Obi Toppin now has something in common with Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Christopher Columbus and the Philadelphia Eagles, too.
Like all of them, the Dayton Flyers’ 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman believes in the power of the pickle.
Cleopatra attributed her beauty to pickles in her diet. Julius Caesar had his troops eat them for strength. And Columbus insisted the crews of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria all consume pickles to ward off scurvy.
As for the Eagles, they credited their 41-14 trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2000 opener – a game at Texas Stadium when on-field temperatures hit 109 degrees – to the stamina they got from downing pickles on the sideline.
During the second half of the Dayton’s season opener against North Florida on Wednesday night at UD Arena, Toppin agreed to some pickling – at the urging of team trainer Mike Mulcahey – after he ended up doubled over in pain beneath the basket in front of the students’ section.
The night that had begun with the Flyers in a real pickle suddenly seemed worse.
Josh Cunningham, UD’s best player, the team captain and the only senior on the roster – had suffered a wrist injury in practice Tuesday and was ruled out of Wednesday’s game.
Toppin — who sat out last season to meet NCAA academic requirements — was tapped to replace him.
It would be his official college debut and it would be a far cry from last season when he spent the games sitting in street clothes with the end-of-the-bench walk-ons, being a game-long, hop-up-and-down cheerleader.
He said Tuesday night he had “a lot of dreams.”
They were good dreams he said and Wednesday they came true.
He played with a lot of energy, was active inside and early on his teammates continually looked to get him the ball. He scored eight of the Flyers’ first 13 points, three baskets coming on powerful dunks that got the crowd of 12,522 roaring.
Interestingly, he said, he never dunked until he was a 6-6 senior in high school.
“I tried once in my junior year and I couldn’t,” he shrugged.
Against North Florida, he finished with a team-high 18 points and 10 rebounds in the Flyers’ 78-70 victory.
But it was after that 10th rebound – with 12:15 left in the second half – that Toppin managed to silence the entire arena. He grabbed at his right thigh and knee, tried to run down the court, but struggled and finally just bent over.
Asked later if heard the crowd go still, Toppin shook his head: “No, ‘cause I was in so much pain.”
A time out followed and Mulcahey came out and helped him back toward the bench and into the tunnel to get to the Arena’s nearby training room.
Toppin’s leg was cramping badly and Mulcahey knew exactly what to do.
First, he stopped at the rolling medical chest he keeps behind the bench and from the bottom drawer took out his secret weapon:
A jar of whole Vlasic dill pickles.
Pain overrides the palate
“I’ve used pickles for years,” Mulcahey said afterward. “It’s something I learned from a physician a long time ago. It’s natural and it’s amazing how quickly it works for kids who are cramping.
Mulcahey said he always keeps pickles, as well as yellow mustard and saltines in that drawer. And on the road his medical kit includes little packets of mustard.
“Regular old yellow mustard pretty much does the same thing as pickles,” he said.
Some say it’s the vinegar in the pickles, others say it’s the sodium that does the trick although studies have been inconclusive.
Once everyone thought muscle cramps were due to dehydration, depleted potassium or low magnesium. And while that certainly can be the case, research by Dr. Kevin Miller, a North Dakota State University professor, found that many muscle cramps result from motor neurons firing uncontrollably,
Strong flavors like vinegar, mustard, hot peppers and quinine can trigger a reflex in the back of the mouth, stimulating receptors that cause the errant nerve firings to stop.
Toppin said he ate pickles while Mulcahey stretched him out in back and again when he got to the bench:
“I had four.”
Devouring dills at that rate would put him up there alongside two of the greatest pickle poppers in the annals of Flyers sports.
Back in 2010, one of the best pass-and-catch combos in UD football history – quarterback Steve Valentino and wide receiver Justin Watkins – had a ritual they adhered to religiously the night before a game.
To ward off cramps the next day, Valentino would eat pickles – preferably Kosher dills, but he’d also go with bread ‘n butter, gherkins, even sweet hots – while Watkins would just drink briny dill pickle juice.
While some players initially recoil at the pickle suggestion, Mulcahey said the pain usually overrides their palate:
“Some kids balk at first, but when they’re that miserable they’ll do close to anything not to feel that way anymore. They just want relief.”
In the final 15 seconds of Wednesday’s game, UD point guard Jalen Crutcher went down near the Flyers bench with cramps, as well.
Mulcahey gave him pickles, too.
“It really works,” Toppin said. “I love pickles.”
After Toppin returned from the training room, Mulcahey first had him ride the stationary bike behind the bench to loosen up.
As he did, he chatted with the fans sitting nearby. During pregame warm-ups, he came over near press row and acknowledged people sitting just behind the courtside tables.
During the game he had a running conversation with North Florida’s 6-foot-8 Noah Horchler, who led the Osprey with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Horchler is from Melbourne, Florida and for a while, Toppin lived there, too.
“I didn’t remember him, but he said he remembered me,” Toppin said. “I went to Melbourne Central Catholic and he went to Mel High. We played them and we were really cool with them.”
Melbourne Catholic was one of four schools — Heritage High in Palm Bay, Fla., Ossining High in New York and Mt. Zion Prep in Baltimore were the others — Toppin went to before coming to UD.
He was raised mostly by his mom, Roni, but said he got his basketball genes from his dad, Obadiah Sr., who played for the famed New York Gauchos AAU club and also the Brooklyn Kings (USBL), Harlem Strong Dogs (ABA) and then professionally in the Dominican Republic.
He said both of his parents — his mom lives in New York and he said his dad just moved back there — will be at UD Arena Saturday night for the Flyers game against Coppin State.
Besides seeing him, he wants them to experience the Arena atmosphere: “It’s crazy.”
It sounds as if he’s gotten over the initial disappointment he had when he took his first recruiting trip here.
“It’s a funny story,” he told me over the summer.
“When I was getting on the plane to come out here, the board said Dayton, Ohio. I thought I was going top Daytona, Florida. I’m looking at it and finally I call Coach (Ricardo) Greer.
“I was like, ‘Aaaahhh…it says I’m going to Ohio, not Florida!’
“And he says, ‘Yeah, the school’s in Ohio.’
“I was like ‘Aw snap….Dang!’”
Once here though, he admitted: “I lived in Florida before. I saw all that. I wanted something more than just the palm trees and the ocean.”
Wednesday night he got it:
Four dill pickles.
“Did you ever do pickle shots?” someone asked him.
“I don’t know what that is,” he said.
“Straight pickle juice,” he was told
He shook his head: “Oh no, no….I don’t think I could do that…Un-uuuh.”
Hey, it could be worse.
Cleopatra’s beauty routine also included bathing in donkey milk and wearing a crocodile dung face mask.