‘A feeling you can‘t really explain': How college basketball‘s new dads navigate hoops and fatherhood
The stress of having a child at any point can be overwhelming, especially for a first-time parent.
Imagine having that child, as a full-time student, in the middle of a college basketball season. Diapers still need to be changed. Bottles made. Sleep sacrificed. Then you go to practice, film and class. Or, as the hours pass toward the due date, you’re hundreds of miles away waiting to play a suddenly-meaningless game while also waiting for the call that will change your life.
NBC Sports spoke with five players that had children during this college basketball season.
These are their stories.
Xavier Tillman did not know what to expect walking into Tom Izzo’s office.
Izzo was preparing for something -- he does not remember what, exactly -- but Xavier was in there to let his coach know that his wife and the mother of his three-year old daughter Yanni was pregnant.
And that the due date was smack in the middle of Michigan State’s conference season.
Izzo, it turns out, wasn’t mad. In fact, Tillman said, his first reaction was to come up with a plan to ensure that his all-conference center, one of the most underrated players in America and a guy that is second only to Cassius Winston in importance to this Michigan State program, would be there for the birth of Xavier Jr. Even if it meant missing a game.
“He talked right away about being there for the birth of my child, how important that was,” Xavier Sr., as he is now known, said. “‘You have to be there, that’s something a father needs to be there for.’”
Of course, he followed that up by stressing the importance of timing Baby No. 3 just a little bit better, maybe sometime during June or July, but there was never any question about the priority here. It was Xavier’s family.
“What’s crazy is fans were like, ‘I just hope the baby comes this day, he better not come this day,’” Xavier said. "[Izzo] was the exact opposite.”
The Spartans were never going to be too far away from an airport on any of their road trips, and Xavier was prepared to hop on a flight home if he got word that Tamia, his wife, was going into labor, but luckily for the Tillmans, that was never the case. Xavier Jr. decided to show up on Monday, February 17th, two days after a home game against Maryland and three days before the Spartans headed to Lincoln to take on Nebraska.
And so began what is undoubtedly the busiest time in Xavier’s life: full-time college student, Big Ten college basketball player, husband and dad two times over.
So when I finally had the chance to speak with him, my first question to Xavier was simple: How?
How do you have enough time in a day? How do you have enough energy to star in the best conference in college hoops? How are you conscious enough to change diapers at 2:30 in the morning?
“I stay as present as possible in the moment, whatever I’m doing I’m focusing on that,” he said. His day usually starts early. He’ll make his way to his morning classes, stopping back home at the apartment the family of four shares to see everyone before heading to practice early to get a workout in; Tillman’s lost 40 pounds since arriving in East Lansing, and that didn’t happen by going easy in the gym. After he finishes with practice, and film, and the training room, and those media sessions that college athletes love so much, he hits the team dinner, throws it in a to-go box and heads on home.
Dinnertime with the family.
He may still be an amateur athlete, but there is nothing in Xavier’s life that he doesn’t handle like a professional. He’s an all-conference center in a league loaded with big men. He has a 3.67 GPA. He’s a beloved member of the Michigan State community, by teammates and students and media alike.
It’s a unique dynamic, one that Xavier’s family and coaching staff was unsure of when he decided to have his then-fiance and daughter move with him into a dorm on campus the summer before his freshman season.
Would he be able to do what he needed to do from a basketball standpoint with a baby at home?
Would they get in the way of the work that goes into being a full-time student and a full-time, Division I athlete?
Not at all. In fact, their presence probably helped force him to grow up and become more efficient with his time.
Would he feel any resentment towards his family, that they got in the way of him getting a full college experience?
I didn’t bother asking that question. The answer is obvious.
As the saying goes, you can’t be half-pregnant. For Xavier, he couldn’t be half a father.
“I’ve got to accept this role.”
With Xavier Jr. now in the mix, that role has turned into the night shift. Any cries, any diapers, any feedings that happen between 8 p.m. and 3:30 a.m., dad handles without complaint. “All that stuff,” he says, “that’s the stuff I kind of enjoy. I like doing the house chores. That way I feel like I did my part. As soon as we get off the phone, I have a stack of dishes.”
