“Let’s go, Tone. Get the fuck up. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter,” I said, kind of laughing, panting next to him loudly. Truthfully, white spots blurred my vision as I stared at his outstretched gargantuan body splayed out on the floor. Not that it seemed to matter to him just yet, but we had a big season in front of us. After two NCAA tournaments, a Mid-American tournament MVP award, my summer Team USA tryout, and a bunch of top twenty upsets last year, Sports Illustrated had ranked us 16th in the country.
“You aren’t having no heart attack, man,” I said again.
“Naw, man. This ain’t right.”
“Conditioning is never right, dude.”
Our team huddled around him chuckling under their breath. The workload was too much, too soon, and I could only smile. It reminded me of my old teammate, Nate Meers, a sharpshooter from Stow, Ohio, who liked to drink Long Island iced teas during the summer and had lost 13 pounds from puking into garbage cans strategically placed around the court. This was a similar conditioning workout and Antonio had some weight to spare. Honestly, he was a bit soft around the edges.
I had never met Antonio Gates until I got to Kent State, but I had heard the rumors about him when I went to high school in Michigan. People said he was a man-child, an unstoppable force on the football field, and a 6-foot-4 swing-man that terrorized basketball pros at the infamous St. Cecilia Church Pro-Am. I knew Antonio differently. He was a cool cat — a quiet assassin. Someone you never knew if he was listening or sleeping in video breakdown.
“Give me your hand, Tone. Get up. You’ll feel better if you just get it over with,” said Eric Thomas, a 6-foot-6 small forward from Columbus, reaching down to assist him.
“Naw man. Let go,” Tone said, pushing his hand away. “Naw, honestly, I’m out. My heart ain’t right.”
And that’s because we were only halfway through our monstrosity of a preseason conditioning test. Our coach, Stan Heath, had brought the fitness test from Michigan State with Tom Izzo’s special sauce, and it was an absolute killer: four full-court sprints in 22 seconds, with 22 seconds off between each set, 22 times. If you failed to reach more than three baselines in those 22 sets of 22 seconds, you failed the test and had to do it again until you passed. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but let me tell you, when you get to number 11, you feel like puking into a bucket and calling it a day.
“Tone. Get your ass up. Finish this with us,” Andrew Mitchell said, who was my closest friend, inner-city brother from another mother, and confidant on our Elite Eight Kent State men’s basketball team.
“Fellas, fuck it, just go without me.” Antonio gasped.
“That’s not what we do here, my dude,” Demetric Shaw said. “We ride or die. All day. Every day.”
Antonio rolled over to his thick shoulders on the wooden, parquet floor. His eyes squeezed together as he moved his tree stump legs side to side, writhing in pain. I watched his body move. He was built like a hybrid mix of Muhammad Ali and Charles Barkley. The real problem was he wasn’t in good shape (yet). Five colleges in four years had led him to Kent State, and who knew what he was doing or where he was doing it before he showed up.
But it didn’t matter. He was one of us now.
“Check up. I’m better than you, Tone.”
“You ain’t shit.”
It was late in the season. We had won almost twenty games in a row and Antonio was chiseled now. He had a wide grin, bulging shoulders that were as round as Appalachian boulders, and brick mitts for hands.
“Remember, I was born in Flint, homie, and Flint has produced more hoopers per capita than Detroit. I guarantee it.”
“Honestly, still ain’t no Detroit,” he said, grinning like Nemo in Finding Nemo. “I play for Detroit. It made me. Who do you play for?”
“I play for myself,” I said, pausing, considering his question. I handed him the ball, but something about his challenge irked me.
Who do I play for? All the white kids that never made it? All the small town farm boys? The Flintstones? He was right. We all play for something, for someone. Was he playing for his grandpa, a former professional boxer? Was he playing for his homies at Detroit Central who never got off the street? Was he playing for his soon-to-be daughter? I had never met his parents, had I?
“Looks like we’ll see who you play for, huh Huff?” he sneered, his thick hands confidently gliding in small circles over the ball. He was at the top of the key in front of me. The other players took off their gear on the benches as our Central Michigan University morning shootaround ended.
“You sure you want to lose in front of the guys?”
“I do. I’ve lost to better,” I winked. “Hey, remember that time you faked a heart attack to get out of conditioning?”
“Don’t matter now. There’s no hiding out here, Huff.”
“Why did you let Dane Fife beat you out for Mr. Basketball?”
“Check up, Huff. No more talking.”
“Okay. One rule. Four dribble max. I don’t want your 250-pound, fat ass to post me up,” I joked.
