Tariq Owens was tall and skinny and uncoordinated but determined. He was 12 years old and a skilled football player, losing maybe two games in four years with his Pop Warner team in Baltimore.
But then his legs decided they wanted to be longer. His knees chose to creak in anticipation. His body just shot up and up and up, and soon he woke up at 6 feet. And where do 6-foot middle schoolers go?
"Dad," he said, sitting in the family's living room. "I want to play basketball."
Renard Owens had been waiting to hear those words since the day his son was born. Growing up, nothing in life had made Renard feel the way he felt on the basketball court: calm and powerful and in love.
"Well, sleep on it for 24 hours," Renard said, wanting to make sure his son was all-in. "If you still feel the same way the next day, come to me."
The family debated what Tariq should do. His sisters, Sadiyyah and Napheissa, and his mom, Cassandra, voted for football. Renard, basketball. And Tariq, a quiet kid who tended to blend into the background, didn't utter more than a few words.
"I want to play basketball," he said to his dad, lying in bed underneath his SpongeBob covers, head on his New York Knicks pillows (his dad was born in Queens).
"All right," Renard said. "Now listen, we're not stopping. You say you want it, so from this point on, we're doing it. We're going all the way in."
Tariq nodded, excited, as his dad began to walk out.
"Tariq?" Renard said, a smile flashing across his face. "I'm always here for you. I'm not letting you go."
Renard didn't let his son go when tragedy struck the family that year. Or when Tariq could have quit basketball. Or when recruiters later doubted Tariq's size and basketball abilities.
He's too skinny.
He's too small.
He's never going to play major college basketball.
He needs to eat more cheeseburgers or SOMETHING! Why can't the kid put on any weight?
No. Renard didn't let his son go, either, when his commitment to Ohio University did not come to fruition. Ohio's head coach left for another program, and Owens decided to embark on a journey that led him to play for Tennessee, then St. John's, where he led the Big East in blocks—and finally, now, for Texas Tech as a graduate transfer.
"This just feels right," Renard says. "Like the stars and the moon are lining up."
It does feel right that an underrecruited, underrated player who never quite fit the mold is a focal point of the Final Four's most exciting team. The underdog Red Raiders, in their first ever Final Four, are just two wins away from a national championship.
They own the nation's best defense, and Owens is a big reason why. He plays hard. Plays so much bigger than his 6'11" body. He doesn't just block shots; he alters them. Intimidates anyone from coming into his lane. He anticipates, then attacks. Truly believes the rim is his, every shot is his. He takes it personally when the ball soars past his fingertips. And his athleticism allows Texas Tech to switch on screens, because he can guard positions 1 through 5.
"There's no such thing as taking a play off," Owens says.
As time wound down against Gonzaga in the final game of the West Regional in Anaheim, California, Owens walked to the other side of the court. He began to shimmy a little bit, smelling blood, sensing victory.
He balled his hands into fists, but then a giant smile broke across his face. It's a smile that anyone who knows Owens has seen before. It's a smile that says, I'm choosing joy because I have been tested so many times before.
Tariq was his mother's Velcro strip. Always at her hip. If she was in a room, he'd wiggle his way in there, too. She cheered so hard for him at his football games, bringing cowbells, whistles, streamers. Anything she could to play her part. She was proud of him.
He was 13 when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May 2009.
It was devastating, watching his mom's health decline. She wasn't able to talk much. Every day after school, he would drop his black bookbag in her room and sit next to her for hours as she lay in bed. He wouldn't say anything. He just needed to be near her.
She died nine months later.
Tariq could barely put one foot in front of the other. Seventh grade, eighth grade—they were painful. Everything reminded him of her. The way she cared for everyone. How she valued education, telling him and his sisters since they were babies that they would be going to college. She knew all of their teachers on a first-name basis, and she'd create friendly competitions for her children to see who could earn the most A's.
She put her soul into everything she touched, from her hugs to her meat loaf, a family favorite. She and Renard instilled discipline and work ethic:
We don't quit.
Don't allow anyone to outwork you.
We don't make excuses. We don't play the victim.
Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
But every day, Tariq was just trying to not fall apart. Naturally introverted, he drew further into himself. Wouldn't say much. Wouldn't let anyone know he was hurting. But it was obvious. "His spirit wasn't there," says Don Aaron, his longtime trainer.
Renard, a lieutenant in the Baltimore Police Department, worked long hours to provide for the kids and to keep them strong. He told them this moment could break them. They had every right and reason to give up on life, but they couldn't. They just couldn't. They had to keep pushing.
"Who you depend on is in these four walls," he told them.
