To really understand former Huskies player Tony Wroten, you have to start with a look at his family and his sprawling athletic heritage. Wroten could be a first-round pick in the NBA draft.
The parents of Seattle’s latest NBA export are sitting in their dining room, laughing about genes. Tony and Shirley Wroten didn’t expect their son to wear them so well.
“It’s off the charts,” his father exclaims, shaking his head.
Tony Wroten Jr., a basketball star, takes his track-star mother’s speed, his football-star father’s 6-foot-5 size and power and his own special court vision to create a rare mix of agile traits. On Thursday, during the NBA draft, the child they call “Tone” should fulfill his lifelong dream because, even though he’s just 19 and still raw, he is a perfect pick for a league hooked on potential: A tall, athletic point guard who drives to the basket at will, plays aggressively and possesses elite passing ability.
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He has a few distinct flaws, too, and even more critics. To be so gifted, Tone is a polarizing, budding star. But the ability to handle that is also in his blood. Spend time getting to know this family, and you realize that its rich, sprawling athletic heritage has been built despite hardship, disappointment and addiction.
This is a family tree that could have, maybe should have, been chopped down long ago. Instead, it seems to get stronger with each generation.
Dad played tight end at Washington and had a brief NFL career. Mom was a hurdler at Washington before transferring to Arizona State. Aunt Joyce Walker is a women’s hoops legend. Cousin Nate Robinson is an NBA player who has averaged 11.2 points per game in seven seasons. Cousin Jimmie Haywood is a former Franklin High School and Oregon State basketball player.
Nice genes, for sure.
“My son, it’s like he’s taken something from all of us,” said Tony Wroten Sr., known as “Big Tony” to the family. “He has the size and still the quickness. Speed, athleticism, size, height — the numbers are off the charts.”
So are the expectations, the burden of being a high-profile athlete since middle school. And so are the potential pitfalls if Tone can’t maintain the humility and focus to improve his jump shot, cut down on turnovers and grow into his immense talent.
There’s plenty of reason to think he will. It’s because Tone — the Next Wroten — inherited a valuable family intangible, too.
The challenge isn’t living up to his family’s legend. It’s making sense of its despair.
The Wroten/Walker/Robinson tree is local athletic royalty. But somebody stole its silver spoon.
No one has had it easy. Shirley, Tone’s mother, was the ninth of Warren and Christine Walker’s 10 children. Shirley had her first child, Latasha Walker, at age 15 and had to deal with the stigma of teen pregnancy.
“I heard so much negative stuff — that I was another statistic, a teenage parent who wasn’t going to be able to provide for her child,” Shirley said. “It motivated me to do better in school and in track. I wasn’t going to let that deter me.”
In 1983, Shirley enjoyed an incredible senior season at Garfield High School. She won state titles in the 100-meter hurdles, the 200 and anchored the Bulldogs’ record-setting 400 and 1,600 relay teams. She rewrote the record books, graduated from high school, earned a scholarship at Washington and eliminated the notion that she would be part of an unflattering statistic.
But after a good start to her college career, her interest in track waned. After her sophomore year, she transferred from Washington to Arizona State, following coach Clyde Duncan. She never fully rediscovered the joy, though.
“I didn’t like track in college,” said Shirley, who was more focused on earning her degree in criminal justice. She received it in 1988. “The fun was taken from it for me.”
Big Tony can remember the play that changed his career forever. It was 1980 at Hazen High School in Renton. The play call was “26 Power,” and the tailback prepared for another downhill run. He planted and cut — and went straight down. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Back then, such an injury was catastrophic.
Big Tony had to wear a full-length cast. His leg atrophied. He lost significant range of motion. A fierce competitor, Big Tony worked his way back, played tight end for the Huskies from 1981-84 and even grinded out a brief NFL career. But his knee was never the same.
That’s why he was so concerned two years ago when his son, as a junior, tore his ACL playing football. It was “a nightmare in slow motion,” Big Tony said. Big Tony can remember his wife calling with the diagnosis and banging his fists against the steering wheel, repeating, “No! No! No!”
Tone missed his junior basketball season, but he healed just fine. If only Big Tony could have benefited from modern medicine.
“It changed me as an athlete,” said Big Tony, who was also a standout prep basketball power forward and ran track. “It was frustrating. There were guys that I felt like weren’t as good as me, but once I got hurt, I never was not hurt. I didn’t feel like I had a fair shot physically. To this day, I still live with this knee pain.”
These are the Wrotens, real and vulnerable.
