Shawn Windsor Detroit Free Press
Published 6:28 PM EDT Mar 14, 2019
It was 9:30 at night when I finally reached him. He was home, doing dishes, the sound of running water and clanking plates filling the background.
“Hi,” said Xavier Tillman.
“… do you mind holding on for a second?”
His 2-year-old daughter had just come out of her room. She was looking for her stuffed hippo.
“What are you doing out of bed?” he asked Ayanna, his voice as sweet as syrup.
“I want Kait,” she said.
“I’ll go find her. You get back in bed and I’ll meet you there.”
“Kait” is what Tillman calls the hippo, named after a day-school teacher. Ayanna needed her to sleep.
A minute later, the 6-foot-8-inch, 245-pound Michigan State basketball forward returned to the phone and stuck his hands back into the sink. He had a job to finish, another item to cross off on his vision board, a board that helps him organize his life.
A board that motivates him. Reminds him. Helps him when he’s stuck. Or finds himself with a bit of downtime, which is rare for the Spartans’ emerging star.
For there are academic studies, and practices and extra time in the gym. And there are film sessions and weight-lift sessions and time with his coaches.
There are games. And teammates who need pep talks. And, most important, his daughter and fiancée, Tamia Todd, whom he met in high school when each was trying to set up friends.
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It’s a lot for anyone to navigate, especially for a 20-year-old who plays for one of the best college basketball programs in the country and who has dreams of playing professionally.
So: the vision board. Taped to his wall in his bedroom. Organized by the calendar — daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.
“Wash all dishes” falls under the daily heading. It shares an entry with “switch laundry.” Right under the reminder to “make breakfast.” Right over the listing entitled, “Eat dinner with fam.”
“I like to wake up to a clean house,” he said.
It clears his mind. As does his daily morning prayer. Which falls under, “Thank God for waking me and my family up.”
That entry tops the daily list. At the bottom? “Play board game/card game with T (short for Tamia) and baby” and “Read for 30 min before bed.”
Tillman doesn’t need a board to tell him how to live his life. But he finds comfort in its simplicity, in the structure.
He stares at it sometimes. When he has those rare few minutes of quiet.
“And I think, ‘What could I be doing?’”
He might look at the “Weekly” heading, where he has listed “five workouts a week” and “four times a week eat dinner with fam” and “make smoothies” and “go through ABCs with Yanni (his nickname for Ayanna).”
He likes to do that on Tuesdays and Fridays.
If you’d asked him three years ago if he could’ve imagined this life, before Tamia got pregnant, before he’d accepted a scholarship offer from MSU, before he’d lost 35 pounds, before he could stick to guards on high-ball screens, before he’d become the best student in the program — he won this year’s academic award with a 3.7 GPA — he couldn’t.
He was a good player then, but an average student.
He was smart, but didn’t work. Not really. Not like Tom Izzo and Dwayne Stephens thought he could.
It was Stephens — Izzo’s assistant at MSU — who first recruited Tillman out of Grand Rapids Christian. He was drawn to Tillman’s on-court awareness and toughness. Yet there was something missing.
“Coach D.J. let me know, too,” said Tillman. “He came to a game one time and asked me if I’d been working out. I was mad. I thought it was disrespectful.”
He called the recruiting process awkward at times. Izzo and Stephens were blunt in what they weren’t seeing. Tillman thought they couldn’t see.
He weighed close to 280 pounds as a junior. He lived at Wendy’s, where he gorged on two chicken sandwiches, two orders of chicken nuggets, two orders of fries, and two large sodas.
In the spring and summer, during AAU season, this was his daily routine. He figured since it was chicken … well, it’s easy to rationalize when you’re a teenager. Or even as a 50-year-old.
By his senior year, he’d begun to change his diet. He lost a few pounds. He became a father. Something he was worried might scare off MSU’s coaches.
“They were cool with it, though,” he said.
Izzo knew Tillman’s daughter could motivate him. Sharpen his focus. Take him back to the vision board.
“His daughter changed everything,” said Izzo. “He is working for her now. He wants to provide for her, to give her a good life.”
Last year as a freshman, Tillman averaged eight minutes a game. He rebounded. Set screens. Defended his man on the post.
