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Patrick Antonelli might be the best point guard in town

P

at Antonelli is wrapping up an interview with a local newspaper reporter upstairs in the Bishop England gym. A basketball comes hurling over the railing from the floor below.

Antonelli snags it with his left hand, nearly palms it. His teammates, anyone of them the culprit, stare back from the lower level with guilty grins. Even their coach is wearing a suspicious smile. A cheerfully patronizing round of applause breaks out for the senior point guard, who smirks back, half embarrassed by the commotion that’s by now caught the attention of most everyone in the gym. Even the girls team practicing nearby gets a quick laugh.

“Nobody on this team takes themselves too seriously,” Antonelli explains. “None of us would let them.”

Antonelli has gone most of his young career without being taken very seriously. Maybe it’s his stature. He’s been undersized most of his life — still is really — in a game typically ruled by giants. His 6-foot build doesn’t intimidate many on sight.

But maybe it’s his family. His mother, Debbie, played basketball at North Carolina State. Now she works as a broadcaster, covering some of the college season’s biggest games for the industry’s leading television networks. His father, Frank, was a .400 slugger for the Columbia baseball team before turning to a career in sports management. It would’ve been easy for the Antonellis to handcraft their youngest son’s career — call in a few favors, place him in a privileged situation like so many other powerful parents. They allowed him to instead figure things out on his own. And it seems like he has.

Antonelli is the leading scorer for the only undefeated team in the state right now. That’s impressive enough but he’s also the team leader in assists, steals, free-throw and field-goal shooting. This is on a team that’s being discussed as maybe the best in the program’s proud 99-year history.

Antonelli might not take himself too seriously. But everyone else probably should. Underestimate his stature. Assume he was born with a silver spoon. Whatever you want. The wiry, curly-headed kid with the wide ears that used to ride the pine doesn’t really care. He likes to get it the old fashioned way. And you have to respect that.

“He deserves that respect,” Bishop England coach Bryan Grevey said. “For the things that he does, the things that he brings to the team. I really think he’s the best point guard around. Hasn’t he earned that respect?”

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It’s a week ago. The Bishops are three quarters of the way through their second region game of the season. Debbie wants to puke.

Two days from now she’ll be analyzing the Notre Dame and Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the ACC Network. It’s one of about 80 major college basketball games she’ll cover this winter. Right now, though, on this Tuesday night on Pawleys Island, she bites her tongue on these wooden bleachers. The officiating is inconsistent at best. What’s worse, her son has missed as many free throws as he’s made. He should never miss those, she thinks. (Debbie once made 2,400 free throws in 24 hours to raise more than $80,000 for the Special Olympics). She cringes. The Bishops’ unbeaten streak feels unstable in the waning minutes. Her stomach is doing flips. Her face remains stale.

“I just keep my mouth shut,” she said. “It’s such a different perspective. I watch his games as a fan. And this is an incredible run they’re on. I don’t’ want to lose sight of how fun this is to watch.”

It’s six hours earlier and music blasts from a small portable speaker in the Bishops locker room as they prepare to board the team bus (a green and white throwback of a vessel dubbed the Father Kelly Express). Antonelli doesn’t know the words to the song playing. He doesn’t even know what it’s called or whose playlist this is. He nods along anyway. In a few hours, the Bishops will lean heavily on their point guard to lead. Right now, though, he’s just one of the guys shooting barbs back and forth with the rest of his teammates.

“Pat can dish it out too,” Grevey assures.

“He’s always cracking jokes and making people laugh,” Bishops junior guard Ty Schaafsma said.

“He’s like the little brother,” Grevey adds. “He’s still the little brother.”

It’s an hour earlier and Antonelli is caught up in casual bathroom conversation with one of the Bishops’ most loyal fans. The discussion is light. Steve Betros is a beloved team manager within the basketball program. Stevie, as he’s affectionately known, works at MUSC and has been volunteering around Bishop England for years. He’s a scratch golfer in the Special Olympics, a silver medalist at the North American Golf Championships. He also happens to have Down syndrome.

Stevie’s conversation this afternoon doesn’t seem to be about anything in particular. Antonelli is running a little late. He left his bag in the car and needs to go retrieve it from the parking lot. Still, he’s patient as Stevie chats. Stevie wants to check the basketball that Antonelli is gripping. So Antonelli obliges. Stevie gives it a look over, a squeeze. He seems pleased.

Antonelli’s brother Frankie also has Down syndrome. He too is an accomplished Special Olympics athlete. Antonelli promises that Frankie is the most competitive athlete in the family. That’s high praise. He has stories about driveway games of two on two —heated endings between he and Debbie against Frankie and their older brother, Joey. The brothers are all close. Antonelli and Frankie shared a bedroom most of their lives, even after Joey vacated his when he moved off to college. Antonelli wears No. 2 because Joey used to. 