No one has had it easy. Joyce Walker has been open about her long battle with alcohol and drug addiction. Nate Robinson, whose father, Jacque, played at Washington and in the NFL, lost a brother to sudden infant death syndrome. He also fought against the perception that, at 5 feet 9, he was too short to be a professional athlete. And as a child, Haywood bounced from home to home and was raised by various family members, including his aunt, Shirley.
Within these struggles, the family hopes Tone can find strength. He can soak in the wisdom each person can provide. There are cautionary tales about fame and lessons about the fragility of a life in athletics.
“From all our experiences, it trickles down to him and because he knows what we went through, it makes him stronger,” Haywood said.
Said Tone: “I’m fortunate to have an athletic family that knows everything I need to know. When things aren’t going right, they’ve probably been through it, so I go to them. I’m blessed I can come to them like that.”
Like so many in the family, Nate Robinson thought his little cousin would be a football player. Football remains Tone’s first love. But by the time he became a teenager, it was obvious that basketball would be his sport.
“Oh, man, when he was young, he was really good at football,” Robinson said. “And then he started growing. And one night, I looked up, and he was taller than all of his cousins. And he was hitting people in the face with no-look passes all the time. That’s when I knew basketball was his calling.”
In middle school, Tone earned status as the nation’s top player in his class. It’s a mythical, unfair and borderline fraudulent ranking. It guarantees a teenager will receive an unhealthy level of pressure, hype and scrutiny. Tone embraced it, but at that age, what kid’s arms are big enough to grab onto a responsibility that huge?
In a sense, Tone was too good too soon to be appreciated. He didn’t remain the best player in his class. Anthony Davis, the inevitable No. 1 pick in this NBA draft, earned that distinction after growing seven inches in a year.
Tone didn’t fall off or get beat out. He improved his game and matured, but that early ranking was a burden when it came to his perception. His brash and emotional on-court persona went from being described as flair or swagger to being considered selfish. His flaws started getting more publicity than his strengths. And off-court controversies, such as the residency debacle that caused him to be temporarily ruled ineligible at Garfield in 2008, were depicted as character flaws.
All of a sudden, the former best eighth grader in the nation was supposedly a bad guy.
The Wrotens remain scarred by the criticism. They’ve learned to ignore it better, but it’s still there.
“People make too many of the wrong assumptions about my son,” Big Tony said.
Could Tony Wroten Jr. be less emotional on the court? Sure. Could he stop pursuing the flashy play so much? Absolutely. Does he need to mature? Like every 19-year-old. But perhaps his critics should leave the conversation at that and refrain from the use of negative and loaded words.
Who is this kid? He’s the still-developing son of two college graduates who have already developed a plan for their son to continue his college education even though he left Washington after his freshman year. He’s a homebody who trusts few and follows no one. Tone is loyal to his closest childhood friends, and outside of them, it’s near impossible to enter his circle.
“How he plays the game, when he’s being competitive and trying to beat you, is not how he is off the court,” Shirley said. “Don’t perceive him like that. That hurts because they don’t know him.”
Shirley’s first cousin is Nate Robinson’s mother, Renee Busch. They’re like sisters. Because Busch went through the draft process seven years ago with her son, she has been a confidant as Tone has traveled the country auditioning for teams.
“It’s a blessing to be there for her,” Busch said. “It’s like I’m living it all over again.”
NBA career goals
Tone has visited about 12 teams in hopes of strengthening his draft position. He could go anywhere from the middle of the first round to early in the second. The family is preparing for every scenario. The primary message: Regardless of where Tone gets drafted, this is only the beginning. The draft is not the victory. A long career is the goal.
Robinson is enjoying that longevity. Now, Tone must become a professional with staying power, too.
“Whatever happens, we’ll be fine,” Big Tony said. “It doesn’t matter if he gets drafted No. 5 or 55. I always tell him, ‘Do what you can control. Work hard. Bust your ass.’ That’s how you make it.”
And there’s one more important piece of advice: Lean on family. He has a good support group.
“They’re common, everyday people who have great athletic genes,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “And they are a riot. They all have an unbelievable sense of humor. They’re all comedians. I mean, the whole group, you can sit around and laugh with them all day.”
Back in the dining room, Shirley and Big Tony are joined by the girls, Latasha and younger sister, Teonna. Latasha is talking about what a great little brother Tone is. Teonna is joking about what a pest of an older brother he can be. Latasha gets the last word.
“I tell my brother, ‘He’s my motivation,’ ” she said. “I look up to him, even though he’s younger than me.”
The Next Wroten is turning pro.
May he be even better than the last.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer