Antowine Lamb is not supposed to be a professional basketball player. Not with what he has had to overcome.
He has persevered through adversity off the court including a tough upbringing, nearly being cut from his high school team, being overlooked playing at a small college, and having a career that appeared to be over while working at Walmart.
The odds have never been in his favor, but for the people who have crossed paths with Antowine, they are not surprised he has been successful.
“He’s the story of all stories,” former Highland Park head coach Ken Darting said. “What he’s done—I don’t care if he doesn’t do anything else, he’s already on company time. He’s already way beyond of what anybody thought should or could happen.”
As a junior in high school, Antowine looked around at his surroundings and he didn’t have much.
The electricity was shut off; there was no running water or food in the house. His mom and stepdad were both incarcerated. Only Bear kept him company, but the small dog could only do so much.
Tears fell from Antowine’s eyes wishing that it was all a bad dream. He wanted his mom back home with him. But it wasn’t a dream. This was his life.
The Highland Park student who was still adjusting to moving to a new city spent a week by himself with his mom and stepdad locked up. Three of his brothers were also in jail and he didn’t know his biological father.
Drugs, gangs, and violence were all around him. A place without electricity–that would go on for months.
Somehow, he stayed upbeat and outgoing at school never revealing his situation to teachers or students. However, signs began to show such as his hair being unkempt or the long walks home from school. But KeKe Blackmon began seeing another sign indicating that something was not quite right.
KeKe, the girls’ varsity head basketball coach and hall security monitor, noticed that Antowine was at the school much later than he needed to be. He was on the basketball team, but stayed at the school for more than two hours after his practice was over.
She began to ask him questions and after some resistance, he eventually opened up to her. He told her his situation and she reacted by wanting to speak to his mother, Jewel Lamb, who was dealing with drug problems at the time. KeKe wanted Antowine to come live with her. Jewel agreed that it would be best if Antowine could do so for a couple of weeks until the living situation improved.
The two weeks became a year-and-a-half through the end of his senior year. Initially, Antowine was a bit torn. He wanted to be there for his mother regardless of what she was going through. And earlier, he had decided to stay in Topeka to be close to her even though his baby sister moved back to Omaha. Although he wanted to be with his mother, he knew living with KeKe was a better situation and she was glad to have him.
“He was a great kid, very loving, outgoing, just an exceptional young man and I really loved taking him in,” KeKe said.
Growing up, Antowine moved around from city to city and from place to place, never being in one location for more than a few years living in Omaha, Atchison, and Leavenworth before moving to Topeka.
When he first arrived in the capital of Kansas with his mother and baby sister, they moved in with his stepdad’s daughter. They finally got their own place, but it wasn’t much.
During the summer prior to his sophomore year at Highland Park, Antowine attended an Upward Bound program held at Kansas State University. On his way back he found out that his stepsister, whom he was living with at the time, had died in a car accident.
“I was just devastated,” Antowine said. “That just put more pressure on me especially with me not knowing what to do with everything.”
Jewel has six kids and always thought there was something special about Antowine, who is one of seven kids on his father’s side.
“I always wanted to see one of my kids do something with their life and I knew he was going to be the one,” Jewel said.
Seeing his family members in jail or using drugs wasn’t something he wanted in his life. It’s what helped motivate him to be successful.
“It was just me looking at how my family was,” Antowine said. “In my head, I didn’t want to live like this, I wanted to do something better so I pushed myself and when basketball came around at Highland Park, just being around a family setting pushed me to go farther.”
GETTING A CHANCE AT HIGHLAND PARK
Aaron Terry, one of the younger assistant coaches on the Highland Park staff, stood up for Antowine in a coaches’ meeting to decide whether or not to keep the 6-foot-5 sophomore project during preseason tryouts. Terry was adamant about keeping Antowine on the team while the other assistants disagreed—and it was hard to blame them because Antowine wasn’t very good, but he had enough intriguing qualities that Terry liked.
“He was definitely a raw product,” Terry said. “He didnt have any basketball skills per se, but he had things you couldn’t teach. He had size, athleticism, could run like a deer, could jump like a gazelle, had a great attitude, and was a good student. He had all of the things you wanted and the best thing was that he was a sophomore.”
Terry offered his opinion on Antowine to Darting adding: “I think we’re crazy if we cut him.”
“I agree,” Darting said. “We’re keeping him.”
The track athlete didn’t know what he was doing on the court in his first experience of playing on an organized team, but he worked hard and he listened to the coaches.
“I was scared,” Antowine recalled. “I’m new to the city anyway and everybody that was there knew each other and I didn’t know anybody. The only thing I could do was just play—I didn’t know how to play, I just played.
Antowine received valuable playing time on the junior varsity team in his first season while the varsity squad won the state championship. One of the stars on the title team was Theron Wilson, who was a year older than Antowine. Theron, like Antowine, was a high jumper on the track team and Antowine looked up to Theron frequently asking him questions during practice about what he was supposed to do and what he was doing wrong.
