| Larry Lage |
SALINE, Michigan (AP) – Emoni Bates attacked the basket from the right side of the lane, collided with a Howell High School defender and sent him tumbling towards the bleachers. Once the young man regained his footing, he wheeled around and walked toward Bates – intent on getting even.
What he got instead was a two-handed shove to the chest that sent him sprawling toward the hardwood. Bates balled up his fists, but kept them at his sides. He towered menacingly over his opponent and glared. The older kid got up and walked away, shaking his head and still talking.
A reputation is a tough thing to live up to, especially when you’re still in middle school and too lean to fill out a six-foot-seven frame. But opponents who talk trash, throw elbows or try to outmuscle one of the top basketball phenoms in the United States usually wind up regretting it.
“He kept messing with me, talking to me,” Bates said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was controlling it at first. And then he said something to me again, so that led to me pushing him.
“I’m not the type of person to lay back,” he added, “when people are talking to me disrespectfully.”
Anyone who’s seen the kid on YouTube knows he can play. But the highlight reels rarely show is how tough Bates can be, too.
The 13-year-old Bates has a ferocious side so at odds with his shy, laid-back personality off the court that his parents dub it Emoni’s “alter ego”. That side of the kid is brash, willing to throw elbows and trade insults that aren’t fit to print. It fires up teammates, angers opponents and would worry his parents a whole lot more if he behaved that fiery around the house.
Instead, they see the kid who sings songs from the animated Disney movie “Moana”, who still loves cuddling with his mum on the living room couch to watch TV and eat popcorn.
“Those are the moments I cherish most,” Edith Bates said, sitting at her dining room table while her husband puts their son through a workout. “That’s when he’s able to be himself and he doesn’t have to have his guard up. He can just be Emoni.”
He’s just a kid at other times, too, fussing over which pictures to post – or delete – on his private Instagram account, or opting for fast food chicken nuggets when given the choice to eat where he wants.
But when that same slim, thoughtful kid steps on the court, his competitive streak stretches sideline to sideline.
“He’s totally different, an animal,” said EJ Bates, his father and a former hoops pro in Europe who doubles as Emoni’s coach and trainer. “He wants to win at all costs. He doesn’t back down because that’s how he was taught. The only person I told him to fear is God.”
Bates has been taught to treat schoolwork just as seriously. He was an honour roll student last spring at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his classes this semester include algebra, American history and Spanish.
He’s rarely allowed to pick up a basketball until he’s finished his homework.
“Sometimes,” EJ smiled, “I allow him to go to the gym first.”
That doesn’t happen much when his wife is around.
“Mum is always the bad cop and I’m OK with that because I bring him balance,” Edith said.
That means seeing to it that Emoni’s feet stay on the ground, no matter how much praise comes his way, and his head stays small enough to fit through the doorway.
“Sometimes basketball tends to pull him away,” she said. “But I always pull him back in.”