Fontez Mitchell was finishing a fade haircut when he first heard about the boy.
He was 6 feet 2 and finishing the fifth grade. He didn’t play basketball, but maybe he could.
A track coach at Clark Middle School in East St. Louis, Ill., was sitting in Mitchell’s chair at Kingdom Cuts, and he told Mitchell, who had begun coaching local kids in a YMCA league, about Jeremiah Tilmon.
So Mitchell went to the middle school the next day. He looked in the basketball gym, but Tilmon, years away from becoming the Missouri Tigers’ talented freshman center, wasn’t there. Mitchell asked children in the hallway where Tilmon was, and they directed him to a boy walking up the stairs, just leaving wrestling practice. Tilmon was even bigger than Mitchell expected.
“When I saw him,” Mitchell said, “my mouth went wide open.”
The barber asked Tilmon if he played basketball. No, Tilmon said. He asked if Tilmon might want to try. Maybe, Tilmon said, but he needed to ask his mom.
And that’s how Tilmon’s basketball career began, near the end of fifth grade, when he was already bigger than most men. Moments of doubt, encouragement from many and two rounds of college recruitment filled the years between then and now. Tilmon is starring for the 10-2 Mizzou Tigers, who face Illinois, the team Tilmon first signed a letter of intent to play for, in St. Louis on Saturday.
“It’s a great experience right now, loving it,” Tilmon said after a win over Green Bay on Dec. 9, when the team last made him available to speak to reporters.
Tilmon’s potential still seems limitless today, just as it did when Mitchell first saw him.
“He’s only 19,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Can you imagine (when) he’s 26 years old playing this game, with all the tools that he has now?”
Some of the skills that have made Tilmon so impressive this year — his footwork around the basket, his hands that seem to catch any ball that comes near him — are so strong that they seem natural, gifts of impressive athleticism.
But they aren’t, his former coaches said. See, for a few years, Tilmon was …
“He really just wasn’t good,” his mom, April Lewis, said.
Soon after meeting Mitchell, Tilmon joined the new AAU team the barber had founded, the Midwest Hoyas. This was mostly about helping kids in the community, giving them something positive to do. Winning wasn’t the primary emphasis, which was good — because the Hoyas were bad.
“We played about 50 something games,” Mitchell said. “We only won two.
“The ball kept coming to Jeremiah. He wasn’t catching it.”
But the potential was obvious, even if Tilmon could only touch the bottom of the rim as a 6-foot-2 fifth grader. He always ran hard down the floor, which he still does today, now resulting in dunks.
The first time they worked together, Tilmon, in seventh grade at the time, immediately impressed Tony Young, a former graduate assistant at Saint Louis University who helped some of Mitchell’s players. Young showed the boy an up-and-under post move. Tilmon tried it after watching Young’s example, and he nailed it on his first try.
Tilmon’s confidence waned, though.
His height became a burden. He was so big — about 6-5 by the time he reached eighth grade — that other children would rag on him for not being as good as they thought he should have been. Even as a 6-7 high school freshman, after he had made a lot of progress as a basketball player, Tilmon often missed dunks.
“He was supposed to average 30 points and 20 rebounds a game,” Phillip Gilbert, one of his coaches at East St. Louis Senior High School, said. “It got to him.”
Tilmon would say he wanted to quit playing basketball, and Lewis would tell her son that those mean children were just jealous of his size, that no matter how hard they worked, they could never be as big as him.
The first time Corey Frazier — another coach in St. Louis — met Tilmon, the then-seventh grader walked into the gym with his head down. He was hiding behind Lewis, who is 6-4.
“A lot of things with Jeremiah was showing him support,” Frazier said. “If you show him you’ve got his back whether he’s doing good or bad, he’s going to go to war for you.”
Martin has praised Tilmon for being coachable, and Frazier said that has always been true. He thinks part of the reason is because basketball brought Tilmon, Lewis’ only son, a sense of brotherhood, and it gave him adult male role models.
