SALINE, Mich. (AP) — Emoni Bates attacked the basket from the right side of the lane, collided with a Howell High School defender and sent him tumbling toward 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 6-foot-7 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 mom 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 E.J. 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 honor 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,” E.J. smiled, “I allow him to go to the gym first.”
That doesn’t happen much when his wife is around.
“Mom 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.”
That task seems to get harder by the day.
Recruiting services have put her son on a pedestal, routinely ranking him among the top prospects of the Class of 2022. One of the YouTube videos focused on him has been viewed more than a million times and two others have been clicked on more than 800,000 times. When his Bates Fundamental team competes anywhere, nearly everybody in the building recognizes Emoni . Some opponents use that as motivation and try to punch a hole in his outsized reputation. Some parents even get involved, heckling the kid as if he’s already a professional.
That’s why E.J. Bates puts his son through rugged strength and conditioning drills twice each week, along with three basketball-only sessions. The pair turns up often at Lincoln High School in nearby Ypsilanti, where E.J.’s childhood pal, Jesse Davis, is the basketball coach
During a recent workout there, Emoni trembled doing pushups while gripping gymnastics rings attached to hanging straps.
“Last round, make it count,” E.J. barked at his son and teammate Kareem Rozier as they struggled through their final reps.
After the gym, Emoni and E.J. returned home to find Edith and her mother, Jennell Johnson, waiting. He greeted both with kisses and plopped on the couch to chill with his parents, glancing for a few minutes at a documentary about Ben Simmons, the point guard drafted No. 1 overall in 2016 by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Emoni then popped back up and prepared to leave to spend the night at his grandmother’s house. Edith bagged up his go-to meal of baked chicken, white rice with extra mushroom gravy.
“I’m trying to get him into eating the things that will stick to his bones because he’s so slender,” she said. “I’m trying to beef him up.”
Like a lot of kids, Emoni couldn’t resist trying to cadge some cash on his way out the door.
“Can I have $5,” he asked.
“I don’t have any cash on me,” his mom said.
After a sigh, his father chimed in.
“Check your pants,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve got some money in your pockets.”
Maybe not at that moment. But if Emoni turns out to be as good — and as tough — as advertised, walking-around money will be the least of his worries.
See more coverage of Emoni Bates in “The Next One?” series: https://www.apnews.com/tag/TheKid
Follow Larry Lage: https://twitter.com/LarryLage
The family of 13-year-old basketball phenom Emoni Bates has agreed to provide The Associated Press with a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the life of one of the most coveted hoops prospects in the country for at least the next five years. This story is a second in a periodic series that will include video, photos, audio and text updates to track his progress. Follow Emoni’s story at https://apnews.com/tag/TheKid.