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Bulls Guard Antonio Blakeney is an NBA Rarity from His Hometown—but Not Without a Lifelong Fight

On November 21, 2017, as the Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Chicago Bulls in front of a sellout crowd at Staples Center, Antonio Blakeney put Julius Randle on a poster.

Antonio, then an undrafted rookie with the Bulls, caught the ball on the fast break and promptly finished an emphatic one-handed dunk over Julius, giving Chicago a 15-point lead over the Lakers. After the slam, "Tone", as he's called, stared down the then-LA forward, earning a technical foul for taunting as a result.

Now in his second year in the league, the 22-year-old ranks that slam as his favorite moment in the NBA so far. A game-tying four-point play against the Pacers almost a year later on November 2, 2018, is also high on his list.

"I just want to keep solidifying myself," Antonio tells CloseUp360. "Earn my next deal, and then play in the NBA for the next 10-15 years."

With the Bulls' roster turning over and the future of the franchise in flux, he may have an opportunity to do just that—and set his tumultuous personal journey on the way to sustained success.

Antonio's path to an NBA roster was a winding one. After leaving LSU following his sophomore season in Baton Rouge, he didn't get an invitation to the NBA's annual Chicago Draft Combine in May 2017. Instead, he went back to his home state for the inaugural Professional Basketball Combine at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Come late June, Antonio watched the 2017 draft at home in Orlando with his mother, Tequisha. Sixty names were called. Antonio’s wasn't one of them.

"I had mixed emotions," says Antonio, who had worked out for around half of the league. "I was a little sad and a little pissed. I was just doing a lot of thinking. It was tough."

Tequisha was heartbroken for her son.

"I was in tears because I knew he wanted it so bad," she says. "But I had to be strong for him because I didn't want him to feel that his dream was over. He still needed to fight. He knew what he was capable of, and he just continued to believe in himself."

Antonio has had to fight his whole life. He spent most of his upbringing in Sarasota, Florida, along with his younger brother, Tyrieke, 19, and older brother Dontrez, 24. Tequisha moved herself and her kids there in 2003, after getting out of the U.S. Army and separating from Antonio's father, Amos.

"It wasn't in the best neighborhood," Tequisha says. "I was going to school for nursing at the time, which made it even tougher. There were sometimes six kids in the house. They'd have to sleep on the sofa or the floor."

In 2005, Antonio's family upgraded to a three-bedroom place when his mom became a licensed practical nurse.

"And then my mom moved in, and my sister and her two kids moved in," Tequisha says, laughing.

All the while, Antonio and his brothers never saw their father, and they still haven't. Amos has been in and out of prison during that time, and is currently serving time for a drug-related conviction.

They recently reconnected after Antonio and his brothers started asking about their dad while he was in high school. Amos has followed his middle son's hoops career from the inside, and Antonio expects him to be out of jail in three years.

"We talk every now and then," Antonio says. "He tells me how proud he is of me, and to keep my head on straight and don't do any dumb stuff."

Antonio Blakeney

L to R: Dontrez, Antonio, cousin Ladarius (back) and Tyrieke (head turned). (Courtesy of Tequisha Blakeney)

Tequisha worked long hours as a nurse to support her sons. Antonio frequently stayed with his grandmother, Brenda Marshall, while his mother worked when he was young.

"My mom was always real strong," Antonio says. "It was always fine. It was just her, but it didn't matter."

Even though Sarasota is a smaller city, it's still a tough urban environment. Two of Antonio's closest friends, Shawn and "Squid", are also in prison. He honors both of them, along with his dad, on his Instagram feed, @blakeney96, which reads: “4eva boys be the gang ⬆️⬆️#FreeShawn #FreeSquid #FreeMyPops."

Though Antonio never ran afoul of the law, he encountered his own troubles growing up. When he was in seventh grade, he was nearly expelled from middle school when he and a friend "did something inappropriate in class," Tequisha says. She had to fight for her son at a hearing, and ultimately got him transferred to a charter school before he returned to a regular middle school in the eighth grade.

