Glass Ceiling: Rico Gathers's rebounding talent will be enough to get him to the NBA ... or at least to the NFL
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 18, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Certain statistics and sections have been updated to reflect the most recent developments. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It's a sight the rest of the Big 12 would find unfathomable: Rico Gathers getting overpowered—by an undersized adversary, no less. On a Monday afternoon during Baylor's winter break, the 6' 8", 275-pound power forward reclines on a black leather sofa in the first-floor living room of his off-campus apartment in North Waco. "Stop," he begs his 18-month-old son, Rico Jr., who, having apparently grown bored with the muted Nickelodeon cartoon on the flat screen nearby, is nibbling on his father's left elbow. His wife, Bria, smiles and tries to get their son to sit back and stop biting. Rico Jr., aka R.J., coos but does not comply.
It is a rare lost battle for Gathers, who has spent his four years in college establishing himself as one of the best offensive rebounders since the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried was at Morehead State. His 4.6 offensive and 10.7 total boards per game led the Big 12 through Jan. 21, while his 19.7% offensive rebounding rate—meaning the share of those available that he, ahem, gathers—ranked second nationally. In the last 12 months he has grabbed 28 rebounds in 28 minutes (against local NAIA guppy Huston-Tillotson last January) and outrebounded an entire team (21, compared with Northwestern State's 18, on Dec. 8). And Gathers has done all of this while using his brawny frame to absorb countless double teams with the ball in the air.
"I don't believe any one man can box out Rico Gathers," says senior swingman Taurean Prince, the Bears' leading scorer who averages 15 points per game. "I believe that with all my heart."
It's not just the numbers that set Gathers apart. His aggressive style and colossal frame inspire descriptions that seem borrowed from black-and-white B movies: Kansas coach Bill Self has called him "a monster" and "a beast," and Huston-Tillotson coach Thomas Henderson referred to him as "a wild banshee." (Self has also likened Gathers to an NFL tight end. More on that later.) So relentless is Gathers in practice that Baylor coach Scott Drew has had student managers trail the forward with towels to mop his sweat; in postpractice huddles, staffers scurry away to avoid his drenching embrace. Rebounding drills have left teammates with dislocated shoulders and bruised collarbones. During one recent practice, a group of Bears had to get four consecutive defensive stops without allowing an offensive rebound. Gathers was on offense. The drill lasted 80 minutes.
If No. 13 Baylor, 15–3, is going to stay afloat in the similarly unyielding Big 12, which features not only No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 3 Kansas but also No. 6 West Virginia and No. 19 Iowa State, that sort of doggedness can't take a game off. "You've gotta be tough in this league," says Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang. "When you got the toughest dude in the league on your team, that helps."
During his childhood in LaPlace, La., Gathers's family competitions were frequent and intense. Rico can provide detailed accounts of video-game battles won and lost against his two older brothers, Greg (12 years Rico's senior) and Richard II (14 years older), who also enjoyed pounding their youngest sibling with pillows and choke-slamming him onto mattresses. The most inclusive contests came on a 15-by-15-foot patch of concrete in the family's backyard, where Rico's father had fastened a basketball hoop to a wood post with a cement-filled tire as a base. On summer days the three boys and their parents would play games of H-O-R-S-E and 21, invariably leading to heated spats. Other times Rico would play his mother, Janice, a 5' 8" former forward at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, one on one; after a particularly dispiriting defeat, 10-year-old Rico hurled the ball through a glass window in the back of the house. "The feeling of losing games used to hurt my soul," Rico says.
Gathers inherited a rich basketball pedigree: Richard Sr. was a forward at Arkansas-Pine Bluff; in high school he won an Oklahoma state championship with his younger brother Eric, who would go on to play at Lamar. But in the southeastern Louisiana swamplands, football took precedence. Greg was a two-time all-state defensive lineman at East St. John High and then a two-time All-ACC end who became Georgia Tech's career sacks leader in just three seasons.
After a kidney ailment ended his playing career, Greg moved home and coached Rico's youth team. Towering above the rest of the players, Rico first served as a dual-threat quarterback—"like a baby Cam Newton," Greg says—and then an uncoverable 6' 4", 210-pound fade-route receiving specialist as an eighth-grader. When Greg began coaching at nearby Destrehan High, Rico once chased future LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson in practice. On the sideline, Alabama coach Nick Saban asked around for his name.
