Fri Sep 17 06:00am EDT
We wrap up our Big Ten coverage this week with a conversation with Meyers Leonard. If Illinois finds success (read: makes the Sweet 16 or beyond), Leonard's story will be spread far and wide, as it should be. So, that said, these pieces are mandatory reading about Leonard. Give them a read, and enjoy the Q&A.
Matt Norlander: You attracted attention from many schools, but you've also stated it was always about Illinois. When did that seed get planted, and was there every any doubt about where you'd end up?
Meyers Leonard: Not many people knew about me originally. It was after my sophomore year when I grew a lot and hitting the weights every day. Then, being on the AAU team (Mac Irvin Fire) and having one good tournament, there were multiple college coaches with an eye on me. When I was getting more big-time, it was Illinois' coaches at every game. That always caught my eye. Once I had come down here, I really enjoyed everything, having coaches, a young guy like Jerrance (Howard). Jay Price I think was at every one of my games.
MN: How close are you from your hometown (Robinson, Ill.)?
ML: I can make it an hour and 50 - that's going a little over the speed limit. If I had to go home for some type of emergency, on any given night. That was another key piece in coming here.
MN: Yet you love baseball and debated whether or not to give up basketball at one point in high school, right? Why'd you choose basketball?
ML: Those were a neck-and-neck tie. I won two state championships in baseball and I was close with all my friends who played baseball, so I got to see them a lot more. I could dominate pretty much every game if I was pitching. At one point, Scott Rawlings (the athletic trainer at his high school) became my mentor, and I can remember after an open gym I told him I was done with basketball. And he said, ‘Absolutely not.' And that's when he started getting me in the weight room and the gym every day.
MN: You're notable because of your size and ability to move about the floor like a guard. Has that come naturally, or did you have coaches who instilled that in you?
ML: I think it's natural athletic ability, but like I said, I put in countless hours, like every college basketball player. I can honestly probably play any sports and be fairly successful at it.
MN: Is talking about your family and the death of your father easy for you, or would you prefer your story to be told in a different light now that you're in college?
ML: My ultimate goal is to make it to the NBA or whatever. And now in college everyone's always like, "You've gone through a bad situation," and I think that's a legit question, even today. My brother's going back to Afghanistan for a second time. I'm going to have to go through that again while I'm here. ... But it's all a part of my story, even now, and that's OK. I don't have to leave it out now that I'm in college and have gotten this far.
MN: And your brother recently came back from Afghanistan?
ML: He got back Sept 3. He had to do a combat leave and had to be weaved back into normal society and walk around a corner without wanting to point a gun and shoot. He has a lot of stories he doesn't mind telling me. He's seen people get killed and stuff, and we don't go into that. I saw him over Labor Day, and he actually came up [last weekend]. It's been nice seeing him. Most people don't think about it, but I'm just glad he's alive. Most people don't have to worry about their brother getting [killed].
MN: How often do you correspond to your brother, Bailey?
ML: Through Facebook, once every one or two months. And then I talk to him over the phone maybe six times a month, but a lot of that was because you can't have your cell phone at high school, when he's awake at night and can talk to me.
MN: And what are the conversations often about?
ML: He was letting me know he was OK and letting me know he loved me or whatever. People were sending him stuff of me dunking on that kid. It really helped him to know I was being successful back home.
MN: Do you carry around anything or have something in your dorm room that you keep to remember and honor your father?
ML: I have a gold chain of his that was actually kept by his mom. And then his mom, my grandma, of course, she gave his gold chain to my aunt, and now I have it and I have a picture of me my dad and my brother, plus a picture of my dad in my wallet. And then in I have "Rest in Peace" tattooed on my back.
MN: Wow, that's great. Is it just shoulder-to-shoulder?
ML: No, it's kind of all over my back, and it's a tribute to my father and my family.
MN: For people who haven't read your story, can you detail your relationship with Brian Siler?
ML: When my dad passed away, it was just me, my mom and my brother. My mom tried to get into a relationship after a while, and that didn't work out, so she decided to be widowed with me and my brother. Me and my mom and Bailey had a very small house. Brian stepped in as my father figure. He started taking me to church and taking me out to lunch since we didn't have much money to be honest, or at all, really. He got me into the fifth-grade basketball league. As I started getting closer with (Siler's son) Austin, just being around Brian and Austin started growing on me. During my last year I would stay the night there and take Austin's little brother to school. I would stay there some nights, and they'd ask me to come over and have dinner. It's just kind of like my family, really. It was kind of different, but obviously it was good for me because I needed that ... that strength to help with my mom.
MN: Let's lighten it up for the last questions. What have you learned about Bruce Weber that you didn't know when he was recruiting you?
ML: He's very hardcore on the court, especially in practice. We started individual workouts in the past two weeks, and I expected a slow transition in. But if you do something wrong, he's going to get on your case right away. Right away.
MN: Who's the player you're most looking forward to going against this year?
ML: Probably Jared Sullinger.
MN: I KNEW you were going to say that. Tell us why.
ML: I played him at LeBron's camp two summers ago and that's where I had my best game that summer. Obviously I've seen him at the Amare camp, and he's obviously very talented. I would like to, not get on his level, but he's very skilled and has a great chance to play in the NBA. I would like to have a chance to really go up against him and play well again.