By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
For Antonio Blakeney’s 19th birthday celebration, there were no balloons. No cakes or carefully wrapped gifts. No night on the town, no trips to Tigerland, no parties to speak of. No girls, no dancing, and no music, save for the steady buzz of fluorescent lights, the squeaking of shoes, the percussive pounding of a bouncing ball, and the steady swishing of that ball burying itself in nylon, over and over again.
On October 4, as Blakeney celebrated a new year of life, there was only what there’s always been: a basketball, and an unsatisfied star-in-the-making.
Blakeney spent his first birthday away from his home in Florida in a place that’s always felt like home, no matter where it happens be located: a basketball gym. As the clock ticked closer to midnight, LSU’s newest 19-year-old shooting guard – after a day already filled with class, tutoring, practice, and weights – welcomed another year with a couple hundred extra jumpers in the practice facility.
“You can always get more shots up,” Blakeney says.
If Blakeney could set up his bed there, he probably would, happily rolling off the mattress each morning for a breakfast of ball-handling drills and pull-up jumpers. He’s the rattiest of gym rats, hooked on hoops, a basketball junkie with an insatiable addiction to improving. A five-star prospect with a six-star work ethic. A future pro and current Tiger who spends most of his collegiate weekends – and, so far, all of his collegiate birthdays – in the practice facility, for as long as his circadian rhythms permit.
“The latest I’ve stayed so far? One, two in the morning,” he says. “That’s not typical. You have to get your sleep in college. But if it’s a weekend, or there’s some nights when you have some stuff on your mind, you just want to stay in there and get up shots.”
Some nights, like his birthday, it’s a celebratory shoot-around. Some nights, he’s joined by teammates. Other nights, the difficult ones, when doubt or fear or frustration creep in, Blakeney turns to basketball for comfort. It’s an outlet, an escape, a grounding force, a steady presence since he first picked up a ball.
“When you have stuff going wrong, you just want to go to what you love,” he says. “Some people, when they have stuff going wrong, go to a loved one, someone they love to be around. Me, I go find a basketball. I can just dribble, and I’ll feel better.”
Blakeney’s arrival in Baton Rouge has those around the program feeling awfully good. Ben Simmons was the first pillar of a much-anticipated 2015 class, the Killer B that first brought the buzz, but Blakeney’s decision to don Tiger stripes elevated the noise around the program to deafening levels, putting the SEC on blast that LSU wasn’t just a one-man show, and that Simmons wouldn’t stand alone in the spotlight. There’s plenty of room for Blakeney beside him.
Blakeney loves that light, and he loves the buzz. He loves them best of all when they come from the fluorescent bulbs suspended above a practice gym well after dark. There’s no place he’d rather be.
FEW HAVE EVER BEATEN ANTONIO BLAKENEY in a game of one-on-one. It’s an exclusive list, featuring a collection of some of the best players in college and professional basketball.
The headliner, however, is Tequisha Blakeney. Better known to Antonio as ‘Mom.’
“I used to beat him in 21 all the time,” Tequisha laughs.
On the street of their Sarasota home – there was no driveway – mom, an Army veteran and the person whom Antonio credits for his athleticism, taught son a thing or two about basketball. One Christmas morning when Antonio was nine or 10, Tequisha’s present was that goal on the street. And a butt-kicking or two.
“He was like, ‘Mom, you’re cheating. You’re fouling. You’re putting your foot on me,’” Tequisha recalls. “And I said, ‘No, this is how you play basketball.’”
The younger Blakeney needed the lesson. Up until that point in his life, football had come first. It was mom’s favorite sport, and where she thought any hopes of future athletic success for her son rested.
“I always thought it would be football with Antonio,” says Tequisha, a recreational flag football player herself during her athletic prime. “I was a football mom. His older brother played football, and it was just, ‘Let’s get him into football.’ I tried to force football on him so much.”
But by junior high, the hardcourt had supplanted the gridiron as Antonio’s preferred athletic venue. Tequisha, a full-time nurse who worked frequently, remained skeptical that he’d find success in the sport.
“He didn’t start off as athletic on the basketball court,” she says. “He used to run so slow on the court. He was very stiff.”
Stiff, but persistent. While mom worked long hours in the nursing home, Antonio worked on his game.
“When he was in seventh grade, one day he told me, ‘Mom, you should come watch me play basketball,’” she remembers. “I was like, ‘You’re going to play football. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be a wide receiver or a quarterback.’ He was just like, ‘No, Mom, you should really come watch me. I’m really good.’ So one day, I went to watch him. And I was amazed.”
