Three years ago, my friends and I packed ourselves into a car and drove the 15 minute drive to Ypsilanti to catch basketball’s next big thing: Emoni Bates.
At 15, Bates graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, “Magic, Michael, LeBron… and the 15-year-old who’s next in line.” Many considered him the best high school prospect of the decade. Inevitably, talk of his prowess swirled in Ann Arbor, so we wanted to see it for ourselves.
And on that blustery January evening, Bates’s stardom was in full bloom. He dropped 27 points, leading Ypsilanti Lincoln to a win and surpassing 1,000 career points in just his 35th high school game, a meteoric pace. He was as good as advertised.
We left that night enchanted by the prospects of Bates reviving one of our dormant NBA franchises — the Knicks, the Pistons or the Thunder. Yes, he was only a sophomore in high school. But with Bates, everything and anything seemed possible, no matter how far down the road.
But after Bates endured endless on-court struggles during his time at Memphis, recently I began to wonder if that sensation still existed. So on Friday, I traveled to Detroit to cover Michigan’s contest with Eastern Michigan. That way, I could watch Bates from a courtside vantage point again. I assumed that the talent remained, but I wanted to see if Bates would be as captivating as he was three years ago, even though the mythos surrounding him has largely dissipated.
Turns out, that pure brilliance is very much still present.
“They had a game plan, and he had 30,” Eastern Michigan coach Stan Heath said, smirking.
Friday’s game evolved into theater, with Bates the main act. He reveled in the swelling crowd inside Little Caesars Arena, which swayed for every one of his deathly crossovers and silky shots.
Bates christened the game with a contested 2-pointer, an apt beginning for the brilliance that followed. He elevated for a nasty one-legged fade away after putting redshirt freshman wing Isaiah Barnes on skates. Moments later, he soared through the lane for a vicious putback dunk over freshman center Tarris Reed, hurling expletives toward Reed and drawing a technical foul. Late in the first half, he canned a step-back 3-pointer before motioning to the crowd, shouting at courtside fans and glaring at the Wolverines on the floor.
Bates was in his element. Regardless of the neutral site atmosphere, Bates had won over the crowd.
Bates didn’t slow down in the second half, either. He rocked the rim with a thunderous baseline dunk, shimmying on junior forward Terrance Williams II after the play. He hit Barnes with another ankle-snatching crossover, knocking down a mid-range jump shot.
Between the electric crowd and the back-and-forth battle, it felt more like an NCAA Tournament contest than an early November tuneup. This was college basketball at its finest, largely thanks to Bates.
Bates — an enigmatic, electrifying former consensus top prospect — went blow-for-blow with Hunter Dickinson, Michigan’s All-American junior center. The arena clung to every one of his shots, gasping in anticipation when the ball left his hands and exploding once the ball snapped nylon. Bates screamed; they screamed back.
It was a poignant reminder of what Bates brings to the sport, and also what we’ve missed over the past few years amid Bates’s troubling decline.
Bates’s winding route to Eastern Michigan is well-documented; his fall from stardom exhausted. He committed to Memphis as the crown jewel to Penny Hardaway’s ballyhooed recruiting class, reclassifying to arrive a year prematurely. But Bates’s presumed-generational talent didn’t translate and, in February, he took an extended absence from the team due to a back injury. Without Bates, Memphis found its groove, and that was telling
So that’s how Bates wound up here, at Eastern Michigan, his hometown school but also a perennial bottom dweller in the MAC. He entered the transfer portal this offseason, though few high-major programs expressed legitimate interest. The trajectory is disconcerting. In September, his on-court woes took a back seat in favor of more pressing matters — he was arrested and charged with two felony gun charges.
The traffic stop was an indictment on how far Bates has fallen. And yet, perhaps there is still a path for Bates to grow. After Friday’s game, Eastern Michigan guard Noah Farrakhan praised Bates’s character, saying that the locker room looks up to him.
For one night, at least, it felt like everyone had been tossed into a time machine, back to those blissful days when Bates looked you in the face as Sports Illustrated’s 15-year-old cover athlete. This was vintage Bates, if vintage can even be used in reference to a 18-year-old kid.
Scouts from six NBA teams attended Friday’s game, a constant reminder that whatever Bates does in the present — and whatever he has always done — is tied to speculation about his future. People have always wanted to know where he’d wind up, where he’d play next, how good he’ll be down the road. No one ever slowed down, paused and took a moment to appreciate what we were watching in the present.
Bates didn’t play in Eastern Michigan’s season opener due to disciplinary reasons. Between injuries and anxieties, there’s no telling how his tenure with the Eagles will unfold, or how many more performances on par with Friday’s theatrics will ensue.
So take a lesson from all 15,000 people who packed the arena Friday and don’t worry about next month or next year. Just enjoy Emoni Bates while you can. Because there’s no telling what’s left in store.