“I feel like the only thing that could really prepare you for college basketball is college basketball,” IU guard Tamar Bates said on Thursday, describing the trial-by-fire nature of the game.
But there were times during his first year as a college athlete where basketball was the easy part.
Bates lost a close family member during the 2021-22 campaign, and before it even started he learned he would become a father right around the time his first college season ended.
It was a lot to take on for an at the time 18 year-old.
But the real life altering stuff was yet to come.
Bates turned 19 in February. A month later, just days after Indiana lost to St. Mary’s at the NCAA Tournament in Portland, he headed to his hometown of Kansas City, Kan.
And on March 20, 2022, Leilani Nicole Bates was born.
For those who have gotten to know him over the last year, Bates already had a determination about him that seemed unusual for his age. While many freshman arrive on campus unsure of themselves, Bates carried himself like a pro.
And after laying eyes on his daughter for the first time, he found his focus reaching new levels.
“It puts me in a whole different state of mind,” Bates said.
“I’m talking as soon as I saw her, it’s kind of like I just a flipped a switch. Now, everything that I’m doing, all the work that I’m putting in, it’s not just for me. I want to provide for her and my family. It’s like getting up, those early mornings, late nights and doing everything that I’ve been doing, I’m a lot more focused because I have a purpose.”
Bates won’t say that the events in his personal life derailed his freshman season, and there’s no way to know for sure.
But he did look like a player who was eventually overcome by the weight of everything he had going on, both on and off the court.
A borderline 5-star prospect out of IMG Academy, Bates flashed his potential early in the season. He scored 11 against St. John’s and 13 against Nebraska, which seemed to be indicators Bates was ready for high major college basketball. But in the end, the 6-foot-5 freshman shot just 33.8 percent from the field and played just 14.5 minutes per contest.
There were times during the season where it seemed his confidence had completely vanished.
He knows that can’t happen again in year two.
With Leilani top-of-mind, fueling his development, Bates has clear goals when it comes to improving his game.
“Being better than I was last year defensively, making open shots, creating shots, and just a constant leader of the team,” he said when asked what improvements he has been focused on.
An additional benefit should be the mass Bates has added to his frame.
A year ago head coach Mike Woodson called him “light in the butt,” and Bates says he played at just 185 pounds.
When he arrived at IU Bates was just 178 pounds, but now he’s up to 200, and he hopes the added bulk helps him survive the physical rigors of high-major college basketball.
“Obviously I know going through the Big Ten, that was really physical,” Bates said. “You’ve got to be able to throw your weight around a little bit so you can compete. But that goes for all times. You can’t just be like too light or anything because your body is going to break down.”
Bates says his daughter is back in Kansas City right now, but she’s never far from his mind.
This season she’ll be more than just this soon to come great unknown in his life.
She’s here, and for Bates, that means breaking down, physically or mentally, is not an option.
“My new purpose is to provide and put food on the table for her. Obviously, the main thing is making sure how she’s raised is better than how I was raised, and that is no knock at all to my parents. They did a fantastic job. But I want to out-do them. I want to do better than them, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
“I just want to make sure she doesn’t have to worry about anything, and just give her the world and everything that she can ever dream about, but at the same time instill things in her that were instilled in me which is that you have to work for everything that you get.”
Basketball seems secondary in the Bates story now.
But if his development on the court parallels the wisdom he has already gained as a father, Bates will be just fine on the hardwood when November gets here.
And somewhere down the road in the not-so-distant future, he hopes to see the stories of his now two passions — Leilani and basketball — become one.
“I just can’t wait until she like get a little older and start being around the game,” Bates said. “I feel like she’ll just eventually want to pick the ball up because we’re going to be in the gym all the time. I feel like that be special.”
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