Baylor's Gathers isn't letting offseason trouble define him

WACO, Texas -- Baylor star Ricardo "Rico" Gathers yearned for a new chapter, to swipe left on a bad night and salvage a future convoluted by a shoplifting charge he incurred last summer. In June, he left a Wal-Mart in Waco without paying for a variety of household items, and once his actions were publicized, the potential two-sport prospect figured he'd marred his chance to compete for a slot in the upcoming NBA and NFL drafts.

So he called Coach Carter. Yes, that Coach Carter -- the former high school basketball coach portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in the 2005 film of the same name.

And Ken Carter had a solution, one met with hesitation by the 22-year-old married father of a 1-year-old son, Ricardo Gathers Jr.

He told Gathers to chop off his braids and erase the man who made that mistake.

"I just wanted him to push refresh," said Carter, who famously barred his undefeated Richmond High School squad in California from competition due to poor academic performance. "I told him simple as this, 'If your mugshot looks like your picture that's in the program, people are not going to see a change.' You can change what you wear, you can change how people perceive you. I told him to cut his hair, and I told him to shave. He's a father. You don't want to do anything and embarrass your family's name."

On Sept. 2, 2015 -- he wrote the date down -- Gathers clipped the braids he'd worn last season. He began to trim his bushy beard too, but that seemed excessive and dangerous to the Big 12 standout.

"I wasn't too fond of [cutting] the beard," he said. "I can't chop off the beard. That's like James Harden. [Teammate Taurean Prince] thinks the power is in the hair. But it's really the beard."

Carter and Gathers met at the Baylor gym -- a few miles from Carter's prep school in Texas -- where Carter challenged the younger man to a free throw contest. Carter won.

His initial assessment of Gathers echoed the thoughts of everyone else in his life: "I think he's a wonderful young man."

Gathers had never found trouble prior to June.

Only the potential his Samson-like frame possessed.

He's an eclipse of a human being with sandbags for shoulders and oaks for biceps. The infantile chuckle of Baylor's 6-foot-8, 275-pound rebounding king belies the overt power he has honed his entire athletic career. He's easy to handle in the paint, if you put a linebacker on him.

"If you're going against him and you don't go hard," Baylor coach Scott Drew said, "you're going to get hurt."

Imagine how his opponents on the gridiron felt when some merciless coach allowed the 6-foot-4 teenager to play both quarterback and tight end on his youth squads in New Orleans.

"Football was just too easy at the time," he said. "I played everything. Started playing quarterback. I was Cam Newton. That's what I was in the pocket. I would also go to the LSU football camps. Les Miles, Nick Saban. Once I got taller in eighth grade, that was my last year playing."

The football coaches in New Orleans hounded his brother and former Georgia Tech football star Greg Gathers, who told Rico to stick with his basketball. Greg was a high school football coach in New Orleans, and folks would dangle opportunities in exchange for the promise that Rico would play football. He rejected them.

Greg Gathers, a second-team All-American for Georgia Tech at defensive end before a kidney disorder ended his career, knew how much his little brother loved basketball. At 8 years old, he'd spend hours on a basketball court with the other kids in a gym attached to Greg Gathers' apartment complex. Back then, he questioned his brother's new love.

"I remember joking with him, 'I don't know what you're doing on this basketball court, you're gonna be a football player,' but slowly but surely," Greg Gathers said. "Ricardo was just so passionate about it."

Rico said he enjoyed both the challenge and camaraderie that basketball offered. He played on the AAU circuit with Louisiana-Lafayette star Shawn Long (19.1 PPG, 13 RPG). Orlando Magic star Elfrid Payton played point guard for one of his youth squads. And he never missed a meal whenever he went to Texas senior Javan Felix's house.

"Javan's mom would always make spaghetti, and I used to say, 'Where the ranch at?'" said Gathers, cackling again. "They thought I was crazy. I used to spend so much time over there with Javan. That brotherhood right there, that's what really brought me to basketball."

He finished his prep career at Riverside Academy in Reserve, Louisiana, ranked 36th in the 2012 class by RecruitingNation. Baylor, LSU and Syracuse all offered scholarships. But he liked the proximity and the opportunity that Scott Drew presented.

So he left the Big Easy but not before he asked his high school sweetheart, Bria Gathers, if she would join him in Waco. She moved and enrolled in a nearby community college in Waco. Two years ago they got married.

Months after their courthouse wedding in the summer of 2013, Bria Gathers told her husband that Ricardo Gathers Jr. was on the way. He arrived in the summer of 2014. Gathers said it's important that people know the timeline.

