Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Apr 22, 2013

Jimenez newscast

The one-word description Omar Jimenez chose was obvious. He hesitated for a moment, but only to delay the inevitable. He spoke with confidence, conviction, armed with a detailed explanation of why he considers himself, above everything else, “motivated.” But on this day, Jimenez was tired. “All the time,” he says.

It was nearing 9 p.m. on a Thursday night after an exhaustingly hectic week, and Jimenez, a sophomore walk-on on the Northwestern basketball team, just wants some sleep. Soon, he’ll retire to his dorm room – which is less an actual place of residence than a stop-and-go fueling station – and Jimenez will get his wish, but not before relaying the extenuating circumstances that explain his exasperated state.

His day began at 5:15 a.m. – check that. His day only began insofar as you consider 1.5 hours of sleep an actual partition between staying up until 3:30 a.m. to write a paper Wednesday night and hopping out of bed, getting dressed and traveling to NBC studios in downtown Chicago the next morning. This is a typical Thursday for Jimenez, the second day of his semiweekly internship beginning at 7 a.m. sharp and ending sometime in the late afternoon. Only today his work responsibilities kept him there overtime, and Jimenez didn’t make it back to campus until sometime around 7:30 p.m.

The internship is one thing. It’s the rest of Jimenez’ weekly responsibilities and obligations that have him consuming every waking moment of his college livelihood. If it’s not basketball, then it’s music. If it’s not music, then it’s schoolwork, or the internship, or whatever other activity Jimenez finds himself motivated to do at any given point in time.

“It’s just all the things that I somehow wind up involving myself in,” he says.

The good news is that Jimenez’ grueling workweek is over. He has no classes Friday, no national broadcasting conglomerate to attend to before sunrise. All he has on his mind is sleep. When he wakes up, Jimenez will be motivated again.

It makes the mind wonder: where, exactly, does this motivation come from? Where does a second-year college student develop the self-discipline, the motivation, to balance Division I basketball, a degree at the prestigious Medill School of Journalism, a burgeoning hip-hop career and, in the rarest of times when Jimenez isn’t tired or motivated, a social life?

He will gladly tell you.

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It’s late in the second half of a Northwestern’s November 2011 nonconference game at Georgia Tech, and the Wildcats have built a solid lead. They are well on their way to picking up their sixth win of their undefeated season. Just under the two-minute mark, Jimenez gets the call. It’s his time.

A missed shot induces a clutter of bigger, more experienced bodies to convene near the rim and a loose ball squirts out towards the elbow. Jimenez catches, collects himself and his rushing emotions, and lets loose. “First shot of the year, first time ever playing college basketball,” he says.

Twine.

At first, he couldn’t quite come up with a celebration to occasion the moment. In fact, Jimenez couldn’t make out the ecstatic expressions of his friends and family looking on, his closest hometown acquaintances who had come to watch the Yellow Jackets and Jimenez, in the off chance that maybe, possibly, he might get some court time if the circumstances broke right. Jimenez can’t tell you what happened as he ran back on defense, but he has a pretty good idea how his friends received the events unfolding before them. A video tape, created by a student videographer and his father, reveals two voices of extreme encouragement. “Shoot it Omar, shoot it!,” was how Jimenez described it.

It was one basket, one two-point exchange, one lasting moment of self-gratification in an otherwise nondescript freshman season, and it hints at what Jimenez’ college career might have been and might still wind up being.

“It was pretty cool,” he says. “I only got in the game for like two minutes, but it’s something I won’t ever forget.”

During his freshman year of high school, Jimenez played for Georgia Fast Break, a nationally competitive AAU club out of Atlanta. His priorities were crystal clear: Jimenez wanted to play Division I basketball, and he wanted to play at Georgia Tech. Everything else would fall into place.

The next two years changed his mindset, his life views and the overall trajectory of his college search. Jimenez fractured his back, an injury that kept him off the court eight full months and forced him to miss the crucial summer evaluation period heading into his junior year. No worries – there’s always next summer, and injuries never happen in pairs, and besides, nobody is that unlucky, anyway, right? Jimenez would recover, return to the court, reconnect with some of the schools that had reached out during his freshman year (Stanford, Harvard and others) and everything would go according to plan. Until it didn’t.

Omar game

(Photo credit: Stephen J. Carrera/NUSports)

“Everything happens for a reason,” is a phrase Jimenez uses to explain the challenges he faces in life, and never was it more pertinent than his junior season, when Jimenez, shortly after recovering from an onerous back rehabilitation, snapped his arm diving for a loose ball in practice.

“It was just a freak thing,” he says. “I was disappointed, but it happens, I guess.”

With that, another pivotal summer evaluation period went flying out the window, and Jimenez saw his foremost goal slipping away.

“The injuries really hurt me as far as recruiting goes, but hey, I ended up in a great place,” he said.

