Baylor's Rico Gathers a Man Among Boys in Basketball, May Face NFL Dilemma

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 5, 2015

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WACO, Texas — Rico Gathers snared 11 rebounds and swatted four shots, but the pro scout watching Baylor's game at Oklahoma State didn't care.

To him, it was meaningless that the Bears forward led the nation in rebounds, and he didn't care that he'd learned to pass out of the post.

The comments he scribbled in his notepad weren't critiques of Gathers' shooting form or predictions about how he'd fare against standout NBA post players.

They were about whether Gathers had the ability to excel on Sundays in front 80,000 fans...in the NFL.

"I don't think there's any question he could do it," the scout said. "Tight end, defensive end...just look at him. He belongs on a football field."

That the 6'8", 280-pound Gathers has caught the attention of the NFL should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has watched a Baylor basketball game the past three seasons.

Usually before the first TV timeout, the play-by-play announcer will wonder aloud whether Baylor football coach Art Briles has offered the fleet-footed, agile Gathers a tryout—the answer is yes—before suggesting that Gathers may have a future on the gridiron if things don't work out on the hardwood.

Most athletes would be flattered by the comments.

Gathers considers them "a slap in the face."

Rico Gathers has increasingly proved to be a sizable obstacle for opponents in the paint this season.
Rico Gathers has increasingly proved to be a sizable obstacle for opponents in the paint this season.John Weast/Getty Images

"It's a slight to everything I'm doing on the court," Gathers says. "I used to get so offended. I'd want to fight people. I was like, 'Man, you don't respect my basketball skills?' But now I'm so used to hearing that stuff...it really doesn't bother me anymore."

Or at least that's what he pretends.

"Rico has put in a lot of hard work," Gathers' father, Richard, says. "He wants to be appreciated as a basketball player."

In his first season as a starter, Gathers has accomplished that feat. The football comments may be irksome, but the same broadcasters and coaches making them have also been quick to fawn over him for his achievements on the court.

And rightfully so.

Gathers, a junior, averages a national-best 11.8 rebounds and 11.4 points for 14th-ranked Baylor, and his 16 double-doubles lead the Big 12.

"He's a candidate to be the MVP of our league," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We haven't faced anyone that plays as hard as Rico. The guy is a beast."

So athletic is Gathers that, in Saturday's win over West Virginia, he uncorked a windmill dunk. Although his coaches would prefer him to stay in the paint, Gathers is quick enough to take his opponent off the dribble from the perimeter.

Multiple times during his career, Gathers has weaved from one end of the court to the other for a coast-to-coast layup—quite an uncommon sight for a 280-pounder. Perhaps that's why it's only natural to wonder how he would perform on an NFL football field or even in a WWE ring.

Gathers, though, is convinced he has a future in basketball.

"I know I can do it," he says. "The numbers don't lie."

When Ricardo Gathers arrived at Baylor's Ferrell Center for his official visit in the spring of 2012, he was greeted by Director of Basketball Operations Tim Maloney.

"Hi there," Maloney said as the two shook hands. "Are you Rico's AAU coach?"

Gathers—an 18-year-old who could have passed for 30—just smiled.

"No," he said. "I'm Rico."

Even in a sport featuring some of the world's most gargantuan men, Gathers is an oddity. Hundreds of college basketball stars stand 6'8" or taller, and a handful weigh more than 280 pounds. But rare is the player who combines those measurements with the eye-popping agility, coordination and strength of Gathers, whose physical gifts were evident early.

Raised in LaPlace, Louisiana, Gathers was three when he climbed out of his crib, pulled himself up onto a window ledge that was barely within his reach and leapt into the yard. Assuming Rico was taking a nap, his mother, Janice, was shocked when she answered the doorbell only to be greeted by a neighbor on the porch cradling her son.

Gathers spent his first two seasons coming off the bench for Baylor.
Gathers spent his first two seasons coming off the bench for Baylor.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

"She found him wandering around outside of the house," Janice says. "I couldn't believe he was strong enough to get out of that crib and out the window all by himself. After that, I made him start sleeping in the same room as me."

By junior high school, Gathers had gotten so big that playing football had become boring—if not dangerous. He'd catch high passes over the flailing arms of defensive backs and then shed tackles all the way to the end zone. Bringing down Gathers often meant lunging toward his knees.

