“Don’t be lazy! Pick it up!”
This past summer, before my final year at the University of Richmond, I wanted to make two major improvements in my life. The first was to get in better shape and clean up my diet. The second was to improve my ballhandling skills and my jump shot.
“Keep going! Push!”
Luckily, an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings offered to train me. One-on-one training with an actual NBA coach, in an actual NBA arena. I’m a college player at a mid-major in Virginia. I couldn’t say no to that.
“C’mon, T.J.! Pay Attention!”
Over four weeks out in Sacramento and back home near Dallas, I’d wake up at 5:30 a.m., have breakfast at 6, leave for the arena by 6:15, and be ready to go by 7. If I wasn’t paying enough attention to my shooting form … if I was taking too many dribbles … if I wasn’t running fast enough … the coach would start barking at me.
“T.J.! Go HARDER!”
Each time my coach said these things — with my hands on my knees and sweat dripping off my chin — I would turn and give this exasperated look.
“I am going hard!”
When I saw Coach’s reaction to that, I knew I shouldn’t have opened my mouth.
“That’s it. On the end line. Sprints.”
This happened a lot. And every time, I yelled the same thing back.
“Mom! Jeez! Just tell me what I’m doing wrong!”
Oh, I should have mentioned that. My mom is Nancy Lieberman. The Hall of Fame player, coach and, for me, trainer.
On the court, my mom is anything but motherly. Nah, to her, I was just another kid grinding for a spot in the league — which is just the way I wanted it.
When I was younger, I assumed that I didn’t have to work on my game because my mom was really, really good at basketball — like I just figured her skills would just magically transfer to me.
Turns out things don’t work like that.
I’ve matured a lot since then. I know my goals — I want to lead Richmond to the tourney this year and then go on to the NBA. And if there’s one person who knows what it takes to achieve your dreams, it’s Mom.
O.K., I don’t want to say that I never listened to my mom when she gave me advice on the court, but I definitely could’ve spent more time working on my game when I was growing up.
The first time I really started to consider a future in basketball was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I went to the gym nearly every single day and grew three inches to my current height of 6′ 8″. I ended up making varsity my senior year, and averaged around 17 points, eight rebounds and two assists, and was named the district offensive player of the year at Plano West High.
It was a good season, but because I had only one year of varsity basketball under my belt, I didn’t get many Division I offers. Air Force was the only team that showed much interest.
No, Air Force wasn’t a basketball powerhouse. It wasn’t anything close to that. But it was an option. And I was all but committed to spending the next four years of my life in Colorado when, one day in late May, I received a message on Facebook.
You know how it is when you get a message from a rando, right? It’s either spam or the wrong person or just something, well … weird. Well when I logged on to Facebook and saw a guy named Mike Farrelly had sent me a message, I was like, Who the heck is Mike Farrelly?
Then, I read the preview.
“Hey T.J., this is Coach Farrelly up at Niagara University. I know you don’t….”
“… I know you don’t know me, but I wanted to introduce myself. The coaching staff here at Niagara has seen your tape floating around and we’re interested in talking with you.”
Within a week or two, I was on my way to Lewiston, New York, for an official visit.
Now, coming from Plano, Texas, all I knew about this place was that there was a massive waterfall nearby. But as it turned out, they were building a pretty incredible basketball program that no one really knew about it. So in late June, I committed.
My freshman season, we won only three of our first nine games. But not long after conference play began, we rolled off a 10-game winning streak. At the end of the season, we were crowned MAAC regular-season champs — for only the third time in our program’s history. Though we lost to Iona in the championship game of our conference tournament, we still earned a berth in the NIT, which was a great accomplishment for a program our size.
All of our success made news in the college basketball world. A couple of weeks after the NIT, my teammates and I were playing NBA 2K in the dorm when someone started freaking out.
“Yoooooo, what is this!”
We looked at his phone and read a tweet that said that our coach, Joe Mihalich, was leaving Niagara to take the head coaching job at Hofstra.
We were stunned. Coach Mihalich was like a father to all of us. The thought of him leaving — especially after such an exciting season — was like the worst thing in the world.
When we met as a team a few days later, Coach Mihalich confirmed the reports.
That prompted what some of us called the Mass Exodus. After the season, Ameen Tanksley, Juan’ya Green and I decided to transfer. The following season, six more players left.
When I was looking for a new school, I knew I would have to make a choice. But after visiting a couple of schools, I had a pretty good idea of the place I wanted to call home. It didn’t take long to make a decision.
Being a “free agent” as a college player is a weird experience.
When I had been recruited in high school, there weren’t many schools looking at me. Suddenly, I was getting calls from bigger ones, including Purdue, Boise State and Nevada. But there was one school that stood out from the rest.
The moment I stepped onto Richmond’s campus, everything felt right. From the academics to the competitiveness of the A-10, the school had the whole package. When I met with the coach, Chris Mooney, and his staff, my decision became an easy one.
They showed me a video of a fella named Dan Geriot, a 6′ 9″, 235-pound center who had graduated in 2011. Almost every time the ball came down the court, he would, in one way or another, be a major part of the offense.
They told me that they didn’t have him running the offense because he was their quickest or their strongest player, or because he had the best jump shot. He ran the offense because he had the ability to outsmart his opponents — to make defenders miss. The coaches wanted to teach me to be the smartest player on the court, just like Dan.
Honestly, that sounded sick. The day after I visited, I signed my letter and committed to the Spiders.
