MHERST - In high school Anthony Oates used to wake up early on Saturday mornings to watch his favorite college basketball team in action.
Despite living 2,652 miles and two time zones away, Oates was a big fan of the University of Massachusetts. Lucky for him, the Minutemen were in the middle of their glory years and were on national TV regularly. But on those weekend mornings, he'd have to set his alarm clock and roll his 6-foot-10, 285-pound frame out of bed early to make up for the time difference.
"I'd get up at about 10 just to watch them," Oates said. "I just started watching them because of Lou Roe. I liked how hard he worked. He was like a warrior. That's what turned me on to UMass."
After converting some of his friends into at least casual UMass fans, Oates and the group would watch games together, while he dreamed of someday wearing the Maroon and White himself.
Oates even wrote letters to then-Minuteman coach John Calipari, imploring the coach to look into recruiting him.
"I told him how I'd been watching them and I explained what kind of player I was and how I was doing in school. I had a councilor at school write him a letter, too," Oates said. "He appreciated me sending the letter and said he would very much like to see the film. He liked the film and wrote me a couple more letters, but I didn't pass the SAT. He told me to go to junior college and keep in touch."
The detour didn't deter Oates. He went to Yavapai Junior College in Prescott, Arizona, but always had UMass in the back of his mind.
"I actually had an old UMass shirt that I'd wear under my practice jersey as motivation," Oates said, with his ever-present shy smile expanding across his face. That motivation turned into a solid two-year career and an associates degree.
Back in Amherst, UMass coach Bruiser Flint hadn't forgotten about the big man in the desert and was deciding whether to add the big center to an already large frontline.
Oates was anxious, hoping for a scholarship offer.
"I just hope they offer," he said earnestly in an interview during the spring of 1998.
Flint decided Oates could help the Minutemen, at least as a practice body for then-center. Lari Ketner. UMass got another big guy. Oates got his wish. He would get to wear the same uniform colors Roe did three years before.
"I was very excited," said Oates with that shy smile back again. "I was excited to actually come here and put on the jersey. It kind of didn't even hit me at first. "
It hit him full force at Midnight Madness.
"I walked out onto the floor and looked around and said, 'Man, I'm, actually here,'." said Oates, who has predictably drawn the nickname 'Big O.' "That's when it actually hit me. I never thought I would get that far. It was like a dream come true."
While he didn't find stardom in Amherst, playing in only 12 of UMass' 30 games his first year, Oates has continued to work hard, just trying to get better.
"I watch everybody and try to pick up on things. I ask coaches questions. When the coaches stop practice to talk to a player, I listen and I hope I can apply it to my game," Oates said.
He carried that hard-working approach into the summer, focusing on getting quicker and dropping some pounds. Steadily, it's made a difference.
His presence came to the forefront against Florida State. The Seminoles featured 375-pound center Nigel Dixon, one of the few people on the planet who can claim to outweigh Oates by nearly 100 pounds.
Dixon came into the game and immediately backed down helpless Kitwana Rhymer, causing Flint to send Oates to the scorer's table in a hurry. Despite looking lanky by comparison to Dixon, Oates stood his ground. Dixon was ineffective.
Seeing his wildcard trumped, FSU coach Steve Robinson took Dixon out and didn't reinsert him. Oates played only one minute, but it helped the Minutemen win.
"When you play a team with a guy like that in the lineup, I know I have a chance to get in and bang with them, especially on TV," Oates said. "I always know that nobody is going to overpower me, not even Nigel Dixon.
"Little by little, it's working out for me. I'm starting to do things I never thought I'd see myself doing. I've got dreams and I'm trying to keep them going," Oates continued. "I tell these guys every day that I wish I came here as a freshman. To have more time with guys and on top of that have more time to improve and just be here."
Oates has played in every game since the FSU contest, his longest consecutive appearance streak since he arrived in Amherst.
Due to foul trouble to Rhymer and Micah Brand, Oates was on the floor throughout crunch time Dec. 30 against Providence. He even buried a hook shot amid the Minutemen's overtime-forcing comeback run.
"To be on the floor with the game on the line and to have an opportunity to do something to help with the outcome of the game," Oates said. "That was great. Whether it's one minute or 20 minutes I just give it my all and show the coaches that in that one minute I can do what they ask me to do and just play my heart out. I'm very happy. It helps to know what to work on now. I can see what I need to improve."
Watching in Arizona
Watching back in Arizona when the television schedule cooperates have been his mother, Margaret McKinney, and his 19-year-old sister, Nicole Oates, both decked out in UMass apparel supplied by Anthony.
"I give it to my Mom. She likes to brag about me," Oates said, displaying the embarrassed grin of a child with a proud parent. "She likes to walk around and wear it. It's a little big on her, but she doesn't care. My little sister, too. Every time a game is on she gets all decked out in UMass stuff, just to watch the game."
Oates hopes his mother will be able to wear her UMass stuff to the Mullins Center for Senior Day at the end of February.
"She's going to try to come out and I'm going to try to help her out some," he said. "It'll be the first time she's seen me since I've been at UMass."
Pride for both mother and son goes beyond basketball. While Oates has improved on the court, he's improved even more in the classroom, a strong source of pride for him.
"If you looked at me in high school, I've come a long way," Oates said. "I'm on track to graduate here and get my bachelor's. I'm so happy to actually get that and have it on my wall."
What has impressed Flint most about Oates is how appreciative he is for the opportunity he's gotten.
"A lot of people told him to give up. Now he's on a major division one school team. He's on TV and he's starting to get some time and he's got a chance to get a free education," Flint said. "He's one of the people who is very, very thankful. He understands and he takes advantage."
Oates isn't sure what the future holds after UMass. His size likely will land him a professional opportunity overseas if he chooses, or he can find a job with his sociology degree. Either way, he's glad he came to Amherst.
"My mom is proud of me and the rest of my family is proud of me," Oates said. "It's been a blast. The UMass campus has embraced me and made me feel at home here. It's been a great experience."