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The Dagger

William Gates Jr. is emerging from his famous dad’s shadow and carving his own path

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William Gates Sr. and Jr. (courtesy of the Gates family)

On his first day of high school almost four years ago, William Gates Jr. began to understand the pressure that came with sharing the same name as a Chicago basketball legend.

A classmate familiar with the award-winning 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams" approached Gates that afternoon and told him he'd never be as good a player as his dad.

Occasional jabs like that were probably inevitable for a kid whose father's basketball exploits were chronicled in one of the most popular documentaries ever made, but the younger Gates exacerbated the situation by trying to emulate his dad. Since Gates wore the same jersey number as his father, attended the same Catholic high school and even played for the same coach, teammates resented the attention he received and opposing fans taunted him with derisive chants.

"Once they found out who my dad was, people in the stands would say, 'You're nothing like your dad' or they'd chant, 'Hoop Dreams' in my face," Gates said. "Being 14, that was a lot to swallow. I was just trying to have fun, but I really couldn't at that time. It was a lot of pressure because I basically tried to recreate my dad's life. I wasn't really playing for me anymore. I was playing so people would be like, 'Oh, you are just as good as your dad.'"

The challenge of trying to eclipse his father's legend gradually drained Gates' passion for basketball.

When he played on the JV team at St. Joseph as a freshman, he felt like a failure because his dad spent all four years on varsity. When he cracked the varsity starting lineup as a sophomore, he still viewed it as a disappointment because his dad had emerged as one of Chicago's best players by then.

Even as the elder Gates tried to ease the pressure his son was feeling, the irony of the situation was not lost on him. The former Marquette guard knew his son possessed the raw talent to go as far or further in basketball than he ever did, but the only way the younger Gates would do it is if he stopped worrying so much about matching his dad's accomplishments.

"He thought he had to do everything dad did but better," the elder Gates said. "People thought I was under pressure in the movie. This kid was under the same pressure and he was living in dad's shadow. That's tough. He'd talk about it with me, and I'd just let him know, 'Hey son, I have no expectations. I'm just glad you love the game.'"

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It's no surprise the younger Gates wasn't at his dad's level when he began high school. Whereas Gates' father displayed NBA potential before a knee injury during his junior year at St. Joseph robbed him of much of his explosiveness, the younger Gates only began playing organized basketball when he was in eighth grade.

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William Gates Jr. and Sr.

Though Gates played with his friends at the park as a kid and attended camps at St. Joseph every summer, he never asked to join a local youth team and his parents never pushed him to do so. Looking back, he now admits he wasn't sure he was good enough to pursue the same sport his father used as a way out of the Chicago projects.

What changed Gates' mind was the success he enjoyed at a camp at St. Joseph the summer before he began eighth grade. He beat out dozens of his peers to win the camp's free throw shooting contest and one-on-one competition, prompting him to come home that night and announce to his parents that he wanted to play organized basketball in school for the first time the following year.

"That was a defining moment that really launched his career," the elder Gates recalled. "Dad had to go into overdrive teaching him how to play the game and understand the game. 'Son this is a two-three zone. This is man-to-man. This is your position. We had to go through all those things in one summer that you're supposed to learn gradually growing up."

Once it became time for the Gates to choose a high school, neither he nor his father had any doubt which to pick.

The younger Gates was born five months after Hoop Dreams premiered, began watching the documentary in second grade and attended his first camp at St. Joseph soon afterward. The elder Gates had fond memories of his time at St. Joseph, especially the academic aid he received and the unconditional support longtime coach Gene Pingatore provided.

It wasn't until Gates' dad saw how much the constant comparisons between father and son were dragging down his boy that he realized the family had made a mistake. After the younger Gates opened up to his father about how unhappy he was in a series of conversations during his sophomore year at St. Joseph, his father realized the only way his son could rekindle his love of basketball would be to start fresh at a new school.

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The evolution of Gates' game and his mindset began when he transferred to a Chicago public school after his sophomore year.

Other players still knew him as the son of one of the Hoop Dreams stars, but the external pressure eased because Gates was no longer wearing the same St. Joseph jersey his father once did. It also helped that his father consistently reassured him that just giving 100 percent in school and on the court would be more than enough to satisfy his family.

"He helped me begin to adopt that mindset," Gates said. "One day he came over and told me, 'Son, I can't hide you from me and from what I've done. You have to accept that's how it's going to be the rest of your basketball career, but at the same time you don't have to be me. You can be yourself.'"

Thanks to an improved attitude and long hours in the gym, Gates tapped into his basketball potential enough as a junior to emerge as one of the better players in Chicago. What helped him blossom further as a senior, however, was his family's well-timed move last August from violence-riddled Chicago to a safe neighborhood just outside San Antonio.

When Gates showed up at Samuel Clemens High School to begin his senior year last fall, people there treated him like any other new student. Coach Clifton Ellis inquired whether he was comfortable talking about the movie and a few of his new teammates asked about his dad, but unlike in Chicago, many of his classmates were only vaguely familiar with Hoop Dreams.

Free from the burden he had coped with the past few years, Gates fully embraced his father's advice and finally began playing to be the best version of himself he could be. He showcased his ability to get to the rim and to score from the perimeter, averaging 23.6 points per game and leading previously struggling Clemens to a 25-win season and a berth in the state playoffs.

Interest from Division I schools only trickled in at first because Midwest coaches lost track of him after the move and Texas coaches were previously unaware of him, but the late-blooming Gates forced his way onto the Division I radar with his strong senior season. Gates was drawing interest from the likes of Utah State, Long Island-Brookyln and Texas-Arlington when new Furman coach Niko Medved and his staff ramped up their pursuit the past few weeks.

Even though he only spoke to the Furman coaches for the first time last month, Gates called Medved on Monday to accept his scholarship offer. Gates appreciated that Medved made him his top priority, a stark contrast to some of the other coaches who pursued him but viewed him as a backup option if other guards they were recruiting headed elsewhere.

"Furman really got a steal of a player," Ellis said. "He was really excited there was a school that didn't want to wait around. They said, 'We've seen you and we want you.' The straightforwardness of it all appealed to him, his dad and his family. Instead of waiting around and dragging out the process, they were ready to come in and say, 'Hey, we want you.' That was good for him to hear."

That Gates will play Division I basketball is especially gratifying for his dad because he knows the struggles his son endured to get to this point.

The father of four cringed as his son tormented himself for years trying to duplicate his success. Now the elder Gates is finally getting to see his son living out his own hoop dreams.

"The expectations were a little overwhelming for him at first but coming to Texas, he has really busted out of his shell and you can just see him maturing," the elder Gates said. "I'm very proud of how he has handled being the son of William Gates from Hoop Dreams."

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