Tilmon now has a relationship with his father, who regularly attends Mizzou basketball games and wears his son’s jersey. But Jeremiah Tilmon Sr. — who could not be reached for this story through multiple attempts — was out of his son’s life for a few years. According to court records, Tilmon Sr. pleaded guilty in 2007 to attempted trafficking of marijuana and possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to 78 months in jail and three years of probation.
“If Jeremiah stayed here, I don’t think he would have went to college,” Lewis said. “It’s just so easy for you to get caught up in the street life. … I could see him going that way. By the grace of God, he ended up doing something else.”
Young helped ensure that. Starting when Tilmon was in eighth grade — around when he began to blossom as a basketball player — Young drove him to Kansas City almost every weekend to practice with the MoKan Elite AAU team.
That’s how Tilmon met Michael Porter Jr., who ultimately helped recruit Tilmon to play for Mizzou.
Young, who also was the East St. Louis Senior High School head basketball coach during most of Tilmon’s first two years of high school, said the center would tell him during those drives across Missouri that he liked getting away.
Occasionally it wore on him, though. Tilmon would be tired for school on Monday after spending the entire weekend out of town. He would complain to his mother about not getting to see his friends.
His original plan, of being a model or actor, seemed less strenuous, but he still got in the car when his mom told him to. He always likes pleasing her. She said that’s part of the reason he originally committed to Illinois. She liked the school, and she wanted all of the phone calls to her house to stop.
“Sometimes, he just wanted to be a normal kid,” Lewis said. “To me, he had to realize he wasn’t a normal kid. I wasn’t able to pay for college. Even if he didn’t make it to the NBA or something like that, he had the opportunity to do other things than sit around and be mediocre.”
So during Tilmon’s junior year, after Young had been fired as East St. Louis’ basketball coach and teachers at the school had begun a month-long strike, Lewis went looking for other schools.
Tilmon, both of his parents, his grandparents on his father’s side and a family friend all drove to La Lumiere, a boarding school in LaPorte, Ind., about 70 miles from Chicago.
The school had a strong basketball program, which was most important, but it also had “a different environment,” Lewis said, filled with children who “seemed like they were trying to be something.” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts graduated from La Lumiere.
Lewis said she spent the first two weeks Tilmon was gone sleeping in his room at home because she missed him. Still, she would have preferred if Tilmon had not come back to East St. Louis for his senior year, but he wanted to graduate from his local high school and be close to home. He has dated the same girl since eighth grade, when they went to their middle school prom together, and they went to senior prom together, too.
By that time, Tilmon had realized the potential so many people saw in him before he did. When Illinois released him from his letter of intent following the firing of coach John Groce, blue blood programs he had already turned down once — North Carolina and Kansas — were still interested in him. So was DePaul and, of course, Missouri.
He picked the Tigers to pair with Porter, but Martin, an East St. Louis native himself whose sister is an assistant principal at the town’s high school, was a plus. Tilmon, eager to learn, responds well to the intense, demanding first-year MU head coach.
“He can show Jeremiah that there’s other things beside East St. Louis,” Lewis said. “Besides selling drugs, going to jail, carrying guns. There’s actually a black man who made it out of East St. Louis and is successful still. … Cuonzo would be a success story for me. He made it out and he stayed out.”
Lewis prefers to visit her son in Columbia, rather than have him come home. He’s not a troublemaker, she said, but mothers are worriers, and she doesn’t want him to “get hurt” by people who are jealous of the recognition he is receiving.
The attention will grow, too. Tilmon, averaging 9.8 points and 5 rebounds, is playing even better than expected as a freshman.
The most anticipated game for him yet is Saturday, when he’ll face the Illini. Half the crowd will regularly boo him in his first Braggin’ Rights game. He will be playing less than five miles away from his hometown, where he is increasingly the subject of barbershop conversations.
“Now,” Mitchell said, “a lot of guys come up and talk about Jeremiah.”