On March 18, less than six hours after Indiana lost to No. 5-seed St. Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64, then-freshman guard Tamar Bates was already on a flight home to Kansas City. His daughter, Leilani, was expected to be born any day.
Though the Hoosiers first NCAA Tournament appearance — and loss — was still fresh in his mind, Bates had another matter requiring his immediate attention: He was about to be a father for the first time. He wondered how family would support him over 450 miles away. He questioned if he was ready to handle being a dad while also juggling his basketball aspirations.
But on March 20, less than 48 hours after Bates hopped on a multi-flight trip back to his hometown, Leilani was born. And when Bates first laid eyes on her, the clarity and answers that he had been seeking finally came rushing to him.
“As soon as I saw her, it’s kind of just like a flip switched,” Bates said. “Because it’s like, now, everything that I’m doing, all the work that I’m putting in, it’s not just for me because I’m trying to provide for her and my family. So getting up on those early mornings, late nights, just doing everything that I’ve been doing just with a lot more focus because I have a new purpose.”
Bates’ potential on the court is evident. He was a former four-star prospect in the 2021 recruiting class according to 247Sports, and the No. 30-ranked recruit in the nation. His arrival to Bloomington last offseason was met with considerable buzz. And after a breakout senior season at prep powerhouse IMG Academy, the expectations from the IU fanbase on Bates’ shoulders were grand.
However, Bates struggled to live up to those expectations. Under then-first year head coach Mike Woodson, Bates ‘playing time was sparse, and his offensive production was small. Though he played in 32 of Indiana’s 35 games, Bates averaged just 3.9 points and 1.3 rebounds per game while shooting 33.8 percent from the field.
What many didn’t see the behind the scenes during Bates’ freshman season, though, was the off-court struggles he ended. In mid-December, he was forced to miss IU’s game against Butler in the Crossroads Classic due to a death in his family. Throughout the entirety of the Big Ten schedule, he tried to remain focused as the birth of his first child loomed in the back of his mind.
For an 18-year-old, much less a freshman at one of the most followed college basketball programs in the country, it’s easy to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance that engulfs daily life. Bates was no different, and even if he tried, he couldn’t avoid it.
“I feel like just going through that storm — I came out obviously a stronger basketball player, but I came out just stronger mentally,” Bates said. “… So just going through that and figuring out, ‘Okay, this is where I would get my shots from and this is how things are gonna go.’
“And I went through the Big Ten [season] and really just getting a feel for everything that I was kind of anticipating last year coming in. So I feel like just having that experience, that year in my belt will just help with everything.”
And Bates knows he’ll need to take his game to a higher level as a sophomore this fall if he wants to see increased playing time and opportunities. In fact, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound shooting guard acknowledges his all-around skillset needs to improve this offseason in order to unlock his clear potential.
“My most impactful things, I would say being able to guard at a high level, running at a high level, making open shots, and just being a constant leader, talker and motivator just for the team,” Bates said, listing his four most important developments this offseason. “… I feel like one of my biggest skills is just having energy and just always being ready to compete, just my competitive spirit.”
It’s no longer about only Bates, though. Those arbitrary, singular-minded basketball skills that he feels like he needs to improve are n’t just for his own gain anymore. They ca n’t possibly be, not with a new a child his life.
“My new purpose is to provide and put food on the table for her,” Bates said. “And I would say the main thing is just making sure her upbringing, how she’s raised is a thousand times better than how I was raised. And that’s no knock at all to my parents, they did a fantastic job, but I want to outdo them, I want to do better than them. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Bates isn’t going into parenthood blindly. He said his family is in full support of him and his daughter, taking care of her in Kansas City while he’s been in Bloomington for summer workouts. From his parents to his siblings to his uncles and everyone in between, Bates said he is at peace knowing his daughter is in good hands.
That time spent apart from Leilani isn’t going to waste, however. Instead, every decision Bates makes, and every bead of sweat that falls on the hardwood floor beneath him now has a new meaning behind it.
It’s why, these days, when Bates ponders whether he’s doing enough for his daughter, the feel of the leather basketball in his palm reminds him that it’s all part of the proverbial plan.
“I feel like a lot of the leadership qualities that a father takes on in a household, obviously they translate to the basketball court,” Bates said. “… I got two totally different mindsets when I’m with my daughter and when I’m playing basketball, but I feel like the focus and the constant learning and growing, those are things that you can combine. Just like the stuff that goes into it and stuff that you learn over the years, that’s how you can relate the two.”
Bates is currently juggling multiple life-altering circumstances at once. His goals for this season with Indiana are obvious. His vulnerability about his NBA or professional basketball goals have never been more open.
But his yearning to provide the best possible childhood and life for Leilani — that trumps all.
“I just want to make sure she doesn’t have to worry about anything, just give her the world and everything that she could ever dream about,” Bates said. “But at the same time, instill things in her that were instilled in me, which is you got to work for everything that you get.”