by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

For seniors in college, there is no span of time as nerve-wracking as the months leading up to graduation. Between schoolwork, crafting a suitable resume and finding a job, there’s hardly a moment to exhale.

For basketball-playing seniors in college, all of those pressures are ratcheted up a notch. Schoolwork is pretty much put on pause. Resumes are already written in indelible ink based on the stats you posted during the season. And finding a job, well, finding a job where an innumerable amount of hopefuls are aiming for 60 spots is harder than finding work on Wall Street.

“That’s why you’ve got to do things that nobody else is doing,” says Larry Marshall, a basketball trainer based out of New Jersey who has worked with the likes of MarShon Brooks. “That’s why you’ve got to be willing to break through walls that most people don’t even know they have.”

Ricardo Ratliffe is currently breaking through walls. Actually, he’s lifting and pushing and dropping an oversized tire over and over again, all in pursuit of finding and breaking internal barriers that will help him reach the NBA.

“I want people to know I can do more than I’ve shown the past couple of years,” says Ratliffe, the only starter 6-8 or taller on a Missouri team that won 30 games this past season. “I see my [NBA] role as being a hard-working, high-motor guy who’s relentless on the glass and can defend multiple positions and play inside and out.”

The difference between being selected in the first round and second round of the NBA Draft is a guaranteed contract and millions of dollars. The difference between the second round and going undrafted is more painful, if not less financially debilitating. These are simple motivating factors for all players. Ratliffe, though, has an extra dose of motivation.

Ricardo Ratliffe didn’t just grow up in a hardscrabble corridor of Hampton, VA. He grew up in the worst part of Hampton. He grew up in an area afflicted with unspeakable poverty, rampant drug use and a maze of crime. By all accounts, he should not have escaped childhood unscathed—and he wouldn’t have, if not for his mother.

“She’s the most important person in my life,” the 23-year-old says of his mother, Kismyt, who raised him by herself. “She’s my role model and my inspiration and motivation all rolled into one.”

Though she hasn’t lived in the same state as him for the past four years—the first two of which he spent dominating at Central Florida Community College; the latter two of which he spent amassing a double-figure average in scoring on over 60 percent shooting and over 6 rebounds per game while playing out of position at Mizzou—she’s been with him every step of the way. With her voice, via phone and texts, and with her inspiration, via his cell phone’s background image and his Twitter handle .

“At the end of the day, especially here with the hard stuff we do, sometimes I feel like I want to quit,” says the soft-spoken Ratliffe. “Then I think about her, and I find the energy and strength to do whatever I’m trying to do.”

This Spring, while working out in New Jersey in preparation for the NBA Draft, all the eager-to-learn Ratliffe is trying to do is get better. All he’s trying to do is convince once GM that he can help his team immediately. All he’s trying to do is overcome the odds one more time. All he’s trying to do is pay his mom back for saving his life.

“A lot of kids think they want it, but they don’t really even know what means,” says Marshall. “Rico, he’s special. All you have to do is watch him and you can tell.”

On this particular day, a “light one” according to those involved, watching him means waking up with the sun to hit the weight room, where Ratliffe puts up rep after rep of football-player weights. Watching him means walking to the nearby beach after leaving the weight room, where Ratliffe beats up the sand with a desperate passion. Watching him means toweling off, changing shirts and driving straight to a basketball court, where for 90 straight minutes he works on refining his wing and post skills and sweats his way through a second tee. Watching him means grabbing a healthy meal, changing one more time and hitting a different court for two-plus hours.

Watching him means watching hunger personified.