As basketball coach at Georgia powerhouse Whitefield Academy, Tyrone Johnson used a 2-on-2 rebounding drill that would make a linebacker flinch.
The basket was covered to ensure a rebound. Two players used hand-held football blocking pads to pound the other two as they tried to snag the ball.
The face was the only body part off limits to punches and shoves.
Tekele Cotton excelled at getting the rebounds in the drill during his two years of playing for Johnson at the private prep school north of Atlanta in Marietta.
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It wasn’t so much about rebounding as it was seeing who could be the toughest.
“No one could beat Tekele in the drill,” Johnson said.
That won’t surprise anyone who has watched Cotton play for Wichita State. There is no backing down for the Shockers’ sophomore guard.
As much as anyone, he’s symbolic of the gritty play WSU has used in shredding the stigma of its No. 9 seed to reach Saturday’s Final Four semifinal against No. 1 overall seed Louisville at the Georgia Dome.
Cotton is a tenacious defender, which explains why he helped frustrate Pittsburgh’s Tray Woodall, Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos and La Salle’s Ramon Galloway into combined 11-of-44 shooting with 14 turnovers against WSU.
Late in the WSU’s 70-66 Elite Eight victory over Ohio State, the 6-2 Cotton took an offensive rebound away from the Buckeyes’ 6-8, 220-pound LaQuinton Ross and turned the possession into a crucial basket by Fred VanVleet for a 67-61 lead.
But moments earlier, Cotton showed nerves of steel by hitting a three-pointer to put the skids on an Ohio State run.
There was a time this season when Cotton was the last guy you would want taking a three. But after a miserable 0-for-10 game against Creighton on Jan. 19, he was in the gym every free moment he could get to practice his shot.
“I needed to see the ball go in the hole again,” he said. “I needed to work on my rhythm and get my confidence back.”
In the 19 games since that chilly January game, Cotton is shooting just under 50 percent from the field. He’s 5 for 10 from beyond the arc in the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s a monster on defense,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s a warrior.”
Maybe because he’s also a warrior as a person. A quiet warrior.
Cotton doesn’t have much to say.
Leza Jones, who raised Tekele and his older brother, Ted, as a single mom, thinks an early childhood hearing problem might have contributed to Tekele’s quiet nature.
“He was close to deaf,” she said.
When he was about 3, Jones noticed his speech wasn’t quite right. It was later discovered he had a buildup behind both ear drums. Doctors told her he was hearing words as if speakers were holding a hand over their mouths, offering only a muffled sound to Tekele.
“He could hear,” Jones said, “but he couldn’t comprehend what people were saying.”
The problem was corrected when he had surgery at age 4, but he remained reserved.
“He doesn’t like a lot of attention on himself,” she said.
If he really gets to know you, he has plenty to say. But even then, there’s no frivolous chatter.
“He’s a unique kid,” said Cleanthony Early, WSU’s junior forward and Cotton’s roommate. “He’s thoughtful.
“Most kids today feel like life is about things that are superficial. Most kids do whatever they think is popular, so they can be cool. Tekele’s not afraid to be different. He just wants to be himself.”
He likes to wear stylish clothes but nothing flashy. No tattoos.
“Tekele keeps it simple,” his mom said. “He’s his own man.”
Sometimes that means being funny.
“He’s a goofy kid,” VanVleet said. “You wouldn’t know it on the court. Out there, he’s our defensive stopper.
“But sometimes you’ll see him off in the corner making faces when he thinks no one is looking at him. I love him to death.”
Early sees Cotton’s ability to focus carry over to the court.
“He doesn’t try to do anything outside his area,” Early said. “He’s a defender. People questioned his shooting ability, but he went out there and got better at it. He’s very focused. That takes mental toughness.”
Cotton spent his last three years of high school playing with a stress fracture in his groin. It wasn’t diagnosed until he transferred to Whitefield as a junior, when he was told he needed to sit out 6-8 weeks so he could heal.
“I was afraid I’d miss out on something,” Cotton said.
So he kept playing, helping Whitefield to a pair of 28-4 seasons and small-class state runnerup as a junior and the state semifinals as a senior.
Cotton played despite the pain. He’d go home after practice at night and soak in a tub for two hours.
“He walked in the door at Whitefield with a spirit of toughness unlike any other kid I’ve seen,” said Johnson, who will return as the school’s coach next season after taking this past season off. “This is a very demanding high school program. Not all kids can take it.
“But he kept playing with that injury. The muscles were literally pulled apart. I tried to rest him some in practice, but I’d look over to the side and he’d be doing something with a ball.”
Johnson also knew the injury was keeping Cotton from jumping as high, exploding as much as if he were healthy.
Maybe that’s why Cotton wasn’t highly recruited.
Chad Dollar, a WSU assistant when Cotton was a prep senior, saw him play a few high school games and at an AAU tournament in the summer after Cotton’s junior year.
He also watched how Cotton handled himself at practices and off the court.