Frankie is well known around town as much for his athletic prowess as he is his bubbly personality. He’s set to graduate from Clemson’s LIFE program this year. He volunteers with the Tigers women’s basketball team. He’s shot video blogs with Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney and has been featured in the Washington Post. He’s a success by any measure of capability. Excuses of any sort — whether regarding a size disadvantage or intellectual disability — have never been tolerated within the Antonelli household.

“It can be very frustrating when you can’t do all the things you want to do,” Antonelli said. “I mean, who doesn’t want to rise up there and dunk on somebody? When I was younger, I had to realize that my role is different and find a way to use that to my advantage. Competition just runs in my family.”

It’s six months earlier and an echo claps through the hollow halls of Bishop England. The basketball seems to slap especially hard off of the wood when the gym is desolate and dark. The sun won’t come peering through the windows for another hour or so. Antonelli enters the school through an open side door of the weight room. He finds a maintenance man to unlock the basketball closet. His first class begins in about two hours. He’s hoping to get in about 400, 500 shots before then.

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Dribble, dribble, stop. Dribble, dribble, stop. Dribble, dribble, pull up. Swish.

Antonelli floats through a circuit of drills. Again and again. Playing out different scenarios in his mind against an imaginary defense in front of him. Inquiring minds poke their heads into the gym every now and then to check the noise. Antonelli smiles.

Dribble, dribble. Dribble, dribble. Step back. Swish.

It’s about five months earlier and Antonelli’s junior season has just wrapped. He averaged seven points and three assists. The Bishops finished two games over .500. Not good enough, he decided. So he sought out successful players and studied their habits — their training, their diet. That's where his 6 a.m. shoot arounds began. He enlisted the help of Frankie’s personal trainer and began to reshape his body. He became methodical in his training. His shoulders filled out. His first step became quicker. His vertical jump lept to 30 inches. His wingspan spread to 6 feet, 2 inches. A season later, now a senior, his points, rebounds and assists averages have all doubled.

“The game is completely different when you’re stronger. I wish I would’ve done a little bit more when I was younger,” he admits. “I just wanted to improve. I wanted to make it to the next level. I knew I had to do these things to even have a chance.”

It’s a couple months earlier and Antonelli and the Bishops have just suffered their second straight loss and fourth of the past six games. Antonelli catches a ride home with his mother, who because of her work schedule has been able to catch just a few games in person this season. The drive is quiet. The radio is low. The talk is small. Debbie resists. She waits. And waits.

Then Antonelli cracks.

“Did you see the way that guy was icing the screen?” he finally lets out. “What am I supposed to do?”

Debbie smiles, and begins.

“I don’t say anything about the games unless he asks,” Debbie explained. “It’s usually something subtle.”

All three of Debbie’s sons love basketball but she’s never wanted to overwhelm them with the game. She’s been careful to avoid putting any added pressure on her boys. That doesn’t mean expectations aren’t high. And she is known to stop and rewind a live game at home. Rarely for a highlight though. More often for some small nuisance that she wants to be sure her son picked up on. Antonelli doesn’t mind so much as long as she's not interrupting a Louisville game. He fell in love with the Cardinals years ago playing as the mascot in a video game. He also loves former Cardinals star Donovan Mitchell. Not for the obvious reasons either.

“He’s so nice,” Antonelli explains. He doesn’t mean at basketball. “He’s just such a really great guy. That’s what I’ve always liked about him.”

Debbie watches the film of Bishop England games when she’s on the road traveling for work. She logs mental notes but keeps them mostly to herself. Unless, of course, her son should ask. She rarely talks basketball in much depth with Grevey either. “None of the other moms do,” she explains.

There is some measure of perks, of course. Southern Conference Hall of Fame basketball coach Les Robinson joined her in the stands for a game this season. As did former N.C. State head football coach Tom O’Brien. He even spoke to the team after.

The winter is Debbie’s busiest season of the year. She’ll dot the country over the six-month college basketball season, bouncing in and out of Charleston throughout the week. She tweaked her schedule this year to catch more of her youngest son’s senior season in person.

“I don’t know if she’ll be here tomorrow,” he wonders aloud to himself. “She might. Actually, no, I don’t think she’ll be here tomorrow. I think, yeah, next week.”

Antonelli credits his mother for his game. He confirms the idea like he’s half reluctant, half proud to admit it.

“I get pretty much all of it from her,” he says after some brief thought. Though he swears he’s a better shooter, and without question from three.

“There is some pressure to try to live up to her,” he continues. Debbie helped N.C. State to three NCAA tournament appearances in college. She too often heard that she was too short for her position, her feet too slow. “She tells me I don’t have to live up to what she did. And I believe her. But you can’t help but feel a little bit of pressure.”