When the Tillmans need help, their family isn’t too far away. Both Xavier and Tamia are from Grand Rapids, Mich., which is about an hour’s drive from campus. That’s the perfect distance, close enough that a grandparent can be on call if needed but just far enough away that the surprise drop-ins don’t happen. They’ve also been helped out by the fact that the university can provide the family aid now that they are married. Tillman says he gets about $1,200 a month -- “whatever compliance set up, I just signed the papers,” he joked -- to help with the cost of diapers, baby food and clothes for two kids that are never, ever going to stop growing.
And then there’s Cassius.
Not Cash. Not Uncle Cassius. Just Cassius.
That’s what Yanni calls Michigan State’s star point guard, who may just be her best friend. They’re so close, in fact, that Cassius is actually the one that gets the credit for potty-training the then-two year old Yanni.
“I cringe when I say it, because I’m the actual parent, but he did,” Xavier, a Jr. by grade but now a Sr. by name, said. “He convinced Yanni that in order for them to still be friends, she had to be able to use the bathroom herself. She was only two. She wanted to be friends. The next time they saw each other, she was done potty-training.”
That’s the most impressive assist of Cassius’ career.
For T.J. Haws, it started with a game-winner.
BYU was hosting St. Mary’s. The game went to overtime. With the seconds winding down, Haws came over the top of a screen, was left all alone by the Gael defense and banged home a game-winning three to give the Cougars an 81-79 win.
He did his postgame interviews. He showered. And he and his wife headed for the hospital.
“That whole day was just a wide range of emotions,” Haws said. “We both knew that after the game we were going to the hospital, and it was one of those things where I was praying we could get a win so that would be the cherry on top. I knew bringing our son into the world was going to be one of the coolest experiences of my life. I was just super happy going into it with a win.”
Since his son, Tyson Ralph Haws, was born, it’s been a whirlwind for T.J., “there’s constantly something going on.” Whether it’s classes, or team meetings, or tutoring sessions, or practice, or getting treatment -- when he spoke with NBC Sports, he was in the team’s training room, getting his body ready for last Saturday’s showdown with Gonzaga -- Haws said this was easily the busiest time of his life.
But he expected that.
His wife, Lauren, did, too. Once they realized they were going to have a baby in the middle of league play during T.J.'s senior season, the couple knew that Lauren would be carrying a heavy load during the first six-to-eight weeks of Tyson’s life. The day after they got home from the hospital, T.J. was back on the road, traveling to California to play at Pacific. When both parents are home, their plan has been pretty simple: T.J. takes the first shift, letting Lauren get some sleep with her mind at ease while T.J. gets in some snuggle time. Once it’s time for Tyson to eat, they’ll switch.
“I’ve been getting a decent amount of sleep,” T.J. said.
It also helps that both Lauren and T.J.'s parents live less than 30 minutes away.
To date, T.J. says that nothing about the parenting process has been all that surprising to him because he didn’t go into it with any expectation. He just wanted to learn and grow throughout the experience a day at a time. That said, there have been some things that have caught him off guard.
“I was completely shocked that he had so much hair,” T.J. said. “I’m not exactly helping in that department.”
The family was also surprised when the entire BYU team showed up the day after Tyson was born. Think about that. There were 20 larger than normal men, armed with giant teddy bears and snacks, squeezed into a standard hospital room.
“They came for about two minutes,” T.J. laughed. “Day two of his life and he met the whole squad.”
While starting a family has gone about as smoothly as starting a family can go for the Haws, it has been somewhat bittersweet. Tyson’s middle name is Ralph, named after T.J.'s grandfather. Ralph was an omnipresent force around BYU basketball. His son -- T.J.'s father, Marty -- was an all-conference player for BYU in the ‘60s. T.J.'s brother, Tyler, is BYU’s all-time leading scorer. When T.J. spoke to NBC Sports, he said, “my grandpa is not doing well right now,” but that he was glad he got to meet his namesake.
