Shotgun marriages rarely have happy endings. Las Vegas knows that better than most cities. But there are exceptions.
Fortunately, UNLV senior shooting guard Kevin Olekaibe is an exceptional kind of guy. The Las Vegas native would have been more than happy to stay at Fresno State for his senior season. After all, he had a pretty good thing going as the Bulldogs’ starting shooting guard.
But circumstances change. Over the summer, Olekaibe’s father had to be placed in hospice care in Las Vegas. Two strokes had already left him paralyzed from the waist down and unable to speak, and the downturn in his father’s health led Olekaibe to reconsider his options.
Olekaibe wanted to be closer to his family—that was priority No. 1. He didn’t feel he could do that from California, so he moved back to Las Vegas and enrolled in summer classes at UNLV. He had no guarantee that the NCAA would even allow him to play for the Rebels this season.
When the NCAA cleared him just before the start of the regular season, Olekaibe had been officially practicing with the Rebels for less than two months. He wasn’t even on scholarship. Technically, he’s played this season as a walk-on.
And yet, he’s made the marriage work. Despite being thrown into the starting lineup almost immediately, Olekaibe has delivered for the Rebels, averaging almost 11 points per game while shooting a team-best 36 percent from 3-point range.
That long-range accuracy has made him especially valuable to the Rebels, who have struggled from beyond the arc. Olekaibe’s much-needed deep touch has earned him 30 minutes per game, second-most on the team.
Perhaps even more important than Olekaibe’s shooting prowess has been his character. “He does everything right,” Rebels coach Dave Rice says. “He does everything right on the court, he does everything right off the court. He’s a leader.”
On a squad that had only one returning senior—Carlos Lopez-Sosa—Olekaibe’s leadership has been crucial.
“He’s the most positive guy on our team,” Rice says. “If a guy makes a mistake, he goes up and pats him on the back and tells him how he can do things better. And he has had a big hand in helping some of our younger guys make progress.”
Olekaibe takes his role as a team leader seriously. Even while dealing with his family situation, Olekaibe has never let it affect his approach on the practice court, in the locker room or during games.
When his father suffered another setback in mid-February and had to be moved from hospice care to the hospital, Olekaibe responded by scoring a season-high 21 points in the Rebels’ next game, a road win at Utah State.
It’s a lot of emotional weight to bear, but instances like the Utah State explosion show just how much of a lift Olekaibe is getting from playing basketball and being around the team.
“It’s tough, but I’m getting through it,” Olekaibe says. “My coach has really helped me a lot, my teammates have helped me a lot. Everything will be good. Basketball helps me get through stuff like this, so I’ll be fine.”
And so an unexpected senior season has brought unexpected gifts for both Olekaibe and his team.
“I knew before making the decision that I wanted to be close to my family, and nothing was going to stop me,” Olekaibe says. “It’s worked out. I’m just happy to be here. We’ve had an up-and-down season, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
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