Tone grimaced and the game started. I put my hand in his shot pocket and immediately he attacked me. Jab crossover — but not the kind you think. The kind where the ball crosses in the opposite way that he jabs. Like an Allen Iverson crossover out of a triple-threat stance. It was his go-to move. I was at the other elbow while he shot effortlessly.
Bucket. One to zero.
“More where that came from.”
I got deeper in my stance this time and forced him right. Tone was a lefty. Most people didn’t know that about him until it was too late. He would rip through, or jab dribble crossover so explosively, you had to constantly give him a step and stay in front of him or it was over. He was just too strong, too powerful. He would Hulk you if he got you on his hip.
“You got no right hand, dude. Show me.”
He put his dribble down and hesitated, shook me with a in-out move and shot a pull-up. Clank. Front rim.
He handed me the ball. He was too relaxed. I could tell. I jabbed and drove, getting to the rim before he could block me.
One to one.
“What we playing too?”
“Let’s go to seven.”
MICHIGAN’S MR. BASKETBALL RANKINGS MY SENIOR YEAR
“Tone, get up. Keep fighting.”
It was Kent State tradition for upperclassmen to pass on work ethic, grit, and effort that went above and beyond any team in the country. Antonio Gates had never seen how our Kent State culture meshed and how hard our team worked. We were a clusterfuck of unwanted, misfit high school and college basketball players. Antonio, somehow, was a lot like us. He left behind Michigan State as a freshman because they wanted him to be a pass rusher and stopped playing hoops. He said “no thanks” and left for Eastern Michigan, which was odd because I remembered playing him there as sophomores. Now Antonio was a year younger than me — a junior, out of shape and softer than usual. Demetric Shaw, our hulking, 6-foot-3 three-man, tried to reach down and grab his hand.
“Get your ass up. You can do this. You ain’t having no heart attack again,” Shaw laughed. “You just ain’t in shape, and there’s only one way to get in shape. Be our brother. Get up.”
Antonio was bent to one knee when he spit on the floor. “Nawww, man. Naww, I’m dying. I’ll do it again.”
Coach Heath yelled, “Back on the line. Let’s go gentlemen. Ten seconds. Tone will have to try again next week.”
“Hold on coach. He’s finishing this last one with us. Tone, you can’t beat me in a sprint. You are too slow for me,” I said.
“Shut up, Huff. You ain’t faster than me.”
No big man had ever beat me in a sprint — ever. In fact, I felt I was the fastest on the team. My first step could get me the lead most days, and it was our final day of conditioning. It was our last test. We had one more to go. Tone couldn’t quit. Not now. Not while he was so close.
I winced. The thought of doing this again made my bowels churn. “Tone, you aren’t faster than me.”
His face changed. He sat up, breathing deeply, like a man sobering up to drive home. He pushed himself off the ground rather gravely and walked to the line.
“Last one, fellas,” Coach Heath yelled. “No pressure but Mateen Cleaves used to run to the bleachers and back on the last set.” I had no fear about making it. Back with Gary Waters, we were tighter and better conditioned than a Navy Seal team.
“Trevor, I’m going to beat you.”
“To the backstop?”
“Don’t matta, man. Sure,” he said, with a perfect Detroit drawl.
The whistle blew, and I sprinted 94 feet towards the end of the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center (MACC), the place I called home. The place that gave me the chance to make my Division I basketball dreams come true. I thought about Tone and remembered my freshman year, how I wanted to pass out on the Big Blue track, coming into Gary Water’s culture with Ed, Pope, Lerk-dog, JC, Geoff, Al, and Kyreem Massey. Those guys had taught me the way. Do your best. Never stop fighting. Stay together. Be a family. We used to run through campus with our shirts off screaming at the top of our lungs, “Who’s time is it? OUR TIME! BLUE DOGS!”
“PFFFFF. PFFFF. PFFFF. PFFFF.”
I peeked over my shoulder — a rookie mistake. It was Antonio fucking Gates motivated to win. He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t grinning. He wasn’t laughing. He was as focused and calm as I’d ever seen him. This dude was coming for me.
“PFFF. PFFF. PFFFF. PFFFF.”
Every arm swing cut across his body like an axe. At half court he was catching me. At the other free throw line, he was tied with me. I pushed hard with my last few strides. There was no one near us — just me and him. Fuck. He’s going to beat me. I felt the fear and adrenaline twist into me like a Detroit, Apple Jack addict.