He was 6'3" and dunking a basketball as an eighth-grader when he took part in the 2008 NBA All-Star Camp leading up to the All-Star Game in New Orleans. LeBron James was warming up at the same end of the court as Gathers, and as he jogged with his head turned, he accidentally bumped into James near the layup line. The collision stopped James in his tracks. Gathers, though, hardly moved.

James asked Gathers his name.

"I'm Ricardo Gathers from East St. John Middle School," he said.

Gathers transferred to basketball powerhouse Reserve Christian—the alma mater of former Baylor guard Tweety Carter—the following season and was 6'6 ½" and 232 pounds as a freshman.

The school didn't have a football program, but that didn't bother Gathers.

His older brother, Greg, had earned All-American honors as a defensive lineman at Georgia Tech, where he ranks second all time in sacks and tackles for loss. But Gathers wanted to follow the path of his parents, both of whom played college basketball at Arkansas Pine-Bluff. Gathers' father is the cousin of the late Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount star who collapsed and died in 1990.

"It was kind of a big deal in my area when I decided not to play football," Gathers said. "Coaches from all of the top [high] schools were trying to get me to come play. People just couldn't understand how someone as big as me wouldn't want to be out there.

AUBURN HILLS, MI - MAY 7:  Ben Wallace #3 of the Detroit Pistons walks upcourt against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game one of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at The Palace of Auburn Hills on May 7, 2006 in Auburn Hills, Mich
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"But that's not where my passion was."

Instead, Gathers channeled his efforts toward emulating Detroit Pistons forward Ben Wallace, a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year who once averaged 15.4 rebounds during a single season. Gathers went so far as to grow an Afro similar to Wallace's while also wearing the All-Star's trademark headband.

Gathers became an adept ball-handler and passer and could even step out and swish the occasional three-pointer. But even then, he took the most pride in outmuscling opponents for rebounds and blocking shots in the paint.

Gathers never grew to be 6'9" or 6'10" like he'd hoped, but that made him work even harder down low. Twice named Gatorade Player of the Year in Louisiana, he was the No. 1-ranked prospect in the state when he signed with Baylor after initially committing to St. John's.

As soon as he arrived in Waco, Gathers was bombarded with the same questions that had followed him for years.

"The very first day of class," he says, "people were coming up to me and asking what position I played on the football team."

Gathers didn't let it bother him. Vicious as he is on the court, his friendly, mild-mannered nature off it has made him a fan favorite at Baylor, where he helped the Bears to the NIT title as a freshman and a Sweet 16 berth last season.

Children who attend Baylor games flock to Gathers for autographs and pictures. A life-size picture of him hangs in the Ferrell Center concourse so fans can place their hands on top of his in the photo to get a true feel for just how mammoth he is.

Baylor coach Scott Drew said Gathers often spends extra time with disabled fans who get introduced to the team after practices and games. Perhaps his most moving gesture occurred in January, when he learned of a 92-year-old fan named Petronella Furgeson who had fallen at her home while watching the Bears' Jan. 14 game against Iowa State on television.

Knowing she'd be transported to a hospital if she called 911, Furgeson remained on the floor so she could watch the remainder of the game without being interrupted. She called her daughter at 5 a.m. the following morning and was taken to Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, where she was diagnosed with a mild stroke.

Gathers paid a visit to Petronella Furgeson after she delayed a trip to the hospital following a stroke in order to watch Baylor play Iowa State.
Gathers paid a visit to Petronella Furgeson after she delayed a trip to the hospital following a stroke in order to watch Baylor play Iowa State.Courtesy Baylor University

Baylor officials learned of the story a few days later and relayed it to the Bears during a road trip.

From his seat on the plane, Gathers spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear.

"When we get back," he said, "I'm going to visit her."

Two days later, the nation's leading rebounder surprised Furgeson in her room at Hillcrest Medical Center. Throughout most of their 45-minute conversation, Gathers held Furgeson's hand. "We couldn't ask for a better ambassador for our program," Drew said.

Back in October, a few days after Baylor's first official practice, Drew pulled aside a team manager and assigned him one simple task: Follow Rico around during practice and wipe up his sweat.

Gathers has always perspired more heavily than most, but this season, it's reached a new level.

After playing behind Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson as a freshman and sophomore, Gathers is working harder than ever to make sure he capitalizes on his first true opportunity to shine.

