Knicks’ Kyle O’Quinn and 76ers’ Robert Covington are living the dream in the NBA
The two former HBCU stars are making the most of finally making it into the league
For every NBA lottery pick, there are scores of student-athletes who take the road less traveled to fulfill their dreams of playing in the NBA. Two Atlantic Division rivals did just that to get to the highest court in the land: Kyle O’Quinn of the New York Knicks and Robert Covington with the Philadelphia 76ers. Together they share a bond deeply rooted in the tradition of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
O’Quinn was raised in Jamaica, Queens, and it was his stature and not his heart’s desire that piqued his interest in basketball.
“Football, I would say, is my second love. Baseball is my first, and I enjoyed football … but I didn’t have NFL aspirations,” O’Quinn said. “Going into my junior year, I was 6-7 and it was looking crazy that I wasn’t on the basketball team. So I tried out, I made it, but I didn’t play that much, so football was still my main focus.
“That next year I grew a little bit more, and it was kinda like … a blind man could see that I should be on the court versus the field.”
Covington grew up outside of Chicago and took the AAU route. It was the love of the game combined with a strong work ethic that helped him to stand out.
“Going into high school, I only played AAU basketball. My freshman year I was 5-9, but I jumped to 6-3 before the season. My freshman year, I played up on varsity during the playoffs. Coach saw us playing on the side while the varsity practiced and he asked if I was on the team and I told him that I played on the freshman team. He said that I could really shoot, and the next day he told me to meet him after school. I didn’t know why. It just so happened that he gave me a practice jersey and told me I was going to play varsity during the playoffs.”
With limited offers, O’Quinn decided to attend Norfolk State University and Covington went to Tennessee State University. Over their four-year careers, they would acquire the skill and know-how to prepare for the professional level.
O’Quinn became a Spartan because “they were the only school that offered me a full scholarship. I wasn’t heavily recruited and I didn’t play AAU. As soon as Norfolk State offered the scholarship, it was a no-brainer.”
Covington was unsigned during his senior year despite being one of the top players in the prep conference.
“Tennessee State was one of two scholarship offers I had; the other was Sacramento State,” Covington said. “I played in an unsigned senior showcase that April. This coach named Dana Ford, he was there and he saw us play and I had a really good game.
“When my coach told me about Tennessee State … I had never heard of it. When I got there I liked the atmosphere, the staff, the campus. I signed three weeks before my high school graduation.”
Covington was an All-Ohio Valley Conference player in his junior year, but he missed a substantial number of games to injury during his final year. He was undrafted but signed with the Houston Rockets to play in the 2013 summer league.
During O’Quinn’s senior season, he led his team to the NCAA tournament, where No. 15 seed Norfolk State pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tourney history, beating No. 2 seed Missouri.
“I was the player of the year [in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference], the first to achieve that, and the defensive player of the year, but what did it was the win in the NCAA tournament,” O’Quinn said. “People knew what we were doing, but for them to see with their own eyes on national television in prime time, it was the factor that opened the door of opportunities with tryout and pre-draft workouts.”
O’Quinn would earn MVP honors in the Portsmouth Invitational, and with the 49th pick the Orlando Magic selected him in the 2012 NBA draft. “I just wanted to hear my name called that day … that’s what I worked for all those years, and my biggest thing was that it was for the people that helped me at my university … to put a smile on their face.”
A year later, Covington would join him in the NBA, except he wasn’t drafted.
“Not getting drafted was motivation to go out there and prove myself once again,” said Covington. “Before the draft was even over, I had signed with Houston and my agent was working on that from the very beginning. I played in the Portsmouth Invitational, and I worked out for Houston as well. I had a good workout and I actually did the workout hurt, but it all worked out in the end.”
Both players have contributed heavily this season. As a reserve, O’Quinn is averaging 6.3 points a game while shooting 53.7 percent from the field, along with 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. “It’s an amazing feeling to play for my hometown team,” he said. “The biggest thing is letting kids see that it can happen. I know if I didn’t make it to the NBA, I would be OK. I got a free education, I graduated, I have my degree.”
Covington has solidified his position as a starter with 12.8 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. Defensively, he is among the league leaders with 1.9 steals a game. Nothing was guaranteed for either player, especially Covington. He spent most of his rookie campaign in the NBA Development League with the Rockets-affiliated Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
He thrived in the D-League, capturing rookie of the year and All-Star Game MVP honors. The Rockets released him during training camp in 2014, and he was picked up by the 76ers.
“Coach [Brown] really challenged me to become a two-way player,” said Covington.
For the two former HBCU players in the league, lightning struck twice, as they are proof that anything is possible, no matter the odds or circumstances.