"We just felt like we did the right thing by getting married before we had kids," he said. "Normally, you think it's the other way around. We were just young and, I guess you could say, in love with each other. I owed her that. She's the real deal."

Fatherhood, Gathers said, turned him into the "ultimate hustler." After his son's birth, he began to ponder his family's future and what he had to do to fortify it. Earlier in his career, he seemed insulted whenever folks asked him about a future in football, as if they were implying that he couldn't make a living in basketball.

But that changed. This season, he has implemented football training into his current routine. Today, he runs routes, 40-yard dashes and cone drills with the idea that an NFL scout might liken him to a younger Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, two former college basketball players who became NFL stars.

"I know my capabilities on the football field," he said. "I'm working on routes and stuff right now. I keep a pair of cleats."

He hopes he has options after he graduates in May. But he's preparing for the football auditions he could be invited to soon, while focusing on basketball. He's the top rebounder in Baylor history. He's averaging a double-double (12.9 PPG, 10.8 RPG). He's agile and explosive. He's coordinated and strong. And he shakes your hand with the tension applied when a doctor wraps a sleeve around your arm and repeatedly pumps to check your blood pressure.

"Always had these hands," he said. "These things, everything, all the rebounds and stuff. I just look at it like I'm on the football field snagging passes. Just go get it."

That's what his wife told him when he walked into Wal-Mart that night in June. He loaded pillows, a tote bag, a water dispenser and a trash can into his cart while he was on the phone with his wife, who was having a difficult time with their son. Gathers said he rushed from the store to help her without realizing he hadn't paid. By the time he recognized his error, he worried that the punishment would be worse if he just walked back into the store and returned the items. He turned himself into police the next day and he was charged with "theft over $50, under $500" in the incident that occurred just days before his son's first birthday.

He ultimately paid a fine and completed a diversion program as terms of his sentencing. He was also ordered to complete community service by USA Basketball officials prior to his tryout for a slot on the Pan Am Games squad.

"Ain't nobody got time for people who should know better, and you have a wonderful opportunity and you mess it up," Carter said. "I said, 'Look at your body: it's one of you in this whole universe.'"

But Gathers knew he'd made a damaging mistake before he talked to Coach Carter. He retreated to a music studio in the aftermath. He has produced and written hip-hop tracks for years. And sometimes, the studio seems like the only safe place for a young man who wonders if everyone who sees him on campus doubts him.

"They're probably thinking, 'That's the guy who took that stuff from Wal-Mart,'" he said.

Lonely, afraid and embarrassed, Gathers put his emotions on paper.

"When the **** hit the water/Where the **** was y'all/Not a call or a text checking on your brother/Nightmares of the bottom/Label me the goat."

"Just feeling I was to myself," he said of the lyrics, which also include thoughts on redemption. "I just feel like I ain't got no room for error."

He's haunted by fears that his transgressions will linger. The digital cemetery teems with ghosts. Google Gathers' name and the third link describes his shoplifting charge in detail. The first link, his Baylor bio, ignores the shoplifting charge, but the second link, his Wikipedia page, features a passage about the incident.

"On June 9, 2015, Gathers was arrested for shoplifting at a Wal-Mart store in Waco, Texas. An employee at the store claimed that Gathers put two pillows, a tote bag, a water dispenser and a trash can, totaling about $171, in a cart and left without paying. This was not the first time that Gathers had stolen from the store, employees said. Gathers spent a night at the McLennan County Jail after posting a $1,000 bond."

So now, he wonders.

Every supporter in his corner backs him. They all say that Gathers shouldn't be judged by what happened in June.

"If I was coaching anywhere at any level," Carter said, "I would want a guy like him because he is a winner."

And if he were Ben Simmons or Joey Bosa, this would be easy. But that's not how the evaluation process works for fringe NBA prospects and NFL hopefuls who haven't played the game since middle school.

"I still don't know, to this day, what's going to happen after this," Gathers said. "I still don't know. I can only wait."

But he knows he'll sit down with scouts and officials from the NBA and NFL one day. And they'll ask him about that shoplifting charge. They'll ask him what he has learned and how that moment has affected his life. They'll ask him if that was a mistake or a pattern.

Long ago, he prepared his answer.

"I'll be like, 'Look at the dude in the mug shot,'" Gathers said. "'Is that the same dude you see today?' And I'd just leave it at that. Because I'm different."

Shaving his head was just the first step toward proving that.