It was a winding road to Evanston, Illinois, and the way it happened, you get the impression he almost tripped over Northwestern unintentionally, as if his desire to enroll there, let alone play basketball, was borne less of a typical proactive college search and more of sheer happenstance.

Over the course of two long injury recoveries, Jimenez underwent something transformative. His mindset changed. Basketball no longer stood as his end-all-be-all. Jimenez branched out, explored different hobbies and incipient interests, and by the time he returned to the basketball court, at an academic All-American camp before his senior season, Jimenez’ priorities had shifted.

“Those injuries really put a lot of things in perspective, in terms of what’s really important in life and what’s not,” he said. “They’re a big part of why I am the way I am today. Being hurt like that, I was forced to find other things to do”

Even after two major injuries, he garnered interest from several Ivy league schools, including Harvard, Cornell and Brown, where he would have played varsity basketball. “I thought I was going to end up there,” he said. But Jimenez wasn’t ready to settle.

After looking back over his lengthy list of college acceptances (including Rice, Emory, Vassar, and others), an allotment that would make most any high school valedictorian bow in appreciation, Jimenez noticed a school that had long flown under his college search radar. He saw Northwestern, saw its illustrious journalism program and saw – without ever being assured of a spot on the basketball team – the place he envisioned himself spending the next four years of his life.

With the very real possibility that Jimenez might have seen his hopes of playing Division I hoops pass him by, he took a chance, and Jimenez has never looked back.

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Simply Orange is Jimenez’ choice brand of orange juice these days. It wasn’t always this way – growing up, Jimenez loved Tropicana, and his nickname OJ was a perfect personal complement to his beverage preferences. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that Jimenez learned the shorthand abbreviation for everyone’s common breakfast juice du jour.  “I had never heard someone refer to Orange juice as OJ,” he said. It was a realization that turned a unique but seemingly disengaged moniker into a brilliant nickname.

At first, he was just Tropicana.

The inspiration had come to him through Ipod headphones, most of it R&B and Rap, through two Atlanta music moguls, Usher and Ludacris in particular, and most influentially, through a reasoned value-based argument with his stepmom, Sali Jimenez, and biological father, Omar Jimenez, over the merits of a clichéd phrase.

“People always say you can be whatever you want to be as long as you put your mind to it,” he said. “We all agreed with that, but only to a certain point. There’s a limit to that.”

The limit was quickly imposed. Sali told Jimenez he could never be a rapper. That’s when the motivated side came out, when the intensity on the basketball court and in the classroom and newsroom crossed over into music.

Next Jimenez did what motivated people, people trying to prove others wrong, do. Jimenez started rapping. A freestyle verse to an instrumental track of T-Pain’s “I’m on a boat” met with positive feedback from some of his friends. So he produced another song, and another, and by the time he put together a 13-song mixtape last year, and his SoundCloud and Facebook pages had generated substantial buzz outside his close network of Northwestern friends, Jimenez had a new title.

He was OJ Tropicana.

Before you get the idea that Jimenez sees music as a purely diversionary endeavor, a completely non-engaging way to send his mind into creative harmony, Jimenez is quick to remind you of his self-ascribed description. “I take everything I do really seriously,” he retorts.

But it does provide a stimulating vehicle for stress relief, and in the strenuous midst of days filled with books and classes and lifting and interviewing and broadcast work, Jimenez relishes the ability to kick back, tap into his inner Ludacris, and allow the rhythmic poetic flow of OJ Tropicana to alleviate his pressing time constraints.

As much as he enjoys music, Jimenez, a self-proclaimed realist, recognizes its minor importance in a 24-7-365, all-go-all-the-time routine.

“I’m not going to bank my career on it,” he says.

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When the words are projected forth – the non-rhythmical ones – Jimenez is an endless source of enlightened wisdom. You can understand his perspective by exploring his various responsibilities and hobbies, or you can just listen to him speak. What you’ll find rather quickly, if not immediately, is an encyclopedia of moral platitudes.

“You only live once”

“In different aspects of like, you always have to look at people who have done things you would like to do.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“You really get the most out of life when you get to learn what other people have experienced.”

In most instances, those are jaded quips used to smooth over bland literary texts or dull conversations. Jimenez is different. He backs up every bit of his philosophical perspective every minute of every day, and if you dig deeper, beneath the mind-blowing sleep schedule, hip-hop notoriety and fancy internship, his worldview makes the most possible sense.

Back in sixth grade, Jimenez’ parents decided to file for divorce. He moved in with his biological mom, Jayne Morgan, and currently spends most of his time away from Northwestern at her Atlanta home. His father, a native Colombian, also resided in Atlanta for some time, but recently relocated to Denver, where Jimenez and his brothers often visit during Holiday breaks.

Take, for example, his most recent spring break. The last Friday of winter quarter, Jimenez went back to Atlanta. On Wednesday, he traveled to Denver and remained there the rest of the week.