Mount Pleasant middle school teams capture postseason championships

Antonelli (center, front) and St. Benedict won the Diocese of Charleston State Catholic Youth Basketball Tournament in 2016.

It’s three years earlier and Antonelli has a decision to make. He’s about 4-foot-11 in two pairs of socks and weighs 90 pounds if he ate a hefty breakfast that day.

Both of his brothers went to Wando, the largest public high school in the state. Antonelli wants to play basketball, though, and at his size, with that many kids, he fears he may not even make the team there.

“No way I would’ve played,” he said. “At my size, no way.”

So he enrolled at Bishop England, a nearby private Catholic school about an eighth of the size of Wando. He’d attended summer camp there since he was a kid. Grevey remembers him darting around the gym handling a basketball as big as he was.

“I thought he was a really good point guard. He could run the offense, call out the defense, pump up the other guys,” Grevey recalls. “He was doing that in the sixth or seventh grade. You’re just thinking, ‘Man, I hope this kid can grow a little.’”

Antonelli’s uniform had to be altered to fit his scrawny frame his freshman year. He took some lumps early. He was starting by his junior season. The two games against Wando each year undoubtedly mean something more to him. He had a breakout game against the Warriors last season — 21 points, then a career high. Bishop England swept the home-and-home series against Wando this season, just the second season the Bishops have ever taken both games in the rivalry series.

Antonelli was once worried that he might not even make the team at Wando. Four years later, he’d likely be one of the best players on the 4-13 Warriors this season.

“He’s taken his game to another level over the years,” Wando coach Chris Warzynski said. “He runs that team like a coach on the floor now. It’s not about the highlights and recognition. It’s about winning games for him. It’s rare in our game to have a point guard like him.”

It’s two years earlier and Antonelli doesn’t know if basketball is for him. He’s in seventh grade. His middle school team is undefeated. But he’s barely 4-foot-6 and is lucky to see more than a couple minutes of cleanup time in any game.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Antonelli said. “I wasn’t playing. I didn’t know if I was going to ever grow. It was all really frustrating. Who doesn’t want to play? I know what it feels like to sit on the bench every game.”

Which probably helps explain why Antonelli is such an adept point guard. Many around him say he excels in player management. He understands every role because he’s lived many of them himself. He can connect with a leading scorer the same way he can the last man on the bench.

Antonelli understands the game differently. He prefers 10 assists over 20 points. He and his mom count what they call coach's assists, or how many times he set someone up properly, regardless of the outcome. He speaks well, intelligently with solid eye contact and careful diction — pretty much what you’d expect of the son of a broadcaster. Coaching verbiage flows from him naturally. He has aspirations of one day trying to parlay a college career into a coaching gig.

He’s a thinker, an honor student and a state champion golfer. He understands spacing and angles. It’s the only way he survives against some of the pure athletes he's lined up against.

“He can read any defense and always know what plays to call. He’s like a coach on the court,” Schaafsma said. “Pat has always been a sort of mentor for me. I’ve definitely picked up some skills to add to my game." 

Antonelli was hardly on the radar of very many before the season began. He's all right with earning his respect. He figures the best way to do that is for his team to win. And they have. 

So then, is there a better point guard in town?

“I’m not sure,” Antonelli says stoically. “I haven’t seen them all so I can’t give you an honest answer.”

Should he at least be in the conversation though?

“I don’t think there are many true point guards anymore. Guys don’t really like to play that way anymore,” he said. “They see me, they probably just think I’m some small kid that’s going to fall or going to fold when it’s tough. And then we beat them.”

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Back on Pawleys Island, Bishop England’s undefeated season is in serious jeopardy. The Bishops trail by six points with just 76 seconds left to play.

The long odds don't seem to rattle Antonelli. He's faced longer. He pulls up and buries a deep three-pointer from the top of the arc to narrow the gap to one point now with 45 seconds remaining. He adds a free throw that evens the game a few seconds later. Big moments aren’t really any different when you’ve trained properly, he explains.

The game heads to overtime. Antonelli opens the extra period with a steal and layup. He buries another deep three shortly after. The Bishops run away with the win. Antonelli finishes with a career-high 33 points, 12 coming in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“That’s what kind of player he is,” Grevey said. “When we needed him to step up, he did. He could score like that every night if he wanted to but he understands what we need to win each game.”

Antonelli is still enjoying the win the following morning as he hovers over the breakfast table.

“Mom, you ever score 33?” he throws out with a satisfied smirk.

“Well," she begins, refusing to concede. “There was no three-point line when I played.”

Her son buried six threes the night prior. He lets out a hearty laugh over his Life cereal before finishing the milk, tossing his bowl and spoon in the dishwasher and heading off to school. 

“Make good decisions,” Debbie calls out as her youngest son makes his way out the door. She always tells him the same thing when they part ways.

Not to worry, Mom. Your son has grown into the best point guard in town. Decision making is what he's best at.