So they clung tighter together, especially Renard and Tariq. On the court and in the car. Renard would drive Tariq hundreds of miles in his Ford Windstar minivan to Virginia, New York, North Carolina, to give his son better access to trainers and viewing tournaments that had top players ranked above him. Grabbing his son's rebounds, Renard would tell him to keep his head up, keep pushing.
I'm not letting you go.
On the basketball court, Tariq could transport himself to somewhere else. Somewhere that didn't hurt. He could yell and grunt and jump and scream. He could block shots. Feel powerful. Peaceful.
No matter how down he felt, he could count on the court. It was the exact same way on a Monday as it was on a Friday. The hoop remained 10 feet tall. The ball still bounced when he dribbled it.
"Basketball saved my son," Renard says.
Basketball, he could control. Work ethic, he could control. And he knew nothing would be harder than losing his mom.
So when his teammates would groan at rebounding drills, sprints, two-a-day practices, Tariq became excited. He started to take the initiative and want to work out for himself, not just because of his father.
But as he went to high school, his heart would break again. He was cut from the JV team at Arundel High, in Gambrills, Maryland, outside Baltimore. Renard told him to be patient. Remember the feeling. Work.
So his son did that, working with his dad as well as Aaron and his other trainer, Jerard Rucker. Tariq would run 200 meters on the track pushing a 45-pound sled. The next kid, who was working out with him, would take the sled and sprint from there. They would do it until each had sprinted 6-8 times. It was grueling. "Most kids will wither away," Aaron says. "But he was motivated."
He began to envision the life he wanted to live one day, hopefully from playing in the pros, and came up with this mentality: $10 or $10 million—which did he want to have? It wasn't necessarily about the money; it was about pushing himself as hard as he could go and not taking life for granted.
But how would he make his mark? He played varsity at St. Vincent Pallotti High in nearby Laurel after transferring there from Arundel, then did a postgraduate year at Mt. Zion Prep in Lanham, Maryland. But he was playing with a bunch of guards who rarely passed the ball into the post. He figured out a different way to contribute: Defense. Shot-blocking. Energy. "That's when that dog mentality was born," Renard says.
One game, during his prep season at Mt. Zion Prep, Tariq recorded nine blocks. At one point, in a single sequence, he swatted a shot, rebounded the ball, gave it to his point guard, sprinted all the way down to the other end of the floor, caught a lob off the backboard and hammered home the dunk. "A kid his build, his height? That ain't supposed to happen like that," says Rodrick Harrison, his coach at Mt. Zion. "He was special."
He became one of the best players in Maryland but was still underestimated. Evaluators liked his length, his tenacity, but doubted if he could cut it at the next level. They said he was too skinny. Too small.
Didn't matter to Renard. He told his son not to listen to anybody. Reporters, scouts. Nobody.
Can't measure heart, he'd tell Tariq. Son, they can't measure your HEART.
Once again, however, Owens faced something he couldn't control, when Ohio's coach, Jim Christian, left for Boston College and he had to find a new school—quickly.
He chose Tennessee. He walked into the Knoxville gym at 6'11" and maybe 170 pounds. Not the frame of a guy who looked like he could bang in the SEC. But the coaches liked his defense, his shooting ability. Most of all, they liked his heart.
"He played with a chip on his shoulder because he was a really underrated kid," says Al Pinkins, a former Tennessee assistant who's now the associate head coach at Florida. "He had all the potential in the world to be a really, really good player."
But he needed to put on weight first. He didn't really like to eat, and even when he did empty the fridge, he still couldn't put on weight. That's always been his struggle. He labored to get stronger, adding about 10 to 15 pounds that year, but hardly left the bench. He might go in for a few minutes one game, but then he wouldn't play the next three.
Still, he was always upbeat, always positive. He has always been that way. "He's a super-even keeled kid. He's got a peaceful aura about him," his sister Sadiyyah says. "He just has a calming presence about him."
Calm, yes. Satisfied? No. He hustled to earn more minutes. "He practiced hard every single day," says Chris Shumate, a former assistant coach at Tennessee who's now at Northern Kentucky. "He never had a bad day because his energy was consistent. He was an energy-giver. A very humble spirit who just wanted to get better."
That meant challenging the veterans, Armani Moore and now-Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson. Moore was a hard-nosed power forward. One practice, about a month into the season, Owens blocked two of his shots. The two were talking trash to each other. "For the first time, Tariq showed he was willing to bark back to the alpha dog," says Donnie Tyndall, the former Tennessee head coach who's now with the G League's Grand Rapids Drive. "He wasn't afraid."
