There’s no such thing as a normal day for Xavier Tillman, especially not Valentine’s Day.
After a long day of class, film sessions and practice, Michigan State’s sophomore forward went with his fiancée, Tamia Todd, to Qdoba. The couple, now in their third year of dating, had to take advantage of the annual buy one, get one special for sharing a V-Day kiss at the register.
“It’s kind of a tradition,” Todd said, smiling.
Most days, Tillman usually awakens and crashes much earlier than his teammates, and last Thursday was no different. Seldom is there time for video games or partying when the 6-foot-8-inch Tillman must balance the memorization of scouting reports and game plans, practice, games and academics among the other rigors of being a Division I student-athlete. He maintains a 3.6 GPA, while majoring in journalism.
But most importantly, Tillman says he and Todd balance the full-time responsibilities of parenthood — raising their 2-year-old daughter Ayanna “Yanni” Tillman.
Only a few constants are clear in a sea of variables for the Tillman family. A wedding planned for this May is among them. Todd, 22, said she intends to transfer to MSU in the fall to pursue an elementary teaching career after completing her associate’s degree. Tillman, 20, is aiming to play in the NBA.
Tillman’s ambition of playing professional basketball is a real possibility for the former four-star recruit out of Grand Rapids Christian, according to his mother, Tanya Powell-May, a former basketball standout at the University of Michigan. Any other career, Tillman says, won’t do for Todd and Yanni because he wants to give his family the best life he imagined for them.
“They told me to focus on basketball because they said that’s going to be the way to provide for your family,” Tillman said after an early February practice. “They said ‘You have to lock in on basketball and you have to make sure that you don’t waste any opportunities on the court and make sure that you don’t take days for granted. Because this is going to be your way to provide for your family.’”
The opportunity for Tillman to shine is as good as ever.
With junior starting forward Nick Ward’s season in question after he suffered a hairline fracture in his hand Feb. 17, Tillman is in position to demonstrate his ability to perform at a high level. As MSU’s leading bench scorer, he’ll absorb most of Ward’s minutes, filling a need for the Spartans as the postseason looms.
“This is his time to really step up,” senior forward Kenny Goins said. “Especially being how young he is, end of his sophomore year, this is a great time for him to make a name for himself.”
Tillman is tasked with replacing Ward as a scorer. Ward was MSU’s second-leading scorer at 15.1 points a game, compared to Tillman’s 8.3 off the bench. Tillman even scored 16 points and snagged 8 rebounds in his first and only start Feb. 5 against Illinois.
Coach Tom Izzo said Tillman hasn’t failed any tests since arriving at MSU.
“This kid has prepared himself the right way to be able to step in,” Izzo said. “He’s the one guy that I feel comfortable that he’s going to step in and do the things that he needs to do.
“He’s selfless, he cares about the team and the program, and I think he’s going to adjust just fine.”
Finding a balance
Long before MSU was on his radar, and long before he ever met his bride to be, Tillman was a natural-born athlete, according to his mother. Powell-May said Tillman played multiple sports growing up, keeping busy with football and basketball.
“He’s always been very outgoing, very sociable,” she said, wearing a warm smile after MSU’s win against Ohio State Feb. 17.
When Tillman recalled meeting Todd, he said he felt an instant connection. The two met through mutual friends and Tillman complimented some of her tattoos.
“Literally from that time, we just hit it off and we’ve been talking every day since,” he said.
When the two learned of Todd’s pregnancy during Tillman’s junior year of high school, Powell-May said their families knew the best route was to show support for them, while helping them learn to be adults.
Though her support of Tillman and Todd was always present, Powell-May said that didn’t mean there wasn’t hesitation as the young couple moved halfway across the state, enrolled in school and learned the demands of a high-level college basketball program.
“Being a student-athlete myself, I know the rigors and demands they have on student-athletes and the additional possible burden of a family. It was something that we all came to an agreement with right away that it wouldn’t be a distraction,” said Powell-May, a former second team All-Big Ten selection. “They would just help. He’s happiest when they’re with him and I was very comfortable because he’s pretty mature and Tamia is very mature.”
While Izzo was intially skeptical, any doubts he had were put to rest after watching Tillman handle himself up-close.
“This is one of those win-win-wins,” Izzo said. “There’s not many win-win-wins in the world. I said it before, I’ll say it again: Xavier has taught me a lot about how to handle tough situations more than I’ve taught him and I just love the kid for that.”
Tillman and Todd both admit the learning curve of parenting, travel and all of life’s challenges can at times be stressful – especially when Tamia juggles her babysitting job, class and other errands.
The Spartans frequently go on the road, and Tillman’s biggest fans are often unable to make the trip.
“She definitely struggles with it sometimes,” Todd said of Yanni after MSU’s recent win against the Buckeyes. “Because we stay at the hotel the night before a (home) game, so even like this morning, when she woke up and came in our room, she was like ‘Where’s Daddy?’ And I had to remind her that Daddy had to stay at the hotel.”
Whenever Tillman is home, he tries to be around as much as possible. Most days he’s able to either get Yanni ready for the day or take her to daycare.
He tries to fit in their regular evening activities – phones put away, dinner, an episode of TV and maybe even a board game.
Then there’s bedtime, before it’s lights out for the parents by 9:30, – that’s only if Yanni is tired, of course.
“She has a lot of personality coming in,” Todd said with a smirk. “She’s walking, she’s talking, running, sprinting, anything she can to always be moving. She’s learning to be very sassy, so she doesn’t always listen the best anymore.
“Every night before she goes to bed we always go over the alphabet, her numbers, colors and then she has two favorite books we read. (Tillman and I) read every other page, so we both read to her before she goes to bed. Then she always wants a hundred kisses and a hundred hugs from both of us, so she always goes back-and-forth, back-and-forth.”
A Spartan family
Tillman noted since he got to campus last season, most teammates and coaches have grown so fond of Yanni, they take turns coming over and babysitting. According to Todd, it started when last season’s captain, then-senior Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn liked Tillman, offering guidance whenever he could.
Even Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, both now NBA rookies, couldn’t get enough.
“We call all of them her uncles,” Todd said. “Jaren was the first one, she called him Uncle J.J.”
Tillman said now it’s easy to find a babysitter if he and Todd want to have a night to themselves. Teammates, coaches and other close friends love spending time with Yanni, which Tillman thinks eases the desire to feel like “regular college students.”
Of those on the current roster, junior point guard Cassius Winston has become the de facto sitter, recently boasting he taught Yanni how to sandwich two Oreo cookies together.
“I’m pretty sure if he had to pick somebody to babysit, it would be me,” Winston said. “She’s like the ideal child. I don’t even know how to explain it. I haven’t even seen her cry before, like, that’s crazy. She’s always happy, always in a good mood, always wants to play.”
When Winston was asked why he and others are so eager to help, he said it’s what teammates — brothers — are supposed to do.
“(Other teammates) can kick it until 1 in the morning or whatever, we can play video games, we can go out sometimes,” Winston said. “He can’t get in on that experience just because he’s got a family. He’s got a daughter to put to bed. He doesn’t get those opportunities, but he does a good job of being involved with us and with his family at the same time.”
That bond between teammates, coaches and the rest of the program doesn’t go unnoticed.
“He’s not doing it alone, they’re doing it together,” Powell-May said. “He hasn’t missed one milestone in Yanni’s life and that was important for him."