On March 1st, Ralph passed away.
It wasn’t nearly so simple for Nijal Pearson.
Texas State was on a road trip the first weekend of February, playing a Thursday night game in Myrtle Beach, S.C., against Coastal Carolina before heading up to Boone, N.C., to take on Appalachian State. Typically, when Texas State is on the road, they’ll leave immediately after a game, traveling through the night and getting to their next stop at some point very early the next morning.
But on February 6th, after pounding CCU, 100-63, a storm hit the mid-Atlantic region. It was cold and rainy where they were, but up in the mountains where Appalachian State’s campus is located, it was a winter wonderland. With a five hour driving in front of them, the staff opted to spend the night in Myrtle Beach and leave as early as possible the next morning.
“That morning, my girlfriend sent me a picture,” Pearson, the Sun Belt’s leading scorer this season, said with a laugh. “My daughter’s arms and legs are pushing all the way out. You can see the imprint on her stomach.”
In hindsight, he says, he should have just left from Myrtle Beach that morning, but this is his first child. He didn’t know what to expect. The baby wasn’t due yet and the Bobcats were playing their best ball of the season. They had won seven of their last eight games, and App State was just a game behind them in the Sun Belt standings. This was a big game. Pearson is a big-game player. He wanted to be there. He wanted to be with his teammates. He thought he had plenty of time for both.
When the team arrived in Boone on that Friday afternoon, Pearson got another text from his girlfriend, Kayla McNutt. She had started having contractions, but they were still an hour apart. Their doctor told them there was still time, she didn’t need to go to the hospital just yet. So Pearson told his coach that he had to be on the first flight out after the game on Saturday.
That was the plan as they headed into practice at 6 p.m. on that Friday, and as soon as it ended, it became evident that the baby wasn’t going to wait. Nijal’s mom, Stephanie, called Terrence Johnson, Nijal’s old AAU coach and an assistant on Texas State’s staff, and told him Nijal had to go.
It was happening.
The only problem?
It’s almost 9 p.m. on a Friday night in Boone, N.C., which is a rural mountain town known for its skiing and outdoor sports. Finding a way to get Nijal to the airport in Charlotte, two hours away, was not going to be easy. The only place to rent a car in town was long since closed for the night, so they did the only sensible thing: Called an Uber.
“For the low price of $187.63,” said Director of Basketball Operations Alex Hausladen. Haus, as he’s known, went along for the ride because they weren’t about to let their star player go off with a stranger for a two-hour drive through snowy, winding mountains roads by himself.
“The first 25 miles were exciting,” he said.
They were too late to get on the last flight out, so Haus got Nijal set up in a hotel at the airport that had a shuttle and made sure that Nijal was booked on the first flight out that morning. Running on almost no sleep and adrenaline, Nijal made the flight.
“I fell asleep on the plane before it takes off,” Nijal said, “so I never put my phone on airplane.”
As he landed and his phone regains service, it starts buzzing like crazy. All the updates came at once.
Kayla got a fever.
Kayla had to get induced.
Kayla had to get a C-section.
Nova Lael Pearson is here.
Feb. 8th, 2020, 8:50 a.m.
“I finally got there around 10:30,” he said. “I walked into the hospital room and [Kayla] was still in recovery out of surgery. They let me hold her ... it felt like I did something special. My daughter’s here.”
It’s been a process getting used to having a baby around. The family has help. Both Grandmothers have been there, doing all of the things that new Grandmothers do. Nijal and Kayla have been getting more sleep than they thought they would be getting at this point. Nijal says he does most of the overnight diaper-changing and feedings, but that he’s mastered the art of getting Nova back to sleep.
“It’s not that bad,” he said.
Nijal is a 3.0 student and a senior in his final semester in college. He only has one class, which means that on a typical day, he’s only gone for four or five hours for practice and workouts. He can do most of his coursework online.
“The rest of the day, I’m around the house.”
At this point, he said, there are only two real issues that he’s dealing with. Kayla, you see, is a “real do-it-herself type,” Nijal says, and that’s not a good thing when trying to recover from an invasive surgical procedure like a C-section. “I’m having to tell her to slow it down, I got this. You have to let yourself heal.”