The son she’d schooled in 21 just years before had blossomed into a veritable talent. Fueled by mom’s many victories, he’d turned to the playgrounds, where better players and more setbacks set a fire in Blakeney’s belly.
“I would see him playing with other kids,” Tequisha recalls. “They used to tell me, ‘He’s not that good.’ I think that’s what made him hungry to get better. He just worked at it all the time.”
Which meant many miles on Tequisha’s car. Once Antonio committed to the game, he outgrew the street-side hoop and began begging his mom to take him on the 45-minute drive from home to The Shooting Zone, a Sarasota gym where Blakeney could get shots up on an automatic rebounding machine and dribble in and out of cones and dummies. Slowly but surely, he worked away the preteen stiffness and awkwardness, chipping away at his rough edges and eventually becoming a smooth, polished prospect.
By the time he arrived in high school, Blakeney had hung up his cleats for good to focus on basketball full-time. Before long, he emerged as one of the nation’s top talents. After averaging 24.8 points per game as a sophomore at Cardinal Mooney High School and being named the Sarasota Herald-Tribune Player of the Year, Blakeney moved with his mother to Orlando and transferred to Oak Ridge High School, where he maintained the work ethic that had carried him into the national discussion as a blue-chip prospect and onto LSU’s radar as a must-have in its 2015 class.
“He used to get up early in the morning, prior to school opening,” says LSU head coach Johnny Jones. “He developed a relationship with the janitor there at his high school, who would let him in to get some shots up prior to class. That says a lot about him and his drive to be the best he can be.”
It’s a work ethic he learned from his mother. Tequisha Blakeney began her professional career in the Army, leaving only after several post-9/11 deployments to raise her children as a civilian. Her first job after the military was in medical coding, before she decided to pursue a career as a nurse. She took classes by day and worked by night, all while raising her sons.
While Antonio rose on the recruiting boards of colleges across the country, Tequisha soared up the nursing ranks with equal speed – from certified nursing assistant to licensed practicing nurse, then on to registered nurse, charge nurse, unit manager, assistant director, and finally director of nursing over an entire building – providing for her family while setting an example impossible for her sons to overlook.
“My mom is definitely my inspiration, watching her work so hard in her field of work,” Antonio says, “climbing up and up the ladder in her field, seeing all the hard work she puts in.”
“She’s rubbed off on him,” adds Jones. “He saw his mom go to work every day, getting home late, how hard she worked. That’s one of the reasons he’s not afraid to put the time and energy in to work hard and try to improve.”
Antonio applied those lessons on the court, showcasing a work ethic rare among players of his age and ability. His drive is highlighted in a series of documentaries from Florida-based production company Home Team Hoops. The “Be Great” series, which follows Blakeney around from extreme workout to extreme workout, has generated nearly 2 million hits on YouTube and earned Antonio thousands of devoted followers, mostly young basketball players whose goal is the same as Blakeney’s: to be great.
“It means a lot,” he says of the videos’ response. “It means what I’m doing is working. What I did in my ‘Be Great’ videos was never staged or fake. It was really how I was living my life. It made me feel like I was doing the right thing if all these kids were looking up to me.”
The kids weren’t the only ones watching closely. Tequisha’s seen them all – multiple times. Her youngest son, class of 2018 prospect Tyrieke, has too. The son she inspired is now returning the favor.
“I was telling my mom the other day, ‘The kids love him.’ I follow Antonio on Instagram, she says. “I see it all the time, how the kids say, ‘You’re my role model. #BeGreat.’ His own brother talks about being great. Antonio has really made a positive impact on the kids. They really look up to him.”
Just as he looks up to her. In addition to “Be Great,” Blakeney’s motto is a simple one: “Never Be Satisfied.”
“That definitely came from my mom,” he says.
Which is why, to this day, he still challenges her to the occasional game of 21.
“That’s okay,” Tequisha replies. “I’ll pass.”
IF BLAKENEY WORKED HARD to appear on LSU’s radar, LSU worked just as hard to appear on his. By the summer before Blakeney’s senior season at Oak Ridge, he’d established himself as perhaps the best shooting guard in the country, hotly-pursued by the likes of Louisville, Kentucky, and Florida. LSU was, at best, an underdog to the observing world, but the Tigers had the benefit of Ben Simmons, the No. 1 player in the country, an LSU commit, and, crucially, Blakeney’s AAU teammate with Orlando-based Each 1 Teach 1.
