d consider going pro after the season, Toppin deflected the query with non-committal politeness and, of course, that winning smile.
While he would be smart to at least test the waters and hear what NBA people say are his strengths and what he needs to work on, he also should listen to those he trusts most.
And no one tops that list more than his mom, the woman who raised him and his younger brother Jacob. She remains his most ardent supporter.
“I hope he makes the right choice and goes go back to school,” Roni said. “He has grown so much this year, but he still has a little more growth to do.
“He has a lot more game that is going to come out and when you think about the team they are going to have next year, it’s going to be something. He’ll grow even more on the court and off and I think he’s in the perfect place to do it.
“Dayton is the perfect fit for him, so I’d like him to stay another year.”
Finding stability at UD
A large tattoo of praying hands beneath a basketball covers his upper left arm.
“I always prayed basketball would take me far in life,” he explained.
And now life is imitating his art.
After an itinerant high school career — he played at two different schools in Florida when his mom moved them there to help out his dad’s family, then played his junior and senior seasons back at Ossining High School in New York and another season at Mt. Zion Prep in Baltimore – he’s found some stability at UD.
An NCAA Prop 48 qualifier last year, he sat out the season and worked on his academics while practicing with the team.
He began this season coming off the bench, but his performances became so dominating at times that Coach Anthony Grant soon moved him into the starting lineup and the team has prospered all the more.
“He was just so ready for this year,” Roni said. “He’s been wanting this his whole life. He loves his teammates and the coaches and the fans, they all love him so.
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“And that’s my worry now for Jacob because we’re going through the recruiting process with him and I don’t know where he’ll end up.
“Remember how scrawny Obi was when he first came to Dayton? Well, that’s Jacob now. He’s two years younger, so maybe he’s on the same growth pattern as his brother.
“He’s 6-7 and actually he may be a little stronger than Obi first was because he came from a school that had a good strength and conditioning program. Thanks to Obi, he’ getting more recognition now.
“And when coaches ask me what I’m looking for for him, the first thing I say is ‘I want him to have the perfect fit…just like Obi found in Dayton.’”
Like many Italian moms, Roni wants to make sure her son eats.
“Every day I’ve been asking him, ‘Obi, you’re coming home this week, ‘I want at least to take you out to dinner.’” she said with a chuckle.
“And he’s like, ‘Mooom! This is a business trip.’
“I said, ‘I understand, but you have to eat. And you’re going to be in Brooklyn and Junior’s is right down the street.’
“And he’s like ‘Mom!’”
Roni said everywhere she goes here people are congratulating her about her son and many now plan to come to the game.
She grew up in Brooklyn and Obi’s dad – Obadiah Sr. or “Big O” as she called him – was once a basketball legend in some of New York’s best known hoops parks and played with the Gauchos, the celebrated New York AAU team whose alumni includes a Who’s Who of the city’s NBA pros.
Big O played with teams in a couple of the lesser pro leagues and briefly in the Dominican Republic, but his career never soared like it could have.
That may be why he gets “so emotional,” (Roni’s words) over Obi’s success now.
But Obi’s biggest booster is his mom. She seen every game via TV and the Internet or in person.
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She went to the Bahamas tournament, an early UD Arena game and Flyers road stops at Fordham, UMass, Rhode Island, George Washington and when they played at the Monhegan Sun Casino and Resort in Connecticut.
Knows for the empanadas she makes, she brought two full trays – 60 empanadas, in all – to Connecticut for the Flyers.
The thought made her laugh: “Later Obi told me, ‘Mom, I shared one tray, but I kept the other one for me and Jalen.’”
Jalen Crutcher is her son’s roommate and the point guard who hoists most of those rainbow assists that turn into Obi slams.
As it turns out, Crutcher’s given Obi something else this season, though Roni’s not sure she appreciates it.
“I’ve been noticing lately that Obi’s getting an accent,” she laughed.
“Finally, I said: ‘Obi, stop talking like Jalen! You’re not from Memphis. You’re Brooklyn! Don’t forget where you came from.’”
This weekend, he won’t.
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