By Shehan Jeyarajah
When Rico Gathers steps on a basketball court, everyone takes notice. Even on the biggest stage of college basketball, the sophomore is physically a man-among-boys at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds.
“Every football coach in the area wanted me to come and play football for them back in high school,” Gathers said. “It was actually a big controversy in my area. When I chose a school that didn’t have football at all, people were like dang, what are you going to do if things don’t work out?”
Things seem to be working out pretty well these days for the Louisiana native. Gathers joined Baylor as the second highest recruit in a top five-rated class in 2012, and immediately was part of a Baylor team that overcame a slow start to win the National Invitational Tournament in 2013.
The native of LaPlace, La., led his Riverside High School team to a state championship as a sophomore, while averaging 19.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game on the way to being named Most Outstanding Player.
Gathers was named Gatorade Louisiana High School Player of the Year and the Louisiana Sports Writers named him Mr. Louisiana during both his junior and senior years of high school. His final year, he averaged 22.0 points, 17.0 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game while leading his team to another Louisiana state title.
Coming out of high school, Gathers had offers from Duke, Florida, USC and LSU, among others. In August of 2011, Gathers committed to play basketball for Steve Lavin at St. John’s University in New York City.
During the 2012 season, however, Lavin was forced to spend time away from the bench to receive treatment for prostate cancer. The Big East Conference was also beginning to go through realignment, which led to a sense of uncertainty about St. John’s status heading forward.
“With him going to New York, he wants to be 100 percent sure,” Gathers’ brother Greg said to ESPN at the time. “Back in August [when he committed], that was before the Big East situation and Lavin’s health. You want to be 100 percent sure with leaving Louisiana and going to New York.”
One day before fall signing day, Gathers rescinded his commitment. And in came Baylor.
The Bears had been on Gathers’ radar since he was in middle school, including in eighth grade when he attended Baylor’s camp.
“Yeah, he was already a man-child back then,” sophomore center Isaiah Austin said. “Me and Rico actually said we were going to come to Baylor together in eighth grade here at the Baylor camp.”
Austin exploded into a top five national prospect in the Dallas area.
Austin and Gathers maintained their connection throughout the recruiting process.
“We always had that expectation of playing with each other,” Gathers said. “He actually tried to get me to play with his AAU team, the Compton Magic. It never did happen. But then I saw he had committed to Baylor, and I had just decommitted from St. John’s, I was like man, we can finally make that happen.”
Around the same time Gathers started getting national attention, former Baylor All-American Tweety Carter was making his presence known at Baylor. Carter was a point guard who played under Gathers’ high-school coach Tim Byrd.
“Tweety played a major factor,” Gathers said. “He was from the same area as I was and played for the same coach. That kind of played a factor in me coming out here for the first time.”
When scouting, Baylor’s staff looks for players who can thrive in their system and on Baylor’s campus. They knew they had a stud in Gathers.
“Gathers went to Riverside, which was a small Christian school,” longtime Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang said. “To some extent, Baylor is a bigger version of Riverside, so we knew he could thrive here.”
Tang emphasized the effect the relationships Baylor had with Carter and Byrd on bringing Gathers to Baylor.
“Having the connection between Tweety and Rico was unbelievable,” Tang said. “It was probably the key factor. We also had a great relationship with Coach Byrd. His being a devout Christian helped our relationship with him.”
Gathers came on his official visit in January, and committed to play at Baylor on Jan. 27, 2012.
He officially signed his National Letter of Intent in the spring cycle.
“At first the thought of being in Waco, Texas, ain’t nothing to do out here,” Gathers said. “But then I realized none of that really matters. All of this is about me trying to somewhere where I could play and get better. I look at it like I have everything I need right here.”
Since being at Baylor, Gathers has become a fan favorite for his sheer effort. The sophomore has come off the bench providing rebounds, energy and thunderous dunks. Whenever Baylor plays on national television, which has been often since his arrival, it seems as though every announcer points out how great of a football player Gathers could be. But that does not faze Gathers.
“When I see myself in the mirror, I just envision myself on the court,” Gathers said. “At the end of the day, I know what I really love to do, and that’s play basketball.”