A couple dozen kids are running around the basketball court at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The hardwood floors are accented by blue bleachers and blue paint that make up the free throw, three-point and halfcourt lines. A handful of parents dot the sidelines, while another few coach the young hoopers on the floor.
The gym’s live for 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night in April. There’s something going on everywhere you look. And the No. 1 eighth grade basketball player in the country is quietly standing on the far sideline.
Fourteen-year-old Emoni Bates watches his father, Elgin, put fifth graders through drills. He’s only a few years older than them, but he’s already a world ahead. He’s 6-7 with long arms and big hands and an ability to soar through the air for crushing dunks.
After a few moments, he hits the court opposite his father to start his workout. He goes through college-level dribble combinations that lead to sidestep jumpers. He’s nailing them, too. All net.
He’s working with his uncle, catching passes from him. They set up on the right wing, out near the three-point line. Emoni’s told to fake middle with a jab step and then explode to the baseline. He gets a few reps in while his uncle plays mock defense. But the kid’s already so nice that one jab step causes his uncle to come up out of sneaker. A lone 2017 Nike Hyperdunk sits near the three-point line as Emoni lifts up for a reverse dunk.
When he sits down afterwards he shakes his head and laughs about the moment.
“From the first time he picked up a rubber ball, he would just concentrate and dribble and dribble,” Elgin says. “Really engaged with what he was doing. Just nonstop.”
Emoni started to hoop in the fourth grade. He scored 26 points in his fourth grade championship game at just 8 years old.
“He just got his jumper working early,” Elgin remembers about that game in Saline, MI. “He hit, like, five threes. Once the jumper got going, the bucket just got bigger and bigger. Then he started making some midrange, off the dribble pull-ups. I was in awe.”
Emoni started to ramp things up in fifth grade. And then by the time he hit middle school, he noticed a shift.
“I feel like when I started getting better and I could actually take my game to the next level was my sixth grade year, when I first got onto the circuit,” Emoni says. “Nobody knew me and I played real good. I realized I could take the game over.”
Emoni has a unique skillset that’s aided by his height and athleticism. He’s able to go get his own buckets, fully capable of creating off the bounce for jumpers. He’s already collected a few bodies and he can catch-and-shoot. Or he can hit the glass, cleaning up teammates’ misses.
Even with everything he can do physically, his greatest skill is his desire. He’s very, very, very competitive.
“You don’t go out there to compete to be second,” Elgin says. “You wanna be the best. I encourage him to always have that killer instinct. Because when you’re on the court it’s not about being friends. It’s all about competing and pushing whoever it is to the brink.”
“When I’m off the court I’m a nice guy, but on the court, I just don’t have any friends,” Emoni says. “You’re an enemy to me.”
He gets especially aggravated with himself.
His father is putting him through an intense secondary workout to show off his advanced talents in front of our cameras. Emoni starts to leave a couple of shots short. He gets heated and yells his own name in frustration, clapping angrily. Elgin tells him to push through and he’s right back to hitting the bottom of the net.
“You caught me on an off day,” Emoni says right before ripping off a one-handed dunk.
Emoni’s the third generation of Bates ballplayers. Elgin’s father, who played ball in the army, is floating around the gym at Lincoln, helping one of the younger players. Elgin played pro ball in Europe and his sister averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds and 8 blocks in high school.
Now the spotlight’s starting to brighten on Emoni. He’s already got an offer from DePaul, months before his first day of high school. He says that whenever he walks into a gym “a lot of heads turn.” Comparisons are being drawn to Kevin Durant. But the 14-year-old doesn’t buy into that.
“I want people to look at me as my own player,” he says. “So when kids come up, I want them to look up to me and say I want to be the next [Emoni].”
A little bit after Bates says that, a pair of kindergarten-aged kids are wide-eyed, with their heads peeking around the partition at Lincoln High School. They watch as the maybe not-so-distant future of basketball sails through the air and throws down a rim-rattling dunk.
Photos by Vuhlandes