"I think he learned a lot during that time, going through something like that at a young age," she says.

Around that time, Antonio started to take an interest in basketball. That he did so as late as he did—and still managed to make it to the NBA—amazes Tequisha.

"It was always, 'You need to play football,'" she says. "He wanted to play basketball, but he struggled and people would always say, 'You're not that good.' He used to run so rigid. He wasn't that athletic. It was awful. But he worked very hard and put a lot of time in."

Antonio played quarterback and wide receiver until he gave up youth football in the ninth grade. At that point, basketball was clearly his greatest sporting passion. And Tequisha, for her part, didn't mind seeing her son commit himself to a less injurious game.

"He was a tall beanpole," she says.

Antonio was able to fine-tune his game at The Shooting Zone, a then-youth basketball facility in Sarasota. He was there so often, in fact, that the owner would leave a key for him and just tell him to turn the alarm off before he starting practicing.

"It's really good to see him from our neighborhood, not being as fortunate as others, and him just being driven to actually be great, as he always says," Tequisha says. "I'm very proud."

In 2012, she moved her family from Sarasota to the Orlando area for a new job. After transferring from Cardinal Mooney with the move—and in the wake of a recruiting scandal there—Antonio emerged as a high school basketball star at Orlando powerhouse Oak Ridge. As a senior, he averaged 29 points per game and was named Florida's Mr. Basketball, as well as a McDonald's All-American.

Antonio Blakeney

Antonio Blakeney at the 2015 McDonald's All-American Game. (Courtesy of Tequisha Blakeney)

A five-star recruit, Antonio verbally committed to Louisville before switching 10 days later to LSU, where he teamed up with first-time All-Star Ben Simmons. Antonio averaged 12.6 points per game as a freshman. After Ben turned pro, Antonio upped his scoring average to a team-high 17.2 points as a sophomore.

"Me and Ben played AAU together down in Florida," Antonio says. "We've got a really good relationship. We still talk all the time. We just swapped NBA jerseys with each other after a recent game."

Antonio elected to forgo his final two years of eligibility and enter the draft. But despite working out for more than half the teams, he went undrafted.

Still, teams around the league wanted to give Antonio a Summer League roster spot. That's when he and his agent, Aaron Turner, decided the Bulls were the best fit because they presented a great opportunity for a two-way contract. A strong showing in Las Vegas sealed the deal to head to Chicago.

Antonio split time between the Bulls and their G League affiliate, the Windy City Bulls. In his first pro season, he garnered G League Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 32 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.2 steals. In 59 career NBA games, he's averaged 7.8 points, shooting 45.7 percent from three-point range this season. What’s more, he holds the distinction as the first Sarasota native to play in the league in nearly 25 years, according to Sarasota Magazine.

"I just want to keep getting better on the defensive end and keep gaining the trust of the coaches," Antonio says.

Antonio Blakeney and Tequisha

Antonio with his mom, Tequisha. (Courtesy of Tequisha Blakeney)

After growing up a Kobe Bryant fan, Antonio doesn't necessarily have a favorite player in the league now, though he does respect Bradley Beal's game a great deal. Off the court, he likes to shop for new clothes and play cards. But that's about it. To him, basketball is everything. He’s described as a “gym rat” by his agency, Verus Management Team.

Eventually, he wants to do more to impact kids in Sarasota. Last summer, for back to school, he hosted a backpack drive in his hometown.

"Lots of kids look up to you," he says. "You can change kids' lives and impact other people. Before every game, I've got kids asking for autographs and that means a lot. A regular person isn't just signing autographs and taking pictures with kids, telling us they drove eight hours to see us play."

Antonio will always represent "The 941." Just like his mother, he's willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.

"He tells me all the time, 'Mom, you always worked so hard,'" says Tequisha, who’s now a consultant. "That's why it's so easy for me."

 

Mike Mazzeo is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.

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