Area coaches were similarly smitten with Rico's gridiron promise. Some began drawing up plays for him before he had even picked a high school. Others promised that he wouldn't even need to attend practice. But Gathers wasn't interested. "It just was too easy for me at the time," he says now. "I wanted something else to really challenge me."
He had always found that in basketball. "I remember my first layup," Gathers says of his organized hoops debut, at age 10. "I tried to lay it up from the free throw line, smacked it off the glass, and it went to half court. It was horrible." Still, he played hard (and large) enough to make his town's rec league all-stars as a high-motor big body. While watching Rico gobble up rebounds at an AAU tournament two years later, a friend leaned over to Greg and said, "Your little brother might be onto something."
Greg saw to it that he was. When Rico decided to pursue basketball seriously, at age 16, Greg became his personal trainer, waking him for 5 a.m. Mikan drills and agility work in whatever gym they could find, or sending him to run up and down the levees along the Mississippi River. Greg began filming Rico's AAU games, highlighting his brother's failures to box out or dive for a loose ball. He likened rebounds to sacks, the lifeblood of his own athletic career. They were the result, he said, of "nothing but want-to and hustle."
By ninth grade Gathers was one of the Times Picayune's "fab five" high school freshmen, a bruising 6' 6" screen machine on an AAU team that included current Texas guard Javan Felix and Magic guard Elfrid Payton. At Reserve Christian School and then Riverside Academy, Gathers reached four state high school tournament finals and won three, and was twice named Louisiana's player of the year. It had taken Timmy Byrd, who coached Gathers at both schools, all of one pre-high-school summer-league game to call Baylor's coaching staff with a tip: Come watch this kid—now.
Four years later Gathers was accompanied to Waco by Bria, to whom he was engaged on Easter of their senior year of high school and who enrolled at McLennan Community College across town. (They got married the summer after their freshman year and welcomed R.J. a year later.) He was also followed by a familiar preconception. In his first week of class, a fellow student asked, What position do you play on the football team?
Watching Gathers on the court, with his hulking frame carving through space at will, it can be easy to forget how exacting NBA scouts can be. At 6' 8", with a 6' 11" wingspan, Gathers averages 12.8 points but lacks the length of a prototypical post player (NBA power forwards and centers generally have wingspans greater than 7' 2"), a deficiency that helps explain why he's not listed on most mock drafts. "People tell me to watch Tristan Thompson, Paul Millsap, Brandon Bass, Big Baby [Glen Davis]," says Gathers, rattling off a list of veteran NBA rebounders under 6' 8". "Dudes like that, they give me hope."
Later in the conversation he offers another index: Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates. "I would be a game changer just like them," Gathers says of the trio of former college hoopsters turned NFL All-Pros. "Big tight ends who just change the whole dynamic of football."
Which answers his classmate's question, at least hypothetically. Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has fantasized about having Gathers bookend the Bears' D-line with 6' 9" leviathan end Shawn Oakman, and coach Art Briles lobbies Gathers annually to join the football team. Several NFL scouts have contacted Drew, and Gathers says his 40-yard dash was timed at 4.65 in November, which would place him among the fastest tight ends. (The average combine time at the position last year was 4.83.) Plus, he says, "I'm too mobile, got great hands—great hands—to not wanna play tight end."
Gathers's professional future developed a different sort of complication last June, when he was arrested for shoplifting at a Wal-Mart. According to police, Gathers walked out of the store without having paid for the tote bag, two pillows, water dispenser and trash can in his shopping cart. Gathers and Bria say they were talking on the phone about R.J., who was crying after hitting his head, and Gathers absentmindedly left without paying. "From that point on I was just scared," Gathers says. "I didn't wanna go back and get the cops called."
He turned himself in to the police after a Wal-Mart employee identified him from surveillance video. Gathers was sentenced to 50 hours of community service (he has 10 remaining) and ordered to attend a class on money management. "He made a mistake and admitted to it," says Drew. "He did what he had to do to make amends."
Though his NFL dreams linger, for now Gathers is focused on hoops as his present and future. "I'm not trying to be a superstar, but I know I can make a difference on somebody's team," he says.
"Until somebody tells you that you're not a basketball player," says Greg, who was projected to be an NFL draft pick before his kidney issues, "you pursue it to the fullest."
"That's what I'm molded to be right now," says Gathers. "I'm not molded to be a football player." But the door to a change is not closed. "If it ever came down to it, I would do it."
In other words, whatever opportunity is there, he will grab it.