The effort has certainly paid off.

Gathers has snagged 10 or more rebounds in 23 of Baylor's 30 games. He averaged 16 boards during a four-game stretch in Big 12 play. And in one of the most head-turning performances of the entire college season, Gathers tallied a conference-record 28 rebounds on Jan. 21 against Huston-Tillotson.

Along with being a lock for first-team All-Big 12 honors, Gathers appeared on a midseason top-30 list for the Naismith Award, which is given annually to the nation's best player. And he's one of 16 finalists for the inaugural Karl Malone Award that will honor the country's top power forward.

Not bad for a guy everyone thought should play football.

Gathers unleashed some of his eye-opening athletic gifts in a win over West Virginia recently.
Gathers unleashed some of his eye-opening athletic gifts in a win over West Virginia recently.Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press/Associated Press

Just as important as his sheer production is the tone Gathers sets for his entire team. Some Baylor squads in the past have been labeled as "soft" because of their lack of composure in big moments and their habit of cowering against bigger, more physical opponents.

This year, though, the Bears are the exact opposite. They may not tout as much NBA-caliber talent as they have in the past, but no team under Drew has been as physical and mean as this unit. Picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the Big 12, Baylor is the aggressor in almost every game it plays.

Gathers, who bench-presses 310 pounds, is the main reason.

"We don't let people punk us," he said.

The new persona has worked well for the Bears, who are 22-8 overall and 10-7 in league play entering Friday's regular-season finale against Texas Tech. Three of Baylor's Big 12 losses were by two points or fewer. That includes Monday's 61-59 setback at Texas in which Gathers had 12 points, 11 boards and two blocks.

"He does something that I think more players should look at and see;he embraces what he is and what he does," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "That's what really makes him good. He's bought into it. He understands what he's good at and he does it. You always admire guys that keep developing and getting better and better."

Rebounding may be his calling card, but that doesn't mean Gathers hasn't improved in other areas. His hook shot has become a weapon, enabling him to score over length. His defense is better than it has ever been, and on offense, he's taking good care of the ball, averaging just 0.9 turnovers despite playing 30 minutes per game.

Gathers' willingness to fight for rebounds is an asset that may draw some interested observers in the NBA.
Gathers' willingness to fight for rebounds is an asset that may draw some interested observers in the NBA.USA TODAY Sports

Gathers' dramatic strides remind Drew of former Baylor forwards Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy and Cory Jefferson. Unheralded recruits who arrived at Baylor with little fanfare, all three developed into all-league players who are now multimillionaires in the NBA.

"Hopefully, Rico looks at those guys and realizes he has a chance to do the same thing," Drew said.

NBA scouts aren't so sure. They say Gathers is an inch or two shorter than they'd prefer for a power forward, especially since he's not a guy who regularly "plays above the rim." And even though Gathers has enhanced his all-around game, scouts say the only thing he does at an elite level is rebound.

"Most times you want a guy that has more than one skill," one NBA scout said. "He's a guy that everyone would love to have on a college team because he's so physical and strong and he plays with such a motor."

Then again, the scout said, former Louisiana Tech star Paul Millsap was drafted mainly because of his ability to rebound after becoming the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in that category for three straight years. A second-round pick in 2006, Millsap was named to his second consecutive All-Star team this season with the Atlanta Hawks and will be one of the more coveted free agents in the NBA this summer.

"Who knows?" the scout said. "Maybe Gathers could follow the same path. I'm not going to say it can't happen. He definitely seems like a guy you probably shouldn't doubt."

A few hours before boarding an Austin-bound bus for Monday's game at Texas, Gathers slides off the black leather couch in his third-floor apartment and sprawls out on the floor.

His eight-month-old son, Ricardo Jr., has risen from his nap, and now it's time to play. Sometimes Gathers hands the boy an outdated PlayStation controller to trick him into believing he's playing the same video game as his dad. The two dance together whenever Gathers turns on music, and today they're watching a video on Gathers' phone of the day Rico Jr.—just six months at the time—first rose to his feet without assistance. Two months later, he has three teeth and has almost learned to walk.

Advanced beyond his years, just like dad.    

Gathers and his wife, Bria, never planned to become parents at such a young age.

