NASSAU, Bahamas — The first thing most of Kentucky’s basketball team did upon arrival Monday afternoon at the palatial Baha Mar Resort was make a beeline for the on-site water park. Some of them even took swimming lessons in recent weeks to maximize their fun. But when the slipping and sliding commenced in paradise, Oscar Tshiebwe, the most fun-loving Wildcat of them all, was conspicuously absent.
The moment UK’s plane touched down here in the Bahamas, Tshiebwe called his agent and asked, “Where do you need me?” He was summoned to the exclusive beachfront Nexus Club, where bright lights, a green screen, multiple photographers and videographers, a makeup artist and several wardrobe changes awaited him. When he finally walked out of that room four and a half hours later, a few minutes tardy for a welcome dinner with Kentucky boosters, Tshiebwe was smiling (as ever) but exhausted. “That was kind of a lot,” he said.
For his teammates, this trip is about bonding and cutting loose and giving fans a taste of what’s to come with four moderately challenging exhibition games that begin on Wednesday night. But for the reigning national player of the year, who cannot fully participate in NIL opportunities unless he’s outside the United States because he’s on a student visa, this is truly a business trip. Coach John Calipari, who operates on his own time and expects everyone else to adapt their schedules accordingly, has made it clear that the team will work around Tshiebwe’s jam-packed docket this week. He has NIL obligations every day of the trip.
“He can’t do this stuff in the States,” Calipari explained to the team at their meeting inside his two-story luxury suite late Monday night. “Oscar, you weren’t there today, but we all get why you’re doing what you’re doing.” Point guard Sahvir Wheeler chimed in: “He’s getting rich.”
And yes, at long last, Tshiebwe is. With a blitz of photo shoots, ad reads and merchandise signings during this trip, Tshiebwe stands to make about $500,000 in seven days — bringing his total NIL earnings to about $2.75 million — a source familiar with his agreements told The Athletic. He did promotional work for four different companies before he even unpacked his suitcase Monday, which was intentionally scheduled as his heaviest day before games begin, and he stayed on the court for almost two hours after Tuesday’s practice to be photographed with a pizza box under his left arm and a basketball spinning on his right index finger. He wore a blue-and-white Santa hat in another set of photos.
Tired? Yes. “But blessed, because this is the only opportunity,” said Tshiebwe, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Until this week, he’d only been able to license his name, image and likeness — a lucrative loophole that is netting him about $20,000 a month in just apparel sales, one source said — but had yet to participate in a single radio or television commercial, photoshoot for an ad campaign or paid autograph signing. For one glorious, frantic week, that changes. He has about 2,000 Topps trading cards and a stack of other memorabilia in his hotel room that he’ll have to sign by the end of the trip.
“God opened a door,” Tshiebwe said. “I feel lucky, because I don’t get this often.”
With the help of his agent, Nate Conley, and a startup company called Influxer, which pairs athletes and brands and aims to specialize in navigating the complexities of international athletes on student visas, Tshiebwe found yet another clever workaround to his own limitations. He has applied to have his visa switched from student status to the type granted to international celebrities, which would eliminate all his current NIL restrictions. Meantime, the Bahamas offer a taste of what’s to come. Conley doesn’t want to confirm any specific dollar figures, but he acknowledged that Tshiebwe will be well into six figures this week — “He’s definitely made it worth his time” — and long ago surpassed seven figures total.
“He could probably double that, at least,” if allowed to do actual NIL work like he’s doing on this trip while in the US, Conley said. “We have people who want him to come do speaking engagements, and I would say his price would start at $10,000 or $15,000. There’s probably 50 requests in my inbox, and he hasn’t been able to do one. It’s, ‘Sorry, we can’t do this right now until it changes.’ We’ve been lucky to have the support of companies still wanting to be involved with him, and we’ve had to be creative in how we accomplish the deliverables, but unfortunately his hands are still tied unless he’s out of the country. That’s why it has been so nice to come here and not have to work around visa restrictions and let him actually get to actively participate in the experience. Trust me, he’ll get down that water slide once or twice before we leave, but he understands the opportunity he has here. He’s happy to work.
“I think a big part of Kentucky’s thinking in coming here was that, in some ways, this trip is for Oscar, for him to be able to do all of this, and they’ve been great working with us on that. He’s really appreciative and thankful to have this opportunity.”
Kentucky’s usual policy is that team road trips are for university business only but athletics director Mitch Barnhart is bending that rule this week for Tshiebwe.