The other problem?
Everyone is way more interested in his daughter than in him.
Or basketball, some days.
“My first day back to practice, I’m ready to go and everybody wants to talk about my daughter,” Nijal said with a laugh. “I’m in basketball mode, trying to get better, trying to work and all they want to do is talk about her.”
Can you blame them?
Braun Hartfield had a similar ordeal.
The leading scorer for the San Diego Toreros, Hartfield transferred into the program back in 2018, after spending two seasons playing for Youngstown State. A native of Cleveland, Hartfield’s girlfriend, Amari, moved to California to live with him, but she returned to her native Toledo before giving birth to their daughter.
The due date was still a month away when, the morning after a home game against Whittier, Braun awoke to a pounding on his door. It was one of the team’s graduate assistants. It’s not even 7 a.m yet, but Braun’s first reaction is to look at his phone. Dozens of missed calls and texts. As he’s looking through them, his head coach, Sam Scholl, calls again.
“You talk to your mom yet?”
It was time.
Within two hours, Braun was on a flight back to Ohio. He landed around 8 p.m. that night and was there as his daughter, Abraia, was delivered via C-section on New Year’s Eve.
“When I first held her, I looked at her and she looks just like me,” Braun said. “I teared up. My girlfriend didn’t get a chance to physically hold her, so I was doing all the skin-to-skin.”
Unfortunately, the moment didn’t last long. Abraia was four weeks premature, a five-pound angel that whisked away to the NICU.
“I didn’t want to let her go,” he said.
It was nerve-wracking in the moment, but Abraia was and is fine. She was back with the family within a few hours, but Braun couldn’t stay for too long. Abraia was born in Toledo on a Tuesday. Braun was back in San Diego for a game on that Thursday. He’s been back since then -- a four-day trip in late-January -- but for the most part he’s been forced to watch his daughter from afar. He FaceTimes at least twice a day, but it can be tough navigating a newborn’s napping schedule, a new mom’s sleeping schedule and a three-hour time difference.
“My girlfriend is exhausted,” he said, adding that the plan is for both Amari and Abraia to move back out to San Diego once Amari’s fully recovered from her C-section. He’s anxious for that moment, not just to help out with the parenting duties, but to finally be able to get to know his daughter.
Jose Alvarado was nervous this was going to be what happened to him.
Alvarado is Georgia Tech’s point guard. His girlfriend’s due date was fast approaching, and the way that Georgia Tech’s schedule broke down, four of the team’s first six games were going to be on the road.
“That was stressful,” Jose said. What happens if she goes into labor while he’s in Pittsburgh? Or South Bend? Or Syracuse? “She was more nervous about that than anything.”
Luckily for Jose, that’s not the way it played out. At 3 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 5th, less than six hours after the Yellow Jackets had put the finishing touches on a 19-point win over Virginia Tech in Atlanta, Jose was woken up with a, “Let’s go.”
“I thought she was joking,” Jose said with a laugh.
They were out the door by 3:30 a.m., to the hospital by 4 a.m. and at 8:25 a.m., Nazanin -- they call her Naz -- was born.
“It’s a feeling that you can’t really explain,” he said. “I never knew I could love something so much. I never though I could feel like that. I’m blessed, I can’t really explain it.”
Jose has helped when he can with the hardest parts of having a newborn -- late nights, early mornings, limited sleep -- but he credits his girlfriend for understanding what he’s in the middle of right now.
“She holds me down,” he said. “At nightime, she says, ‘Let me be the tough one. I’ll get up during the night.’ She controls it,” even when things get tough. “Sometimes she wakes up every 30 minutes. She gets fussy, you never know what is going on with a baby, what type of day it’s going to be. So we just be positive, we gotta enjoy it.”
Jose has been able to bring Naz to a game already.
She was in attendance when the Yellow Jackets took on Clemson on Feb. 25th.
“I never get nervous for nothing,” he said, “but when it [came] to that game, I was nervous.”