“That’s what I was told to do,” he said. “And I only wanted to do what they told me.”
This summer, he set out to expand his role and his game. In high school, he’d push the ball himself after getting a rebound and could score with either hand. He could shoot, too, though he didn’t much.
He needed to hone those skills. So he worked the plan into his vision board.
Up at 6. Crack open some eggs and fry them. Whip up a smoothie. Sit with his daughter for breakfast. Get to the gym by 7.
Shoot for an hour.
From the 3-point line. From the post. From the elbow. Follow that with an hour of weights.
Head home. Eat lunch. Spend time with his family. Hit the gym again. Go home for dinner. Play with Ayanna. Play cards with Tamia. Get back to the gym for one more session.
Most days, he’d take 1,000 3-pointers. Most days, he’d make at least 800 of them.
When he reported for camp in October, after a summer in the lab, he’d lost 30 pounds. But he’d found a jump shot.
“If you watch him and Kenny (Goins) shooting threes after practice, X stays with him, shot for shot,” said Stephens. “X just hasn’t taken it to the games yet. But he will. It’s coming.”
On Saturday night, Michigan tried to challenge Tillman’s perimeter defense by dragging him out with the Wolverines’ big man, Jon Teske. The Wolverines then wanted to isolate Tillman by forcing him to begin guarding a smaller guard.
[ How Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman totally blew up Michigan’s offense ]
That meant trying to say with point guard Zavier Simpson. Tillman didn’t flinch, staying step for step with Simpson, one of the better players in the Big Ten. He blocked his shot at the rim three times.
On a few possessions, Tillman found himself on Simpson’s backup, David DeJulius, an opponent from his AAU days. DeJulius didn’t have luck exploiting the matchup either, and he told reporters after the game that he’d tried to handle Tillman like he used to.
“It was difficult, for sure,” said DeJulius. “Tillman’s a guy that worked very hard, changed his body. Got a lot more athletic. The way I played him a couple times off the ball screen was the way I would play him three years ago, and he’s 30 pounds less than that. It’s just a testament to all the hard work he’s put in.”
Izzo would like to tell you he saw this coming. Saw the explosiveness. The lateral quickness. The confidence. The Eurostep he showed on a break earlier this season and the athleticism he takes to the rim. The ability to sniff out what was coming on defense before it did.
Actually, Izzo had an inkling about the last one. That’s why he recruited him. That and his toughness.
But could he see the player Tillman has become the last month? The Draymond Green-esque defensive force? The backline savant who can guard smaller players?
“He’s surprised me,” said Izzo. “He’ll have a chance to play at the highest level.”
Tillman surprised himself, too. Though he knew all of this was possible.
That’s why he took offense when MSU’s coaches got on him during high school. He understood something was inside him. He just needed a plan. One that didn’t include nuggets and double orders of fries.
Tillman got his idea for the vision board from his mother. She hung one when he was in middle school. She wrote chores and aspirational phrases on it.
Just as her son does now.
“Letter to my T devoting my all to her,” reads the top entry under the “yearly” heading. “Outdoor trip with whole family = family equals time and trying new things,” reads another.
This is the category where he reminds himself to volunteer, to stop playing around, to own his own life.
It is meant to remind him of who he is, and who he wants to be. He included the phrases under “yearly” because it’s for all time.
But under the heading “monthly?”
That’s where he lays out goals that are easy to forget about during the week, when he’s caught up in his daily list. Here, he can look at the entry telling him to surprise Tamia for dinner, or the one encouraging him to make sure he gets to church, or the one that suggests a family photo.
At least once a month, he wants 10 hours of sleep. And a one-hour bath to decompress, and a daddy-daughter dinner.
Yet for now, in this moment, he is just about finished with the dishes. It’s past 10 o’clock. He’s got to read and talk one last time with his fiancee and get to bed.
There was practice in the morning. Followed by a bus trip to Chicago for the Big Ten tournament. Another road to navigate. Another stage to reveal parts of himself he’s always known were there.
It’s getting easier to see. For his coaches. For everyone who follows the Spartans. For him.
All he has to do is look at the vision board. And listen to himself.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.
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