Bria has taken on much of the childcare duties for Rico Jr. as her husband, Rico Sr. works toward refining his basketball skills.
Bria has taken on much of the childcare duties for Rico Jr. as her husband, Rico Sr. works toward refining his basketball skills.Jason King

The high school sweethearts met in seventh grade and began dating the summer prior to their junior year. Before they graduated, Gathers had given Bria an engagement ring he purchased from Wal-Mart.

"He wasn't asking me to marry him right then," Bria says. "But it was his way of saying, 'Hey, I'm serious about you. One day, it's going to happen.'"

So serious was the couple that Bria moved to Waco with Gathers and enrolled at an area community college. Less than a year later, with most of Baylor's coaching staff in attendance, they married at the McLennan County courthouse. Unable to afford a honeymoon, Rico and Bria celebrated by eating dinner at Cheddar's and then swimming at their parents' hotel pool.

"Three months later," Bria said, "we were pregnant."

Gathers still remembers leaving the doctor's office after receiving the news.

"It was surreal," he says. "I had all of these emotions: excitement, worry, lots of stuff. I was going to have all of these new responsibilities. I didn't know how to be a father. What was I going to have to do? I guess you never really know until they're born."

Gathers praises Bria for doing most of the parenting while he focuses on school and basketball. Most weekdays he said he leaves home at 8 a.m. and doesn't return until 8 that night. He'll play with Rico Jr. until it's time for bed, and if the child needs anything in the middle of the night, "she handles most of it so I can get my rest," Gathers said. "I'm lucky to be in such a good situation."

Bria said her husband has changed since the birth of their son. He's more focused on his academics now, she said, more driven on the court. Gathers is a good teammate on the court and in the locker room, but he spends most of his time away from basketball at home with his family instead of socializing with other Baylor players.

LUBBOCK, TX - FEBRUARY 17: Head coach Scott Drew of the Baylor Bears talks with Rico Gathers #2 of the Baylor Bears during the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on February 17, 2015 at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas. Baylor defeated Tex
John Weast/Getty Images

Before the season, Gathers requested that the back of his jersey be changed to "Gathers Sr."

"He's just so proud of his son," Bria said. "Once we found out we were pregnant, it was an instant change in his life. He's taking everything more seriously because he wants us to have a better future."

Perhaps that's why those comments about a potential football career bother Gathers less and less these days. As confident as he is that he can play professional basketball, he no longer dismisses the possibility of a career on the gridiron.

"If all these people want to make me out to be this big-time NFL prospect...go ahead, I guess," he says. "All you're doing is putting money in my pocket."

Gathers said Briles, the Baylor football coach, has approached him about becoming a two-sport athlete for the Bears. Gathers said he entertained the offer last fall and hasn't thought about next season.

He said Briles—who calls him "Pretty Ricky" because of his reluctance to play football—views him as a tight end. But Gathers would prefer to play defensive end because that position commands a higher paycheck in the NFL.

"They've got (NFL prospect) Shawn Oakman, who is 6'9" and 280 pounds, at one defensive end position," Gathers said. "So, of course, people are like, 'What if we had 6'8", 280 on the other side? How much better would we be?'"

Even if Gathers never suits up for the Baylor football team, it's likely he'd still get an opportunity to try out for an NFL team. The scout who attended his game at Oklahoma State said it's becoming more and more trendy for pro teams to scour the college basketball ranks for potential prospects.

"These days, they're turning over every rock and looking under every stone," the scout said. "The chance will be there for him if he wants it."

While Gathers' size has attracted the attention of Baylor football coach Art Briles, Scott Drew thinks Gathers could follow a recent line of unheralded Baylor alumni into the NBA.
While Gathers' size has attracted the attention of Baylor football coach Art Briles, Scott Drew thinks Gathers could follow a recent line of unheralded Baylor alumni into the NBA.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

Comforting as that may be to Gathers, he's hoping he'll continue to improve on the basketball court to the point where he won't have to explore that route. Drew noted that Gathers will likely be invited to multiple camps this summer that should help polish his game even more.

"Look at how far he came from his sophomore year to now," Drew said. "As good as he's been this season, he'll be even better as a senior."

Gathers agrees.

"This is the first year where I've had time to myself, where I didn't have to play behind Cory and Isaiah," he said. "I'm doing good things. People say I should play football? For what? I don't need football."

Gathers pauses and grins.

"Not yet," he says.

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.