Photography: Steven John Irby

On draft day, with tears running down his face, an emotional Obadiah “Obi” Toppin Jr. was in disbelief. Five years prior, if someone had told him he’d make it to the NBA, he wouldn’t have believed them. A late bloomer, in terms of both height and recognition from scouts, Obi had zero Division 1 basketball scholarship offers when he graduated from high school. While his body developed later than usual, his maturity, drive and situational awareness accelerated.

Obi knew that his only path to college would be basketball, so he made an unconventional decision; he chose to attend prep school in Palm Bay, Florida, over a thousand miles away from his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. With just one year to make his dreams a reality, Obi’s game grew, and so did his physique. The once 6’2” guard stretched to 6’9”, and the attention from colleges followed, eventually resulting in an offer from the University of Dayton.

After achieving his collegiate student-athlete dream, Obi experienced another growth spurt, in the form of developing an even bigger dream — playing in the NBA. Once the idea of playing professional basketball became a realistic opportunity, Obi’s entire mindset changed.

Combining a lifetime of guard skills, New York City playground pedigree and a new frame reminiscent of his father’s “Dunker’s Delight” nickname, Obi took the college hoops scene by storm, and he eventually earned AP Player of the Year honors in 2020. Suddenly, the kid with big dreams and no offers was league-bound and drafted #8 overall to his hometown team. Now, he’s signing to the brand that inspired him growing up.

We caught up with Obi to talk about his rookie season, how New York City influenced his game and style and joining the Jordan Brand family. Welcome to the family, Obi.

How does it feel to be a member of the Jordan Brand family?

It’s a blessing, because I grew up loving Jordans. I didn’t have a lot, because they were expensive, but when I wanted a pair, my mom got them for me. Being part of this family is very important to me, because I understand what it takes. There aren’t a lot of people in this family; it’s a very small circle. It’s truly a blessing for the Jordan Brand family to be taking me in as one of their own.

You’ve been playing in some of the latest Jordan performance models. How do they feel?

I’ve played in the Air Jordan XXXV, the Jordan React Elevation and the Why Not? Zer0.4. They’re very comfortable, and they feel good on the court. They’re some of the best shoes I’ve played in, so far.

How important is it to not only feel good but look good on the court?

It’s very important. You want to be comfortable on the court, because you’re playing 82 games in a normal season. You don’t want to put something on your feet that’s going to hurt you or make you feel sore after. You want to look good on the court, too. Jordans look amazing. They’re the best performance shoes out there, so to be able to play in them is a blessing.

There’s a certain style and swagger that comes with being a Jordan Brand athlete. How do you describe that?

I grew up watching a lot of players wear Jordan gear. Seeing the swag that comes with it made me step my game up. When I get on that court, I want to be one of the swaggiest guys out there, with the best feets.

Along with swagger, there’s a mindset and burning desire to pursue greatness. Talk about the decision to attend prep school after high school. Instead of giving up after not having any offers, you bet on yourself and continued to work. Where did that self-belief come from?

I feel like I’ve been that way my whole life. I was a late bloomer, so I’ve had to trust the process. I continue to grind and work every single day. I had to believe that my time was coming and understand that everyone has a different path.

There are always going to be bumps in the road and going to prep school was one of the bumps. I took that with a grain of salt. I understood that I had to go in with a mindset of doing what I needed to do in prep school. My mom didn’t have enough money to pay for college tuition, so I had to do what I had to do, in order to get into the University of Dayton. When I got there, I had a whole different mindset. As soon as people started bringing up the NBA, I strived for greatness every single day.

Jordan Brand represents some of the top athletes across all sports. Are there any, past or present, who you are a fan of?

MJ is the best player to ever live. To be part of the brand he created is something I can’t even put into words. It’s great to see the family extend into all different sports and even college football teams. Seeing Jordan swag on the field looks real nice.

You come from a basketball family, including your dad and little brother. What has been your family’s reaction to you signing with Jordan?

They couldn’t believe it. When I told my little brother, he was like, “I’m going to need every pair of AJ1s that come out!” My brother loves Jordans, and my dad loves Jordans. My mom’s going to start wearing Jordans. Our whole family is going to be a Jordan family now. It’s a blessing.

You’re no stranger to wearing Jordans. When did your love for them start? Do you remember your first pair?

I think I was in middle school when I got my first pair of Jordans. I couldn’t tell you which ones they were. My dad got them for me, and I probably wore them for a year straight, every single day. Ever since then, I’ve always wanted the new Jordans, and I would try my hardest to get them. Being part of the family now, I can keep getting the shoes I want.

What are some recent pairs in your rotation?

There have been a couple pairs that caught my eye, like the Union AJ4s and black and gold AJ1s. I have a couple pairs that are really going to stand out when I walk through the tunnel.

New York City is regarded as one of the sneaker and style capitals of the world. How did growing up in Brooklyn influence your style?

New York has a lot of shoe conventions and stores that people fly to from all over the country. Throughout my life, I always saw Jordans while playing basketball in different parts of the city. If you go to Rucker Park or Dyckman, there are a lot of people playing in Jordans. Seeing that throughout my life made me want to change my style up, so I started playing in Jordans, too.

A lot of people from New York take their shoe game very seriously. If you go into any basketball player’s house, I’m sure they have a huge closet full of Jordans. That’s just what this generation is about with their collections. Hopefully I get to build mine up more, too.

Your father is a New York City basketball legend, and you grew up playing in the parks there. Do you feel any pressure from being the hometown kid on the big stage?

It’s amazing. It’s really a blessing to play for my hometown. When it comes to pressure, I’d say that those park tournaments are pretty hard to play in. If you mess up one little thing, then the announcer’s talking smack. The fans in the crowd go crazy. When you walk out of the cage, people come up to you and talk smack about what happened in the game. Those games have a lot more pressure than most. Since I grew up playing in New York City, I’m ready for the opportunity.

Do you have a favorite MJ moment?

I really enjoyed watching The Last Dance and understanding not only what MJ was going through, but also what everybody in the organization was going through. That’s what it took for them to be the team they were. Seeing the whole story pushed me harder, because I want what MJ had. I’m striving to be great every single day.

How has your rookie season been, so far?

We are going to be a dangerous team. We have a really great group of guys who are doing what our coaches have asked of us. We’re very young, and we’re learning every single day. We go into every game believing that we can win, and that’s helped us, so far. We’re moving forward with that same mentality. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we can be a very good team and put New York back on the map.

Jordan Brand is committed to the mission of “Actions Over Words,” in terms of giving back to the community. Being back in your home city, how do you plan on giving back?

I’m definitely big on giving back to not only my city, but also the city that helped me get to where I am today, Dayton. I’m looking forward to giving back to those two places, since they helped raise me. Those cities pushed me to be who I am today. The best way I can thank them is by giving back.