“He was a young guy who was lost at the time and didn’t know what he was doing,” Theron said. “With him on the court he was kind of like a fish in a big pond. He didn’t have too many skills or know what to do, but at the same time he really enjoyed the game for what it is.”
Antowine continued to make improvements and played sparingly as a junior on the varsity team before stepping into a starter’s role as a senior. He had grown an inch, was weighing 185 pounds playing center, and his mother began coming to his games for the first time in three years. He averaged 6.0 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds as a key ingredient for the Scots, who advanced to the 5A state championship game, but fell to Great Bend by 14 points finishing with a 21-4 record.
“I wish I had started developing even more because I knew I we would have won a state championship,” he said. “But when I look back, I don’t have any regrets; I just think that night was one of our off-nights.”
He had shown great improvements in his career at Highland Park and received a scholarship to play at Barton County Community College although he wasn’t a finished product.
“He was a great athlete that listened,” Darting said. “He was a great kid, was a good teammate, and he just kept growing. The key with him was just teaching him and keep motivating him and pushing him and if he makes it, then he’s going to be a player.”
When Antowine went off to college, Jewel began making improvements in her life. She became more involved with the church and stopped using drugs.
“Because of what I was doing with my life, I think it helped her out a lot,” Antowine said.
Jewel has been clean from drugs for about 10 years and the two talk daily.
“I was in trouble and in drugs and everything, but he stuck behind his mom,” Jewel said. “I started going to church and asked God to forgive me and I’m proud of myself and he’s proud of me.”
THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE
Barton County, located in Great Bend, was another step in the right direction for his basketball career even if his academic plans would change.
Antowine started as a biology major because he wanted to be a marine biologist, but those aspirations changed when he was reminded he was over 1,000 miles away from the ocean. He would eventually become a double major in business management and graphic design.
Although he didn’t put up big numbers at Barton—3.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 63 games—the coaching staff was constantly working with him to develop his game.
“As soon as I got to Barton County, the coaches knew that I couldn’t just play inside especially if I wanted to move up so they worked with me to develop a jumper, dribbling and everything,” Antowine said. “From then on I just took it as a key to make myself better and see how far I want to go with it. As I keep moving up I just kept working on my game outside, inside, driving to the basket, and even my left hand.”
His improvements were good enough to earn a spot at McPherson College, a four-year NAIA school in the KCAC.
His experiences at McPherson would be life-changing. In addition to being a national champion high jumper at 6’11-1/4”, he was involved in several groups and met a number of people.
“Everybody in McPherson knows Antowine right now and that’s the way that he is,” Darting said.
Some of the groups he was involved with include the student government association, being a dorm representative, and business club, which presented him an opportunity to travel to Las Vegas to visit several companies such as the MGM Grand, Bally’s, and Zappos to get a hands-on experience.
“Being at McPherson College, the education experience there was wonderful,” Antowine said. “The teachers there, they’re wonderful with education. They give you a cell phone number and if you don’t understand something, email them or call them, come to their office, come to their house and talk to them. They helped me a lot with my education.”
On the court, Lamb continued to excel. He averaged 10.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks as a senior while shooting 59 percent from the floor and was named to the all-conference defensive team.
“It was a wonderful season,” Antowine said. “We did something great making history for the school becoming the first team to go to the national tournament and playing with a great group of guys, it was like family—I want to compare it to how it was at Highland Park. We all got all along, knew our strengths and weaknesses, and just built on it.”
Antowine graduated from McPherson in 2010 with hopes of continuing his basketball career.
LIFE AFTER COLLEGE
Trying to find a team to play for wasn’t easy and Antowine, who began working as a sales associate at Walmart. It wasn’t where he wanted to be, but he needed something and like the majority of his other experiences in life, he took it as a positive.
One day, a lady he was helping asked him if he played basketball. He told her that he played in college.
“Are you trying to do anything else,” the woman asked.
“Yes I want to play overseas,” he responded.
“I know you can do it, just keep your mind on straight and keep pushing. I know you can do it.”
Antowine never saw the lady again, but her message is one that he hasn’t forgotten.
“The support comes from far and wide,” Antowine said. “From the coaches that I’ve had, from people I went to school with—they’ll come out of nowhere and say something positive and I just take it all in. It could be from anybody, literally anybody.”
Jobs with Hospira, a pharmaceutical company, and Lowen Color Graphics followed his stint at Walmart while the goal of furthering his basketball career seemed about over.
But Antowine kept plugging away, kept working on his game and heard from DeMarcus Weeks with U-Hoops, a basketball networking company, led to him working out in California. He also played in a Los Angeles Summer Pro League and went to China with Curt Pickering’s Santa Barbara Breakers team. While in China during the fall of 2013, Antowine played 10 games in six cities in his first trip outside of the United States.
“The experience was different, but a great difference,” he said.
Antowine believed a pro basketball experience would ensue in China and was set to go before it fell through at the last minute.