I felt the burn of my legs, the sensation of fire and hot blood and charcoal in my lungs. I sprinted, unbridled, as hard as I’ve ever sprinted in my life. He will not beat me. He will not beat me. He will not beat me. There was no faster gear for me than this, and Antonio Gates did what he said he was going to do. He passed me in a blaze of fury and wind, breathing like Usain Bolt with a megaphone attached to his face.
It was official. I had lost my first race ever to a big man named Antonio Gates.
Tom Izzo was screaming at us. The flecks of white saliva were coming off his lips like spit missiles.
“You guys will win because you are men. Because you belong. Because you fucking worked harder to be here. And because I can’t stand Indiana,” he laughed. “So beat them. Take what is yours.”
I felt the adrenaline shoot through me like a goddamned torpedo through the USS Oklahoma in World War Two.
I glanced towards Antonio and saw nothing. He was as placid and calm as the burning Black Rock desert.
“1–2–3-Kent State,” we yelled. I led the charge, running forward into the unknown. We ran towards our fate, towards the rumbling roar of armies marching and B-52 engines starting and Hurricanes blowing like megaphones the size of Katrina. There, in that moment, when you see the crowd open up like Moses and the Red Sea, is when the tingles shiver through your bones — when the marrow jiggles and your ass clenches and your jaws tighten like vice grips.
Here, again, Antonio slipped his headband to his ears and never said a word to anyone. He was calm. Focused. Ready to fight.
The lights of Rupp Arena were bright — too bright. The haze and blurry horizon of red and white was infinite — to the outstretched hands and steel beams of Adolph Rupp’s bannered heavens. 25,000 rabid fans crescendo-thundered, “Hoosiers. Hoosiers. HOOSIERS. HOOSIERS,” as their team started to pull away from us. Everything was moving too fast. I hit my first three and then I was off. Like a spigot creaking shut, I couldn’t find any openings. Jared Jeffries was switching every screen onto me, a 6-foot-11 mobile monster made of boiling blood and extra long alien fingers.
Why didn’t we set different screens with different screeners? Why didn’t we isolate against Dane Fife or Tom Coverdale? I was faster than them. I could beat them one on one.
Yet I wanted to win this game so badly I could taste the Hoosier blood in my mouth. I wanted what all those Michigan and Indiana high school players had — respect. I looked down at my Jordan 17s and read something I inscribed. “All things through Christ.”
But Christ, I couldn’t do a damn thing against these unconquerable bastards. “Huff, let’s go. Fucking wake up. We need you,” Antonio said, his massive legs pummeling their team at will under the basket.
“I hear you. I need the ball. Get me the goddamn ball,” I said under my breath. I was losing the race. I felt it slipping away.
But the tension was greater in the Elite Eight. Everyone on the team seemed on edge, except Tone. I thought back to that day we played one-on-one. Right as one of us was going to win, they popped the lights off. It was five points to five when the coaches made us stop playing.
The next point won and it was his ball.
“Save it fellas. Save it for the Chips,” Coach Heath smiled. We were alone, standing in the darkness of Rose Arena, the place I had always wanted to go as a kid. All of the guys were on the bus already, but our one-on-one game had come to a standstill. Neither of us had hit game point yet, and the pressure was monumental. The team’s two leading scorers going head-to-head. The rite of passage. The Kent State tradition.
Of course, the competitor in me thinks I would have won, but then again, Antonio Gates is a fucking All-World tight end that made hundreds of millions of dollars in the sport he didn’t even care about.
Looking back, the life of Antonio Gates as a basketball player was on display every night, every time I ever played or challenged him. I wasn’t as talented as Antonio, and I wasn’t from the streets. I had never lost a family member to crack cocaine. I had never lost a friend to a gang’s bullet. I had never lived in poverty or seen what the streets of Detroit could do to someone you loved. But I had the same chip on my shoulder.
Basketball was our heart. It bled when we lost to Indiana that night. It bled when I hugged him goodbye, my senior year coming to a close. He was a joy to play with, a friend, a comedian, his smile infectious, his mind sharp, and his wit intact. “I’ll show you.” That’s how Antonio approached his life, his game, and competition. I believe that’s why he became the best tight end to ever play football. I believe that’s why he would have made an amazing NBA player.
Because Antonio lived this inner mantra, he led Detroit Central’s varsity team in scoring as a freshman. He was a Golden Gloves boxer. He made every NFL defense pay, because guys with chips on their shoulders find a way to compete at another level and win.
“We’d have never made it this far without you, Tone,” I said, tears streaming down my face. “You will do it again next year. Keep these young guys in line. Pass on the tradition.”
Ultimately, my Final Four dreams were smashed by the very opponents from whom I aimed to earn my respect. But at least I did it with the guys that no one ever wanted.