“I don’t think we missed a game he played in all summer,” says Jones. “With he and Ben playing together, it helped that we didn’t have to split our time up elsewhere. We were engaged and really interested in him and excited about the potential and impact he could have on our program.”
Blakeney noticed. Grinders respect grinders, and Jones and his staff were doing serious work to get his attention. They saw him as an instant fit, with the athleticism, length and shooting to fit immediately into their fast-paced, well-spaced system. With Simmons constantly in his ear, and Jones and Co. constantly in the stands, LSU had officially caught his eye.
“The coaches were at all the games,” Blakeney says. “They showed consistency, coming to see me, not knowing if I was going to go there or not, but just showing consistently that they wanted me.”
Hard work pays off. LSU secured Blakeney’s signature in the April signing period, adding him to a collection that included Simmons and Brandon Sampson, the best player in the state of Louisiana, to form one of the nation’s best hauls. To some on the outside, Blakeney’s selection of LSU, a program on the rise, as opposed to one established among college basketball’s elites, was a surprise. Not to Mom.
“I had a feeling from the beginning after I met Coach Jones and I met Coach David Patrick,” Tequisha says. “When we came on our visit, and the family atmosphere, I just knew LSU was somewhere I would trust my son at. That was the hardest decision for me, letting him go away for school and me being so far away, so I had to feel that trust in the coaches so they would be there and be a parent to him. That’s what I felt with Coach Jones.”
For Antonio, it was also about opportunity. LSU’s rise up the college hoops ranks – from missing the tournament in Jones’ first year to safely making it by his third – mirrored his own ascension through the prep ranks. A goal-oriented, habitually-improving workaholic like his mother, Blakeney saw LSU as the perfect place to better himself.
“Opportunity to play. Opportunity to change the culture. Everything is an opportunity here,” he says. “It’s great opportunity to be a part of something.”
Upon arrival, it didn’t take Blakeney long to make headlines. In his first meeting with the media, Blakeney twice said, “I think we’ll win the national championship.” Sporting News and several other national publications ran with the soundbite, with some in the media painting Blakeney’s confidence as an arrogant guarantee.
Asked about the storyline, Blakeney laughs. He’s more than happy to clarify the difference between cockiness and competitiveness.
“My approach is to win at everything, win every single game,” he says. “My mindset is this: Every game we walk into, we’re going to win. If you have someone who doesn’t look at it that way, you have a problem. Now, we haven’t played a game yet. And we have a lot of work left to do. But, as of now, I think we should win every single game we play, because I’m a competitor, and I think we’re the best team.”
If nothing else, Blakeney has earned the right to feel that way. Long hours in the gym have bred a player whose abilities back up his confidence. He’s added 15 pounds since arriving in the summer, now standing an SEC-ready 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, to go along with his silky-smooth jumper and polished mid-range game.
“I don’t know if I’ve had a player as explosive and powerful as him at the guard position,” says Jones, noting Blakeney’s 45-inch vertical. “He can really explode to the rim, and get on a roll shooting the ball from deep, as well.”
It’s a skillset Blakeney showcased in LSU’s preseason tour of Australia. Though he struggled with his shot at times, he also showed how versatile he can be as a scorer at all three levels – at the rim, mid-range, and from three. Blakeney’s best game came in a 91-88 win over Queensland All-Stars, in which he scored a team-high 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting, knocking down 3-of-5 from three and grabbing seven rebounds.
Even that wasn’t satisfactory by his incredibly high standards. Upon arrival stateside, Blakeney didn’t take credit for his big game. He instead took the blame for a failure only he noticed.
“My goal was to average 10 rebounds, so I didn’t do what I needed to do,” Blakeney says. “I know I can average 10 rebounds. I’m very athletic, I’m very strong, I’m very tough to try to get those rebounds. I just think I need to keep getting better and forcing myself to go to the glass.”
That’s the kind of talk coaches like to hear.
“The key to his success is going to be his drive,” says Jones. “He knows what his goal is and where he would like to be. He understands the process to get there: through hard work and determination. He has everything he needs to be successful. He just has to stay the course.”
Fortunately for Jones, Blakeney is a master of staying the course. He can’t help it. It’s the competitor’s curse: nothing is ever good enough. No amount of success produces fulfilment. The itch cannot be scratched. The path cannot be strayed from.
It’s his blessing, too. An unsatisfied superstar never stops improving. He just keeps working away, every day, on the weekends, on his birthday, late into the night. He’s never satisfied.
It’s the way Antonio Blakeney’s mother raised him. It’s the way he’s made it this far. And it’s the way he plans to take his game, and his team, to the next level.