When I arrived on campus in 2013, I weighed 245 pounds and was in terrible shape. So the first order of business was turning my slobbish habits into healthy ones. I spent the majority of my redshirt year watching my diet, getting extra shots up and going on long runs.
Though I had lost 10 pounds by the following season, I was still chubby. I got gassed so easily, in fact, that I even had a secret sign where I’d tug at my jersey to let Coach Mooney know that I needed a break. If you look at the film from my first year at Richmond, my shirt’s untucked allllll the time because I was pulling at it so often.
Because of that, I became the butt of a lot of jokes in practice. One time we ran this drill where I was supposed to set a pick and then roll to the basket, but instead I’d just pop out to the perimeter for a shot. It happened like three times before Coach Mooney blew his whistle, got everyone to quiet down and said, “Hey, T.J. … I know you like rolls, so how come you don’t like to roll to the hoop?”
Dudes were on the floor laughing, myself included.
As funny as it was, it made me realize that if I really wanted to average 35 to 40 minutes per game some day — if I really wanted to leave Richmond without any regrets — I was going to have to get into incredible shape.
Which gets me back to this summer.
Here’s a little secret: Nancy Lieberman — my mom — has an addiction.
She’s addicted to licorice.
In her house, you go from one room to the next and there it is again — black licorice — just lying there.
Here’s another secret: I love Twix bars.
I mean, I absolutely love them.
But at the beginning of last summer, I decided once and for all to cut them and all other candy out of my diet. And while I was trying to do that, my mom was also trying to cut back on how much licorice she was eating. It was like a little challenge we had. But every so often I’d catch her cheating. Then she’d find me sneaking a Twix. And it’d be back to the drawing board.
Let me just tell you right now: The struggle is real.
For me, the process of trying to live a different lifestyle wasn’t just about changing what I ate, but was also about improving my sleep patterns by making sure I got to bed before nine. That would help me wake up for those early morning workouts with my mom.
Yeah, the summer was a process, but every little bit of it was focused on improving my lifestyle habits. If I was watching TV, I would be stretching during every commercial break; if I was out of food, I’d go to the supermarket with Brett, the chef for the Sacramento Kings, to buy all-natural, unprocessed foods. And because of all these changes, I’ve seen some huge differences in both my personal life and my game.
Waking up at 5:30 a.m. used to be an issue, but it really doesn’t bother me anymore. I weigh around 220 now, which is 25 pounds less than when I first arrived at Richmond. I’m jumping higher than I ever have and I’m definitely more limber. In fact, yoga was a huge part of my summer routine. A few years ago, I took a hot yoga class and thought I was gonna pass out and die. Now, I can’t get enough of it.
Part of what made this summer so special was that I was invited to participate in the Nike Skills Academy out in Los Angeles. Myself and 20 other college players worked out and broke down film with, among others, Julius Randle, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Sometimes, I’d just look around in awe, thinking about how four years earlier I received only two scholarship offers. But now, I was just a couple of feet away from some of the greatest basketball players in the world. Unreal.
Thanks to all the work last summer, I feel like I finally have all the tools to help lead Richmond to the NCAA Tournament. When my teammates and I are just chilling in the dorms, playing FIFA, Madden or NBA 2K, all we talk about is going to the Dance this March. Honestly, I get chills every time I think about it. Because, although no one’s really picking us to make noise this year, I know this group of dudes can do it.
But no matter what happens, I know I’m going to carry the memories I’ve made here with me for the rest of my life. Whether it’s going to The Grill on Sunday mornings with my teammates to watch football, or the trip the basketball team took to Europe in August (cue the video of Jesse jigging with Irish dancers at a pub), nothing can ever take away the fun I’ve had over the past four years.
I know I wouldn’t have made it this far without the support of my parents. I had so much fun with my mom last summer. It was really the first time that I had gotten to see her competitive fire up close. And for as intense as some of the workouts were (just imagine your mom yelling at you for making a tiny mistake in a work email), we had some great times. Some of the best parts were when we had the chance to relive some of our favorite memories from when I was younger.
One of them definitely sticks out.
So when my mom was the head coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock from 1998 to 2000, she would often go to Pistons games. Whenever the Chicago Bulls came to town, though, she was always there, because she and Michael Jordan are pretty good friends.
One time, she decided to bring me along to watch MJ.
After the game, my mom and I met Michael right outside the locker room. From what I can remember — I was only four or five years old — MJ looked pretty dejected. Chicago had just lost. Anytime the Bulls lost to the Pistons, I think Michael took it personally.
Anyway, I ran over to His Airness with arms spread wide open and a huge smile on my face. He picked me up.
Remember, I’m like five years old.
“Michael, I have a question.”
Imagine how many kids MJ has met in his life who had a question they needed to ask. Imagine how patient he had to be.
“If you can beat the Monstars,” I asked, “why can’t you beat the Pistons?”
My mom and Michael just started dying laughing.
But I was confused. I hadn’t meant it as a joke … at all.
“Why are you guys laughing?”
I loved Space Jam, and I genuinely had no idea how Michael could lose to humans after beating those aliens.
Still holding me in his arms, MJ shook his head, all while flashing that big smile of his.
“Sometimes, it’s just not your day, T.J.”
Over the summer, when my mom wasn’t pushing me, she and I would laugh nonstop at stories like this one. I was a pretty lucky kid growing up, but maybe I didn’t always fully appreciate what I had. It’s probably the same for a lot of kids. You have to grow up a little bit to realize how good you had it.
This summer, I wanted to change everything. I wanted to be the kid I always should’ve been. I have a lot of goals for myself this season, but more than anything, I’m just another kid who wants to make Mom proud.