“I was a little young and it wasn’t too messy,” Jimenez says of the divorce. “Obviously it was tough for both parents, but I felt like it was a pretty normal divorce. It makes you wonder what would have happened if they had stayed together, but you can ask that question about all aspects of life.”

Omar Fam

Stressing the present, the irreversible, and leaving the hypotheticals in the rearview is the logical credo that underpins Jimenez’ passive assessment about an event as potentially chaotic as a divorce. He understands the realities of today’s marital relationships, the distressing numerical conjectures of increasing divorce rates. His parents got divorced, sure, but for Jimenez, that’s just because “everything happens for a reason.”

He’s also well aware of the often frustrating existence that is walk-on basketball at the Division I level. “I kind of knew what I was getting into,” he says. So when the Wildcats run offensive sets and lineup in defensive formations in practice, and Jimenez is left idly standing aside in drills or watching from the sidelines as coaches funnel their efforts towards preparing the starting rotation, he’s not surprised. Jimenez understands his place in the pecking order, and he’s willing to accept the frustrations of marginal first-team practice participation and mostly bench-warming status (so far) if it means continuing to enjoy the sport he loves at the highest level of competition and continuing to strive for a more prominent future in the Wildcats’ gameplans.

Being a walk-on can be tough sometimes, but if you ask Jimenez, Division I basketball is an exclusive luxury, and besides, “you only live once,” anyway.

“I’m just here to help the team win,” he said. “Maybe I am just being used wherever he needs me and maybe that means sitting out some of the team drills in practice. But at the same time I know if that’s what he wants me to do, he’s the boss. I trust the coach and trust that what he’s doing is in the best interest of the team.”

If there’s a model path for walk-on players to emulate, it’s four-year Northwestern player Reggie Hearn’s. Jimenez and Hearn, a former walk-on, connected immediately once Jimenez stepped on campus. They talked about the challenges of being a walk-on, about how to handle the under-the-surface dissonance between being a “scholarship Division I athlete” and toiling in practice and games every week without one. Along the way, as Hearn rounded out his remarkable four-year progression to become a double-digit scorer and lockdown perimeter defender his senior season, Jimenez was greatly inspired.

Not necessarily because Hearn earned a scholarship – “there are only so many opportunities to go around,” he says. “What are the chances I get one?” – but because of the way he went about turning a historically demeaning term in college hoops parlance into a point of motivational pride.

“Reggie’s story is incredible, it’s great,” Jimenez said. “He really worked hard. It’s impossible not to think about that.”

“At the same time, I’m a realistic guy. In the end I’d love to have a scholarship, but what you want isn’t always a possibility. The best thing to do is to just do what you can and let the pieces fall where they may.”

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It would be a major disservice to withhold Jimenez’ other common designations. Besides his campus-recognized hip-hop label, one he created himself, you can reach Jimenez through his basketball teammates by asking for the kid who teaches night classes. Or the one who calls the library his second home. Or the one currently enrolled in six classes, including one on weekends. Any of them will do just fine.

“It’s all playful stuff, but they say it whenever they ask me to hang out,” Jimenez says of his teammates jocular’ poking and prodding, specifically singling out Drew Crawford and Mike Turner as the primary verbal bullies.

Jimenez with friend

From an outsider’s perspective, those descriptions are easily understood. What other conclusion can be drawn after learning about the weekly grind Jimenez puts himself through? How else can you explain a college sophomore finding time to manage a) a rigorous undergraduate coursework; b) playful but “serious” musical ambitions; c) a time-consuming internship and d) the year-long physical toll and enervating cross-country road trips of Big Ten hoops and, even if playfully, constant friendly reminders from teammates of an admittedly hampered social life?

If he were to press the reset button, to do it all over again, is this the path even he would have chosen?

“I think Northwestern gave me the opportunity where if I lose something I still have other things to fall back on,” he said. “Between having the best journalism school in the country, playing Big Ten basketball and having such a diverse community of students that give me an opportunity to have such a wide range of experiences. I couldn’t give that up.”

Jimenez wears himself thin – from academics to basketball to hip hop to the news desk spotlight. You could be easily forgiven for thinking Jimenez manages an overloaded course schedule, or that he logs more library time in a week than most non-athletes would in an entire month. It’s part of the process he sees, thinks and lives – part of how he manages to not only speak in clichés, but make them plainly evident through everyday actions.

So no, his teammates aren’t exactly wrong. Don’t waste your time knocking on Jimenez’ dorm room. He may be tired, but sleeping isn’t even crossing his mind right now.

“I’m hardly ever in there,” he says.

The library is a good place to start looking. Jimenez will be there, planted in front of a broad, rectangular table in the reference section of the first floor, buried in a book, black Beats by Dre adorning his ever-percolating mental engine, staying true to his defining personal trait, staying motivated.

© 2013 Inside Northwestern