Especially not against LSU. He caught the ball baseline, rose up and thundered home a dunk over Jordan Mickey for the and-1 play. That was Owens' coming-out moment. He even made SportsCenter.
"Coach! I could have been doing that all year if y'all would have given me the chance!" Owens said to Pinkins afterward, laughing.
"You know what, Tariq, you got the minutes now," Pinkins said. "Keep doing it."
If only Owens could have. After the season, Tyndall was fired, as he was the subject of an NCAA investigation into his former program. Former Texas coach Rick Barnes replaced Tyndall, but when Owens and his father met with the new coach, they did not get a sense that there was going to be a place for Owens. Barnes had his own recruits.
Owens had to keep pushing, keep moving. Again.
Owens chose St. John's, wanting to be coached by Chris Mullin, the former NBA star. And as pickup games started, Owens didn't disappoint. "Right away you saw he was a ferocious shot-blocker," says Malik Ellison, a former St. John's teammate. "He'd just come out of nowhere."
Though he was one of the tallest players, he'd finish at the front with the guards during sprints, determined to carve out a role for himself. And though St. John's had a lot of guards and he didn't get to display much of his scoring abilities, his soft touch around mid-range, he'd become a force in the paint defensively and one of the Big East's premier rim-protectors.
His 94 blocks last season for St. John's were tied for second-most in school history and ranked eighth in the nation. His 163 blocks are the fifth-most in the school's history. He managed to average 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
"He was a great leader," Ellison says. "He wants to win no matter what. At all costs. He doesn't care about himself, getting the ball, getting shots; he just wants to do whatever it takes to win the game."
Don't let anyone outwork you.
Owens kept to his father's words, working to build more muscle. He'd force himself to eat double the amount of food with the team in the cafeteria, determined to get bigger. And he graduated. But he felt he had more to give.
He wanted to reach the NCAA tournament. And he wanted to put himself in the best position to showcase his complete game, hoping to turn pro. Texas Tech seemed like the right destination for his graduate year after a conversation he had with coach Chris Beard.
"Tariq," Beard told him. "If you come here and work hard, I promise you, you're going to get everything you want."
Owens has seen promises dissolve, commitments broken. But this felt different. Because Beard is just like him: a grinder. The coach spent time at community college and the Division II and III levels before taking the helm at Texas Tech. Owens felt understood. Seen.
So he put his faith in Beard's promise.
"I've never seen anybody work as hard as him and his staff on this level of basketball, and that's the main thing that attracted me here," Owens says. "He's a workaholic, and I appreciate that coming from a head coach because I know how hard I'm willing to work to be successful, and he's willing to work even harder."
The summer heading into this season, in Lubbock, Owens did two things: Eat and lift. John Reilly, the team's strength and conditioning coach, worked to transform Owens' body by mandating that he eat around 6,500 calories a day and lift twice daily.
It worked. Owens has put on 25 pounds of muscle. He's still slender, still lean, but has proved to be a lot stronger than he looks. He blocked eight shots against Memphis in December, to go along with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
And he fits on a team where some of his new teammates had their own stories of being overlooked, underrecruited.
"We don't have any McDonald's All Americans. We don't have anybody on our team that has been given anything," Beard says. "We got a chip on our shoulder. We weren't supposed to be here. They picked us to be bottom half or last in our league.
"We respect everybody's opinion and fear no one."
Nowadays fans come up to Renard and say, "Oh, you're Tariq's dad!" "He has definitely found a home," Renard says. "Not to say any of the other schools he went to weren't good, because they were. They wasn't bad situations at all. But Texas Tech is just right. It's the perfect fit for him."
Renard cheers hard during games, just like his late wife would. He gets more joy from watching Tariq play than he ever did touching a ball himself. And it's not because his son can jump high or stuff a stat sheet.
It's because he didn't give up. He chose to lean on those who have always been there, in those four walls. Tariq still allows Sadiyyah her ritual that she's followed since childhood. She comes from behind him and surprises him and picks him up, even though he towers over her now. She has to let him know she's still big sis, and that he isn't big-time now, even though NBA scouts are paying attention to him.
This moment is bittersweet for them. Cassandra never got to see her son blossom into the basketball player he is.
But when Tariq cut down his piece of net after beating Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, Renard thought about how proud Cassandra would be. All of her kids have graduated from college, just as she had dreamed. One has a master's degree and the other two are working toward the same.
"Look at my son," he thought at that moment. "Look at my baby. Your mother is smiling down on you. She would say, 'Well done, my son. Well done.'"
Mirin Fader is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.