Tonight, Obi Toppin will get one last alley-oop from Jalen Crutcher.
But this time – as was the case in so many games of their Dayton Flyers careers – it won’t be to help lift him high above the hoop for a rim-rattling, crowd-raising dunk.
No, tonight the celebrated UD guard will be at Toppin’s side as he soars to even greater heights and heads into the NBA.
The 6-foot-8 Toppin – the consensus National Player of the Year in college basketball last season – will be a lottery pick in tonight’s NBA draft and many, including Crutcher, think he’ll be a top five selection.
Because of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the normal festivities of the draft – held the past seven years at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Toppin’s hometown – have been cancelled.
So rather than hobnobbing in the green room with the other top players before his name is called, Toppin will be in a pair of high-rise NYC rooms he’s gotten that overlook the Hudson River. He’ll be joined by his parents, grandparents, some aunts and uncles, his girlfriend, a couple of his prep school coaches, the University of Dayton coaches and Crutcher.
“We’re testing for the virus,” Roni Toppin, Obi’s mom said. “Everyone coming here has negative results.”
Her son Jacob, who transferred from Rhode Island to Kentucky this season, is remaining in Lexington and will connect via iPad, Roni said: “He’s got a game next Wednesday and we didn’t want him to have to quarantine.”
While Crutcher described his “special” outfit for the night – cream-colored turtle neck, slacks and a multi-colored jacket that matches – Roni wouldn’t reveal Obi’s look.
“It’ll be a fancy suit, but Obi said if I tell you about it beforehand I can’t come,” she laughed.
So how about just the color?
“Aaah, no. That’s what makes it special.”
Crutcher said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to take part in the celebration until just recently:
"Compliance and everyone have allowed me to go now, so I’m really excited. I can’t wait to hear his name called and know what team he’s on.
“I know for a fact he’s a top five pick. I’d love to see him play with the Warriors (Golden State has the No. 2 pick) with Steph Curry. I’d love to see that!”
He thinks they could make some of the same magic he and Toppin made in their two seasons playing together at UD and especially last season. Both 1,000 point scorers, they were the one-two punch on a 29-2 Flyers' team that became the talk of college basketball.
UD went 18-0 in Atlantic 10 Conference play, was ranked No. 3 in the nation and was on a 20-game winning streak – longest in the nation – when the season abruptly ended before the A-10 Tournament in March because of the growing threat of COVID-19.
Not only were Crutcher and Toppin a read-each-other’s-mind tandem on the court, but they were roommates in the Caldwell Street apartments and the best of friends.
“I still talk to him every single day,” said Crutcher. “He calls me or I call him and we talk about everything.”
As Toppin told me after last season ended: "Me and Jalen are going to be best friends 'til the end. We’ve been through so much together that our connection is like no other.
“We could be blood brothers.”
The connection actually began long before they met outside of the freshman dorm, Marycrest Hall, on Move-In Day in 2017.
“I think it was always meant for me and Obi to be cool, to be close,” said Crutcher.
He said it goes back to when he was a kid growing up in Memphis:
“Obi’s dad used to be this famous streetball player in New York. And he was in a commercial with two other streetballers and three NBA players: Dwyane Wade, Vince Carter and I want to say, Ben Wallace.”
He was right.
In 2006, Gatorade released a commercial on TNT during the NBA All Star Weekend. It was meant to promote Gatorade Fierce and the episode was called “The Homewreckers.”
In featured the NBA trio in a nighttime showdown against the famed Brooklyn streetballers on a gritty, dimly-lit, fenced-in playground court where a sign on the chain link banned weapons and drugs and the rims had metal nets.
The streetballers – who opened the showdown with an unsmiling “You’re in our house now All Stars!” – included Anthony Pelle, “Baby Shaq” Hugh Jones and Obi’s dad, Obadiah Toppin, who was dubbed the “Dunker’s Delight.”
“I had a poster of that on my bedroom wall since I was little,” Crutcher said. “It’s pretty crazy. I looked at it all the time. And then Obi and I meet and end up roommates and best friends.”
When they were at UD, they walked to classes together, ate together and always looked out for each other.
Flyers senior Ryan Mikesell teasingly said they reminded him of “an old married couple.”
When last season abruptly ended, Toppin headed back to New York and eventually ended up in New Jersey where he first worked out with Jacob and then New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox and Dallas guard Jalen Brunson.
Crutcher, meanwhile, returned to Memphis.
Before the pandemic, Toppin had planned to fly to Memphis for his first-ever look at Jalen’s hometown.
“When cornona hit and they were doing the quarantine, he couldn’t get on a plane, so him and his girlfriend drove 15 hours to my home,” Crutcher said.
"I really couldn’t take them anywhere because of the quarantine, but we drove around downtown and on Beale Street and the University of Memphis campus. And my mom, she barbecued and made a bunch of stuff.
“Then I went back to New Jersey with them.”
As the Flyers other senior, Trey Landers, put it last season: “It’s easy to see those two guys love each other. They really are best friends.”
‘Tell us about Obi’
On March 26, Crutcher declared he too was entering the NBA draft. His announcement was more of an exploratory move – similar to what Toppin did the year before – to gauge teams' interest, talk to NBA personnel and find out what he needed to work on.
With the pandemic’s pushback of the NBA draft – from June to October and finally to Wednesday night – he had until early August to change his mind and announce he was returning to UD this season. He did so Aug. 2.
But as he’d talked to various teams, he said one request kept surfacing:
“Tell us about Obi Toppin.”
“It was funny,” he said. “As I was going through the process with these teams on Zoom, they’d ask me about Obi – especially Cleveland and Charlotte. They wanted me to sell them on Obi.”
And what did he say?
“I told then they’d get a hard worker and a good teammate on and off the court,” Crutcher said. "He’s coachable. And he’s always a happy guy bringing good vibes to the team.
“With Obi, you’d get a great basketball player overall.”
Had the coronavirus not ended the season before the A-10 and NCAA tournaments, Crutcher said he might not have returned to UD this season either.
“Without corona, we’d have been in the NCAA Tournament and I feel like we would have won it,” he said. “Like the other guys, I definitely would have been able to showcase myself more and people would see what I can do.”
He thinks that will come this year: “We’re going to surprise people. A lot of them don’t think we’ll be any good because we lost Obi, Trey and Ryan, but we want to prove them all wrong and show we’ve got other people, too.”
The spotlight will be on Crutcher – he’s on the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year watch list – and then next year he’ll almost surely be engulfed by this same draft night anticipation.
“Obi and I talk about that all the time,” he said. “We talk about hopefully ending up on the same team and playing together again.”
So maybe tonight won’t be their final alley-oop after all.