Roni Toppin — like other Knicks fans — will be banned from watching in person rookie Obi Toppin’s Garden debut as a Knick on Saturday against the Sixers.
No fans. Not even mothers.
Roni Toppin teaches autistic kids at a Washington Heights middle school. During the pandemic, she wants a part-time job with MSG in order to see her son play live.
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“I’ve watched all the games on TV, but I’m so upset, I’m trying to find the right person to get me a job at Madison Square Garden,” Roni told The Post in a Christmas Eve interview. “I’ll be a custodian at the Garden. I’ll disinfect the whole arena if they want. More than anything, I wish I can be there.”
Roni is as lively a personality as her son was around the rim at Dayton, earning college player of the year honors. Roni still lives in Ossining, where Obi attended high school. He was raised in Brooklyn before they moved briefly to Melbourne, Fla.
Before the draft, she never imagined being able to spend Christmas with her son amid his rookie NBA season, figuring he would land in Cleveland or elsewhere. She lives 12 minutes from the practice facility in Tarrytown, where Toppin had a scheduled holiday workout.
“I’m going to see him for Christmas when his practice is over — all the family is going to my sister’s house in Ossining,” Roni said. “Lobster tail, ceviche, cannolis. He came home from Dayton last Christmas for two days, then went back. Now I see him every day. It’s insane. I’m still in shock. I can’t believe he’s on the Knicks. This was his team for life. He was born a Knicks fan.”
Toppin has a new place in White Plains and mother is fixing it up.
“To think now, he lives 10 minutes away from me,” Roni said. “I see him every single day now except when they’re out of town. I’m at his place every day. It’s crazy to think of it. His professional NBA career has him working 10 minutes from my house.”
But she still can’t see him play live – or can she? Six teams will allow limited, socially distanced fans, including in Tampa Bay, where transplanted Toronto is playing.
The Knicks will be in Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve and Roni has set sights on being there.
“I’m working on it — asking all the people and the protocols,” Roni Toppin said. “What do I have to do to get in the arena and buy a ticket? That’s where I want to be New Year’s Eve. I’m trying.”
Before the lottery in August, Roni held out hope her son would become a Knick. But then the Knicks fell from the No. 6 lottery seed to No. 8.
“When anybody asked me where I wanted Obi to go, I said I wanted him to stay home, then when the lottery hit, we were so upset,’’ Roni admitted. “They were saying he’ll go top five and there’s no way he’d be there at eight.”
Indeed, mock drafts were almost unanimous the Cavaliers would take the 6-foot-9 power forward at No. 5. Instead, the Cavs went defense with Isaac Okoro.
“All the Dayton fans were so excited and anxious and wanted him in Cleveland so bad,” said Roni, who watched the draft in Westchester with Obi and family. “We thought that might be it. When Cleveland picked Okoro that’s when I thought it was possible but I still didn’t believe it.
“We were like ‘Oh my God. He might be a Knick.’ But I couldn’t get excited because I didn’t want to ruin the moment. I needed Adam Silver to say his name. I’d rather him be in New York even if it was the 29th pick.”
Roni Toppin, who is 5-foot-10, is a former volleyball player and coached one of Toppin’s youth basketball teams. She’s a basketball savant – her late husband/Obi’s father, Obadiah Toppin Sr., played overseas as a former Rucker Park legend.
As such Roni, has strong hoops opinions.
“He doesn’t like when I tell him anything about basketball,” Roni said. “If I do, he says ‘Just be my mom.’ “
Instead, Roni shared her basketball analysis on Obi’s start with The Post. In the season opener, Toppin eagerly launched seven 3-pointers — something he didn’t do much in college. He finished the night 3-of-12 – 3-of-7 from 3-point land. However, one of his 3-point makes was an unintended bank shot.
Roni hopes Tom Thibodeau establishes Toppin, who averaged 20 points to lead Dayton to national prominence, as an inside presence.
“In Dayton, he was more around the rim and now he’s more on the perimeter,” Roni said. “I feel like he’s a killer around the rim. He was national player of the year because of what he did around the rim. They’re pressing him to be a great all-around player so I trust them. They’re not setting him up to fail. They’re setting him up to be great.
“So he’s playing more the 3. I’d love for him to eventually get to that spot. But I know where he’s a killer. I know he’s just starting as a rookie. I love he’s getting on the court. I saw [Wednesday] he felt more confident than he did in the preseason games. I am going to trust the process and hope Thibs knows what he’s doing. But I know he’s a killer around the rim and I want him to go out and kill.”
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Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff paid Toppin a major compliment. He said he never interviewed a college prospect who came off as more of a team guy. Roni says she heard that sentiment from other teams.
“I feel like Obi builds those relationships with his teammates and that’s what helps make them great when they love each other like brothers, when they play for each other,” Roni said. “They haven’t built those relationships yet. He’s close to his teammates, but they just met three weeks ago.”