Eventually he received a phone call from Jason Walters, a McPherson contact, about playing in Nicaragua and Antowine jumped at the opportunity. Theron, who has played three years professionally overseas, has been impressed with the development Antowine has made.
“He’s taking long strides, he’s came along,” Theron said. “He’s doing well for himself. To see him during his development stage and seeing him now, it was like two different players.”
Even when working at Walmart and his other jobs, he never believed he was done playing basketball.
“Not at all because in my head I just knew that it wasn’t over,” he said. “As bad as I wanted it, I knew that I would get it eventually. Other people may have better contacts and networking just because of where they had been at, but for me with the way that I work and how hard that I work, I knew I would get it eventually.”
Kids in Managua like what they see in Lamb—a hard-working, high-flying athlete, who throws down dunks and block shots. They also like his beard.
Although he’s only been there a month, he has received the nickname, “La Barba,” which means “the beard” in Spanish.
Lamb, 26, has grown to 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds and signed a contract in June to play with the Managua Tigres in Nicaragua’s top professional basketball league with the help of Walters. Through four games, Antowine has averaged 13 points, six rebounds, two assists, and two blocks per game.
“When I first got down here, it was wonderful to me,” Lamb said. “They cannot drive–I don’t care what anybody says–but the people are wonderful, they’re friendly. They try to talk to me; I can’t speak Spanish so I can’t really say anything back.”
Managua is the capital city of Nicaragua with a metropolitan population of about 2.2 million people. Beaches and volcanoes are common, a far contrast from living in the landlocked, flatland of Topeka, Kansas.
“It’s definitely different here,” Lamb said. “The part where we stay in, everywhere we walk looks like a ghetto to me. But for me, every cultural experience I have, I take it as a positive.”
Lamb has aspirations of starting his own graphic design company or marketing firm whenever his basketball career is complete, but has his eyes on reaching basketball’s pinnacle—the NBA.
“I definitely want to at least get an NBA tryout or something, I want to get there,” he said.
His mother wants him to continue to reach for his dreams.
“I always taught my kids not to let anyone change your mind, if you got a thing you want to do, then keep at it, go for it, go for your dream, and I kept telling my son that if you like basketball, go for your dreams,” Jewel said. “That’s all I kept telling him and he went towards his dream and I’m very proud of him. The only thing I told him was never to forget his momma and he told me, ‘I’ll never forget you.’”
To look back on where he’s been at in life, Antowine is appreciative of where he’s at now where life is “wonderful.”
“I always reflect on where I came from and how far I’ve came too,” he said. “I’m on a professional level right now and I’m doing things that people in my family or other kids couldn’t do. I take this as a huge blessing.”
Darting has coached a number of impressive individuals in his 13 years at Highland Park, but Antowine has been one of the most unique.
“He’s special,” Darting said. “I don’t think you’ll meet anybody that knows Antowine at any level of his life that aint going to say the same thing, in sports or out of sports.”
KeKe has been one of the many that are very proud of what Antowine has been able to accomplish.
“It is amazing that he’s made it this far,” she said. “Coming from Topeka in itself is a testimony as to what kind of young man he is. To persevere through all of the adversities just in Topeka alone and the difficulties that he did go through, I’m very proud of him. I didn’t expect anything less of him because he always spoke highly about where he’s going and what he’s going to get there and he always worked hard. He knew that basketball was his life and basketball was what he wanted to do after all the disappointments that have come with basketball like the thing with China fell through and things of that nature. He always kept going.”
Three years ago, Antowine began talking to his biological father and the relationship with his mother has never been better.
“It’s way better than what it was because I can actually talk to her,” he said. “She always loves me through anything she does, but she can actually be there for me.”
Being involved in the church is something Jewel enjoys and wants to pass on to her son.
“I could have been better, but by the grace of God, he brought me through it,” she said. “I’m going to church, I love going to church, I praise the Lord and that’s all I do. I pray for my family and I pray for Antowine all of the time and every time I talk to talk to him or text him, I tell him to pick up a bible and read it. Everything is better. Sometimes I look back on my life and I say to myself that I could be better, but now God blessed me and I’m doing better.”
Antowine has been through a lot in his life and has a message to youngsters who might be in a similar situation:
“Always learn from other people’s mistakes—don’t do what they’re doing because obviously that’s going to get you in the same situation that they’re in. Find somebody to idolize that’s doing good and going somewhere with their lives. Always learn from your mistakes, smile and stay positive and keep God first too.”
And Antowine never has used the hand he’s been dealt as a deterrent to prevent him from being successful.
“Not only what he’s been through, but never once used it as an excuse, never once was down and out and didn’t think he could do it,” Darting said. “Knock him down and he gets back up, goes again, never asked for any favor, never expected any favor. It’s not just a tough life that he’s life, but how he lived a tough life. If you weren’t in the inside, you wouldn’t have known what kind of life he had. He’s always positive and upbeat.”
Maybe Antowine Lamb was supposed to be a professional basketball player after all.