“You can tell a lot about a player by how he practices,” said Dollar, who is from Atlanta and is now a Georgia Tech assistant. “He had a great attitude with a desire to get better. I fell in love with him.
“He didn’t play with one of those AAU teams that pampered you with free shoes and fancy trips. He wasn’t the kind of kid hanging out at the clubs. He was home with his family.”
After his senior season, when he had already signed with the Shockers, Cotton took the time off to let his injury heal.
“People around me, they weren’t weak-minded,” he said. “That’s just the way I was raised. My mom was tough.
“We didn’t have much financially. All I had was my mom, my brother and a few friends. We just grew up living life.”
Working three jobs
Mom was her sons’ first coach, handling their teams through middle school. She taught Tekele and Ted the foundations, the importance of defense.
A former high school basketball star in Rock Island, Ill., who saw her chances of a college career wrecked by a knee injury, she now referees boys and girls high school games as well as recreation ball.
“I just love the game,” Jones said.
Her sons played other sports, including football, through middle school, but they adopted their mom’s passion for basketball.
Their father, Theodore Cotton, was never part of their lives. He left home when Tekele was a baby and died after a long illness when Tekele was a high school junior.
Jones said she had few problems raising the boys alone. OK, maybe they didn’t always keep their rooms as clean as she wanted, but they showed she and other adults respect.
“It was so easy,” Jones said. “Maybe I’m just blessed.”
To make ends meet, Jones worked three jobs. She’d work full-time as some sort of administrator while also pulling part-time shifts at the rec center and a fitness facility.
That meant her sons could often come to work with her, shooting baskets at the rec center or doing some other activity at the fitness facility.
“If they could, they’d be in the gym 24 hours a day,” said Jones, who now is an asset manager for a mining company. “But I made it clear to them that school was their job.”
Some days Mom would open the rec center up at 5 a.m. so the boys could shoot baskets before going to school.
Before Ted and Tekele went anywhere in the evening, homework had to be done and they had to home by dark.
“Mom always put it in us to get an education,” Ted said. “She wanted us to get ahead in the world, make something of ourselves. We watched her work two or three jobs to keep us in school, so it was something we just gravitated to.”
When it was time for hoops as youngsters, Tekele tagged along with Ted and his friends to the playground at nearby Sanders Elementary in Austell.
Look at Tekele today and you see a chiseled 202-pound body. Marshall says he plays like a strong safety. Johnson sees a linebacker with basketball skills.
But Tekele was small for his age during most of his growing-up years. Nothing like Ted, who played high school basketball at 6-4.
“My friends would say, `Hey, who is this little kid on the court?’ ” Ted said. “But he’d compete all the time.”
Tekele made South Cobb High’s varsity team as a freshman when Ted was a senior. After that year, Ted put away basketball and enrolled at Valdosta State in southern Georgia.
Mom saw Tekele excelling on the court and in the classroom and wanted him challenged more than what he was getting at the public school.
So she enrolled him at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy for his sophomore year. It was a hit-and-miss season for the undersized Southwest team.
At 6-foot, Tekele was the team’s tallest player, so he often played center and had to battle players eight to 10 inches taller. Whitefield crushed Southwest.
“That was his David versus Goliath season,” Jones said. “Looking back, I think that’s where he developed a no-fear, defensive mindset.”
For a variety of reasons – Southwest was going to raise tuition, a slow economy and Jones’ desire to return to living north of Atlanta in Smyrna – Jones opted to transfer Tekele to Whiteside, where the bar for athletic and academic standards was set high.
While Tekele would get some financial assistance from the school, Jones didn’t know where she’d get the money to make up the difference.
“It was not at all in my budget,” Jones said.
She also was concerned that she was going to ask Tekele to take on too much academically. She remembers crying as she signed the papers to commit her son to go to Whitefield.
“If you decide not to continue at the school that year,” Jones said, “you still owe the school the money. I had teardrops falling on the papers as I signed them.”
She tightened every belt she could to save money for tuition. As for the rest, she figures it came from a miracle.
“God always provided,” Jones said. “I don’t know how it was there, but I could always balance the checkbook at the end of the month.
“I look back now and the toughest times were always the easiest. God always had us.”
She taught her sons always to take a hopeful outlook, regardless of the odds.
“You don’t want to take life for granted,” Jones said. “You have to own the moment.”
Jones couldn’t be more proud of her sons.
“I know how hard both of them have worked,” she said.
Ted, who has helped pay for his college by working at a restaurant, will graduate from Valdosta State in May with a mass media degree.
Tekele became an honor student at Whitefield and is now a key factor on a team that is in its first Final Four since 1965.
Saturday, his mom and Ted will be in the stands watching. So also will be as many of his friends “as I can get tickets for,” Tekele said.
Those who grew up with Tekele remember him as the one who was quick to stand up for children who were being bullied.
“He’s that kind of guy you want on your side because he’s going to give what he can,” Jones said. “He likes the underdog.”
That’s exactly what the Shockers are considered to be Saturday.
“It’s good to be an underdog,” Tekele said. “I’m super excited to play this game.”