Some of the photos and videos Tshiebwe is shooting this week are generic. He’s doing the work now, here, while he can, and if some brand wants to buy those images or video clips and add its logo after the fact, for a hefty price, cha-ching.
A group of 20-something former college athletes, including an ex-Wildcat, is helping make all of this happen. Influxer was co-founded by Tyler Jaynes, who played football at Baylor, and Peyton Mabry, who cheered at TCU and paid her way through college as a social media influencer (because cheer isn’t governed by the NCAA). They recently brought on Tod Lanter, a walk-on basketball player at Kentucky from 2012-15, as vice president of operations. All of them agree that international students — who make up about 12 percent of college athletes, Jaynes estimates — have been unfairly excluded from the NIL boom.
“When many of the bones of our company were coming together, Oscar was emerging as a top talent in the country, faced with the hurdles we aimed to remedy,” Lanter said. “Albeit a tricky situation, we saw this as a welcome challenge for growing our business. With Kentucky’s international tour landing this August, we went to work on how we could bring all of this together. And that’s why we are here.”
Here, for Tshiebwe, is finally on the other side of a frustrating situation. Halfway through a season in which he won every major award and was the most dominant college rebounder in decades, he still hadn’t made a dime in NIL. This time last summer, he’d just visited his mother in his native country and discovered after being in the US for years that she was living in abject poverty. He returned to Kentucky on a mission to change her situation. This summer, he traveled back to the Congo to move his mother into the five-bedroom home he bought her with his first wave of NIL riches.
“I found out my mom was living in the worst situation. They lived like animals,” Tshiebwe said. “I put in the work, trusted in God, and God has changed their living situation. I’m very happy. I can take care of my mom, take care of my brothers and sisters. Now I don’t worry. I used to be like, ‘I have no money. How can I help them?’ But now I’m not stressed about money. Now it’s time to focus on some other things. When I went back home this time, I served more than 1,000 orphans. We gave them food, played with them, visited with them. So now I’ve come back here to work so that I can do more for them, feed them, help them go to school for free, help them in a lot of different ways. I worry less about myself. I care more about other people. I’m trying to change somebody else’s life. God did not bless me just to be by myself, to go out and buy a nice house, nice car, everything for myself. He blessed me to be somebody else’s blessing.”
Tshiebwe said that back in the Congo, children run out in the street screaming for him, playfully calling out, “The American! The American!” like he’s a rock star — or the Pope. He’d prefer president. Because he’s not an American, he says. He’s one of them. Tshiebwe could’ve pulled off this NIL work-around while he was back home this summer, but that wasn’t his purpose then.
“His focus was on family, on outreach, on checking out of his basketball life and just helping,” Conley says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s president there one day. We’ve talked about that. He wants to be that impactful to his family, his culture, his country, his world. And everything he’s said he wanted to accomplish, going back to his AAU days, if you talk to his old coaches, has been scarily accurate in the way it’s come true.”
Several of Tshiebwe’s NIL deals have a charitable element, with some piece of the pie (literally, in one case) going to his Big O Foundation, which will provide food, clothing, school supplies and educational initiatives in the Congo. His new deal with Donato’s will give a dollar to the foundation for every pizza ordered during the basketball season. That’s why an exhausted Tshiebwe smiled as he clutched that pizza box and spun a basketball for the 50th time Tuesday after practice. It’s why he happily posed in a blue Santa hat while on a sweltering tropical island in August.
The franchise owners of Donato’s locations around Kentucky pooled their money when they found out the Wildcats star had this brief window to actually shoot promotional material. Sean Byrne, a lifelong UK fan and owner of pizza joints in Owensboro, was positively giddy watching Tshiebwe’s photoshoot in the Baha Mar ballroom-turned basketball court. The Santa hat was his idea. He envisions a slogan like: Oscar Claus is bringing Donato’s to town. They specially ordered the hat for Tshiebwe’s oversized noggin.
“I was told that the first American words Oscar ever said were ‘pepperoni’ and ‘cheese.’ I’m serious!” Byrne said, giggling. “That’s his favorite pizza. So we’re going to offer a half-pepperoni, half-cheese, call it the Big O Pizza, and donate a percentage to his charity. You can just tell he’s a good person. He’s a great representative. He’s everything you want. And people in Western Kentucky don’t always get to see him up close, so I wanted a life-size cutout of him to put in our store so you can walk right up and get your picture with Oscar. Can you imagine the 4- and 5-year-olds all over the state who look up to him? I plan on using him every way we can. We just wanted that face. I cannot wait to get it on a billboard.”
(Top photo: Chet White / UK Athletics)