by Tyler Richardson / @Ty_richardson
Jaw-dropping. Flashy. Confident. Unrelenting. All of these adjectives describe Tony Wroten Jrʼs game, but it is a lone verb that may best describe Tony Wroten Jr, the man: misunderstood.
People look at the 18-year-old University of Washington freshman and they see an uber-talented, high profile, man-child. His long, 6-5 frame casts shadows over other point guards. His tattoo riddled arms and deep, slow voice make you feel like you are in the presence of a seasoned adult, not a kid who recently took the SAT.
From the minute he begins talking it is evident there is more to him than people realize. On the surface he has a smile that could sell ice to an Eskimo, but deep down, in places only he can see, there burns a fire for the game. A passion that pumps throughout his veins and is never too far from his mind.
“Basketball is a way life for me,” Wroten said. “It keeps me out of trouble. It keeps me focused. Itʼs my way out and the way I am going to feed my family.”
On the court there is no doubting what makes Wroten so special. His vision is something that should be portrayed in a Marvel comic book. His no-look passes could leave Mark Jackson and Steve Nash shaking their heads in disbelief. When it looks like nothing is there, he finds something. His combination of size and speed makes getting to the rim as easy as lacing up his Jordans. The energy and flare that go along with his game are like nothing the nation has seen in a long time.
Jesus Shuttlesworth said it best: “Basketball is like poetry in motion, cross the guy to the left, take him back right, heʼs fallinʼ back, then just J right in his face. Then you look at him and say, What?”
Wroten is a poet of the pass, and by no means is he afraid to say, “What?” If he leaves a defender on the perimeter or throws a Houdini pass, he will be the first one to let you know. His emotions are raw, uncut and most of all—they are real.
“He brings a swagger to a team that I have seen in very, very few players,” his high school coach Ed Haskins said. “I have had the good fortune to coach some pretty special players, but he brings a definite swagger and confidence like no other.”
Wroten wears those emotions proudly for the nation to see, never wavering from who has always been on the court—a complete monster.
“When heʼs on the court that isnʼt the real Tony Wroten,” best friend and current Central Arizona point guard Glenn Brooks said. “That is the monster. That is the guy he has to be. He has to go play that way.”
That monster may serve Wroten well on the court, but the confidence that coaches covet and adore has been perceived as arrogance and selfishness from those who donʼt know him.
“Tony is one of the most misunderstood kids that plays the game,” Haskins said. “The media put him in the spotlight. Itʼs like heʼs supposed to have this open book of a life and be a perfect kid, and heʼs not. No kid is perfect.”
Wroten has been in the spotlight since he was rated the No.1 middle schooler in the nation by numerous outlets. By the time he entered his freshman year at Seattleʼs Garfield High School, he was a full blown star. College coaches were showing up at practices before he had even played a game. A documentary was being made about him and he was holding down the top spot for the Class of 2011.
All the attention led to an examination of not only Wrotenʼs every dribble, but his every breath. That passion, ferociousness and swagger he displayed was interpreted as him being a prima donna. The lovable, laid back, funny side of Wroten was buried beneath the harsh criticism from people who had never even spoken to him.
“He kind of missed out on a normal childhood,” Brooks said. “He had no privacy. Every time he went out people were wanting something from him.”
“The thing with growing up in the spotlight and being so criticized is you feel you have to be perfect,” Wroten said. “If I get in trouble itʼs 10 times worse than a [normal] kid getting in trouble. I started to realize you canʼt be liked by everybody.”
That realization came in Wrotenʼs sophomore year, he tore his ACL playing football. Suddenly, the rankings fell, some coaches stopped calling and friends disappeared. For the first time in his life he couldnʼt satisfy his hunger for the game he loved. For the first time in his life his name disappeared from recruiting blogs and websites. For the first time in his life, Tony Wroten Jr was normal.
During his recovery time, Wroten saw people fade from his life that he thought he could trust. People he thought he could count on turned their backs on him the second the promise of dollar signs was wheeled into surgery. To him, loyalty is everything and in order to create a strong supporting cast, Wroten and his close-knit group of supporters began calling themselves L.O.E., or Loyalty Over Everything.
“L.O.E. started because the people I thought were my friends werenʼt comforting me or protecting me,” Wroten said. “ My L.O.E. family has been the biggest support for me. They know what I am capable of and they wonʼt let me get away with anything.”
“Itʼs not a clique or a gang,” Haskins said. “Rather it is their support system they have for each other.”
That support system consists of God, childhood friends and most importantly, family.
“Family is a big part of it all,” Wroten said. “My family wasnʼt the perfect family growing up. There were some droughts and some things going on where I was the big hope to the family to make it out. I got a big family and I care about being loyal to them.”
Wrotenʼs family is not only big, it is laced with athletic ability. Wrotenʼs father, Tony Wroten Sr, played tight end at UW. His mother, Shirley, ran track for UW and Arizona State. His aunt, Joyce Walker, is a former Harlem Globtrotter and his cousin is NBA point guard Nate Robinson.
God also plays a large role in Wrotenʼs life. He credits God for all of his talents and believes that all the fame and fortune he is in line to receive couldnʼt and wonʼt be possible without the watchful eye of a higher power.
“I wouldnʼt be here if it wasnʼt for God,” Wroten said. “Any time anything good or bad happens, I take two steps back and keep my head high because I know God is testing me.”
There is a certain mysteriousness that looms around Wroten to the outside world. He is guarded, almost as if he has tasted pain and betrayal before, and never wants to taste it again. As odd as it sounds, watching Wroten grow up in the spotlight has left more questions unanswered then answered.
Is he a thug? Does he even care about his teammates? Why canʼt he just play the game the right way?
To answer these questions you have to turn the spotlight down, look past the smooth handles, crafty passes and competitive nature and ask—who is the real Tony Wroten Jr?
“I am misunderstood,” Wroten said. “The people around me know I am not arrogant or cocky. I just play with that [raw] emotion. Other people see a lot of passion and emotion on the court and they [take it the wrong way]. I am showing passion for the sport I love. I am very humble and laid back.”
Brooks reiterates his best friendʼs desire to be the best at all costs.
“The real Tony Wroten is a lovable guy,” he said. “He is a big kid. Most people donʼt get to see that side of him. He comes off cocky. People say a lot of negative things about him even though they donʼt know him. Heʼs got swagger and an edge to him that not a lot of young players have. He might be a little rough, but when you are that good and trying to compare to the greats, you have to have that edge.”
For now, Wroten says the NBA is nowhere near his mind. His focus is on getting better with his teammates every day and trying to win a National Championship.
The transformation from kid to man is not yet complete. There are lessons to be learned and obstacles to overcome. While his game and size has NBA GMs salivating, he still has a long path to travel on his way to basketball glory. There should be no more whispers about who Wroten is or why he plays the way he does. His kill-or-be-killed mentality should be embraced rather than scorned.
He truly is poetry in motion, and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy. The real Tony Wroten Jr has been standing in front of us the entire time.