OXFORD — During a time out at a recent Miami University basketball game, Charlie Coles was getting on various players about their efforts, and when he got to senior Antonio Ballard, the coach really hit a nerve.
“Your guy is killing you!” Coles groused. “You’ve got to get some toughness.”
As he recounted the moment the other day, the coach laughed: “Afterward I told him, ‘You know I love you, but I was trying to make you mad.’ And he said, ‘Believe me, you did.’ ”
When it comes to Ballard, you can tell him he’s out of position or taking poor shots, but to question his toughness is to question who he is and what he came from.
The RedHawks’ 6-foot-4 senior guard/forward knows tough:
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• “Gang banging, drugs, murder, robbery, possession — all my brothers have gotten into some kind of trouble. My oldest brother, Brian, has been in prison for murder for eight or nine years now. He went in as a teenager after a robbery attempt got out of hand.
“I talked to my mom last week and she said two of my other brothers, BJ and Corey, just went to jail, too. One was in some kind of foot chase with the police and the other was in a car that was pulled over and he had a gun. And my youngest brother, Ricky, he’s 17 or 18 and he’s been to jail, too.
“I’ve had cousins who were shot and killed. Corey got shot in the foot ... and I once had a gun stuck in my face.”
• “Growing up we moved around a ton — maybe two or three times a year — from Louisville to different places across the river in Indiana and back again. When we lived in the projects in Jeffersonville, before they built the Boys and Girls Club, there was an old basketball rim at a place where all the thugs and gang bangers — guys mostly from the MHG, the Money Hungry Gangsters — parked their cars and hung out.
“But I could go shoot around there because they were all my family members. It was rough basketball — kind of like prison ball, I guess. Fights would break out and you had to hold your own, but you couldn’t take it too far or something bad would happen.”
• “One time just a day or two before Christmas — back when I was in middle school in New Albany, (Ind.) — a guy my brother thought was his friend broke in and stole everything from under our Christmas tree. My mom freaked and my little brother wondered where all the presents went. It was real sad.
“But I remember telling my mom, ‘If we just get some food, I’m cool. I don’t want any presents.’ And so for Christmas we ate White Castles.”
These days Ballard still has quite a hunger, but it’s for a better life and, by all accounts, he has found that at Miami, where Coles said “everybody loves the guy.”
As Ballard explained it: “I’ve taken the good parts of my past life — and one thing you do get from a gang is having each other’s back — and then tried to put all the other bad away and replace it with positive things.”
Ballard said just a couple of people in his family have graduated from high school and he’s the first to go to college.
At Miami, he’s one of the RedHawks’ stalwarts or, as Coles describes him, “He’s Dennis Rodman with more offense.” He’s averaging 10.7 points and 5.6 rebounds a game, and Saturday he scored 10, pulled down 11 rebounds and had five assists in Miami’s 80-73 victory against Troy University.
He’s been embraced by the family of his four-year girlfriend and fellow Miami student, Hanna Obenshain, and this spring he’ll graduate with a double major in sports studies and family world studies.
“I don’t think what I’ve done here is all that — I mean I have bigger plans in life — but other people look at it and think I’ve really accomplished some things.”
Coles is one of them:
“When you know what Antonio has gone through, you realize just what an amazing story it is.”
Never played AAU
When asked from whom he might have inherited his hoops talent, Ballard made a matter-of-fact admission that told you plenty about his childhood:
“Actually, the guy I thought was my dad at first — he played basketball until he got into drugs or something ...”
So he didn’t know his real father?
“My mom introduced me to him when I was 9 years old,” he said. “I didn’t know how to react. He was involved in some of the stuff my cousins were, but he’s never been in the picture and we only talk once or twice a year now.”
As a kid, Ballard said he was on the far edges of gang life: “I’d be like the watchman. And if the police came around, the guys had me hold stuff because little kids never got searched.
“I had street smarts and I knew what was bad, too. I knew what was too much for me, what was going too far and I wanted to be different. I really liked school and I liked basketball and the more success I had, the more attention I got. Even more than I got on the street. ... And it made my mom happier.”
He said he never played AAU ball — “we just didn’t have the money for it” — so he remained under the recruiting radar until his senior season at Jeffersonville High.
Although his mom had moved again, he stayed and lived a year with the family of a teammate — Jeremy Kendle — and had a break-out season. His team made it to the state semifinals, and he was named the Hoosier Hills Conference player of the year.
“He was really an afterthought in recruiting,” Coles said. “Todd Lickliter, when he was at Butler, spotted him at an Indiana Top 50 workout and called me.
“Todd had used up all his scholarships, so he said, ‘I’ve got a guy for you.’ And I said, ‘Would his name happen to be Antonio Ballard?’ That same week (former Miami assistant) Frankie Smith had heard about him from one of his friends who was an assistant at Jeffersonville.”
Up to then, Ballard said, only Austin Peay had offered a scholarship.
“I came to Miami, but I had no idea what I was getting into,” he admitted. “This was a whole different life, but I saw I could do something here for myself ... and my family, too.
“We had always had a bad reputation, but this was a chance to turn it into something good. This was a chance to make a different kind of name for us.”
‘Got to respect him’
Ballard said when he does go back home now, his family members, the guys from the neighborhood, the gang bangers and the thugs are all proud of him:
“They say, ‘Man, you got out. We’re proud of you.’ And when I come around they try to keep that old life away from me. They know I don’t like it and they show respect.”
While he’s blossomed thanks to his own resolve, he’s quick to credit those who have helped him, especially the families who have taken him in. In high school it was the Kendles. When he first got to Miami, it was the family of teammate Sean Mock.
Now it’s the Obenshains, who live in the small town of Peebles in Adams Country. Especially Hanna’s dad, Jim.
“He loves Antonio — it’s like he’s adopted him,” Coles said.
Jim Obenshain drives to all the Miami games — home and away — and sometimes stops by campus just to have lunch with Ballard, and he makes sure he’s part of all their holiday gatherings.
“When I first got to Miami I wasn’t comfortable because life here was so different from what I knew,” Ballard said.
“But I’m the type of guy who can adapt and I realized this was the place where I could become the guy I wanted to be. Now I absolutely love the school. I wouldn’t want to be any place else.”
Coles, for one, is glad he’s at Miami:
“When you know his story, you’ve got to be happy for him, you’ve got to respect him. He makes you glad you’re a coach. He’s a guy who gives our team energy and he has a knack for making plays in the game’s final minutes. He’s given me plenty since he’s been here.”
And that includes more than a little toughness.