Scoring points with dad

Basketball: Tee Trotter takes harsh words from his UMES coach and soothing words from his father in stride - they're the same man.

January 11, 2002|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Some time before 4 p.m. tomorrow, when the University of Maryland Eastern Shore prepares for the tip-off against Morgan State at Hill Field House, Thomas Trotter Sr. will have made a transformation.

Left in the locker room will be the attentive, gentle father. Out will come the no-nonsense, unrelenting coach of UMES.

Though by no means easy for Trotter, such transformations have become commonplace for the second-year coach of the Hawks (5-8, 2-2 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). The team is led by point guard Thomas "Tee" Trotter Jr., the coach's son.

After making names for themselves in New Mexico, the two decided to make the trek to Princess Anne. The father couldn't pass up the chance to become a head coach, and the son couldn't resist playing under him.

Tee Trotter, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound sophomore, is the Hawks' leading scorer and feeder, averaging 16 points and 3.5 assists a game. He scored a career-high 36 points a month ago in a 93-78 win over Towson, and dropped in 25 Tuesday in the Hawks' 95-88 overtime win at Norfolk State.

The Trotters are one of the latest father-son duos in Division I basketball. Others in recent years have included Tubby Smith and his son, Saul, at Kentucky, and Homer Drew, who coached son Bryce at Valparaiso on the Cinderella team of the 1998 NCAA tournament.

The elder Trotter admits that at times, the two have difficulty balancing their father-son, player-coach relationships.

"From the time we have practice or play, it's all business," said the coach. "Then, as soon as the whistle blows, I try to stop being a coach and start being a father."

On the court, they block out their relationship, said the son. "The way he talks to me and the other players is the same."

"It's like he's not even my father sometimes. He gets mad at me and I get mad at him, and it's like my coach is mad at me, not my father is," Tee said.

Thomas Trotter, 41, gained custody of Tee when his son was 5 and remained a single parent until Tee was 16. He is now married and lives in Salisbury with his wife, Celeste; stepdaughter Ryan, 15; and stepson Jeremy, 14.

After spending two successful years as an assistant at New Mexico State under coach Lou Henson, Thomas Trotter was offered the head-coaching position at UMES in June 2000. He knew the school's athletic director, Vivian Fuller, from their days at Northeastern Illinois.

Trotter inherited a team that has never been to the NCAA tournament, and hasn't had a winning season since 1993-94. The Hawks have had five coaches in 10 years.

"Our goal is to be one of the best teams on the East Coast," said Trotter. "It's a three- or four-year process, but it can happen. I've seen it happen."

At UMES, the results haven't been immediate. The Hawks were 12-16 last season and finished fifth in the MEAC at 10-8. Their struggles this season have come in part because of Trotter's tough nonconference scheduling. Three of the Hawks' losses have come to Iowa, Minnesota and Iowa State.

But Thomas Trotter said he hopes Tuesday's win over Norfolk will be the start of something big for the Hawks, a team that has benefited from the coach's Chicago ties. Six of the Hawks are from Illinois, including five from Chicago.

"So many kids get overlooked in Chicago. Not everybody can play in the ACC, Big 10 or the SEC," said Trotter. "Most kids just want to be on a stage where they play, and I sell them that opportunity."

"A lot of guys here don't have fathers, and he's more of a father figure to all of us," said junior Watra Banks, who is out of Julian High in Chicago. "He makes it easier for us to be away from home."

Prying a player away from Chicago and to Princess Anne - just about as stark of a contrast as can be found - is not even Trotter's biggest recruiting coup. He saved what he called one of his best recruiting jobs for his son.

Tee, who averaged more than 30 points while a senior at Onate (N.M.) High, had already signed a national letter of intent to play at New Mexico State when his father told him of his intentions to head east, and invited him along.

Finally comfortable after making the transition from his native Chicago to New Mexico, and ready to play for Henson, Tee wavered.

"I always wanted to play for my father," said the 21-year-old. "I have a strong relationship with him. He taught me how to be a man. I need him around me, and it was like, wherever he was coaching, I was coming with him."

There were times when Thomas wondered if Tee would make it this far, and said it's a blessing that his son is alive.

When he was 5, Tee had open-heart surgery for a congenital condition. That same year, he was hit by a taxi and broke several ribs.

However, the scariest moment came when he was 6. Tee, who couldn't swim, was pushed into a 12-foot-deep pool by a friend. He spent several minutes underwater before being dragged out unconscious.

"Doctors told us it was a miracle that he didn't have brain damage," Thomas said.

At UMES last season, father and son were often at odds, as both struggled in their new surroundings. "We didn't handle it well at all, and it was straining our relationship at home and with our family," admitted Thomas Trotter.

Making matters worse were the sentiments of some on campus who felt Tee was getting preferential treatment, taking more shots and playing more minutes than anyone else.

"Tee has the hardest job on campus," said assistant coach Paris Parham. "If he takes 13 shots and we lose, 13 is too many. But then he scores 36 points and everybody loves him."

"From fans' point of view, they think he takes too many shots, but that's what he needs to do," said teammate Banks. "Tee is our engine that makes us go."

Thomas Trotter gave his perspective: "What we're doing is a tough challenge, but it's also a blessing. Every day, I get to see my son play college basketball.

"Isn't that what every parent wants?"

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