Roberto Gittens and his mother moved to Tacoma from Long Island, New York, when he was in the fifth grade, then back to New York and back to Tacoma.
It was an adjustment period — his mom working multiple jobs and Gittens was trying to find his way in a new time zone, with new friends and new surroundings.
“What — you can’t dunk?”
“You suck. You should quit basketball.”
Gittens remembers vividly his motivation — some eighth-graders at Stewart Middle School harassing and taunting him, a sixth-grader who’d just moved in.
“I went home and told my mom that I’m never going to play basketball again,” Gittens said. “They were telling me I sucked.
“She had a long talk with me and ever since then I’ve had a chip on my shoulder. That’s where all the anger comes from. She was like, ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you who you are. You have to prove them wrong.’ ”
Foss High School basketball coach Mike Cocke’ is the first to emphasize just how far Gittens has come — from that “hothead” of a player his first two years to a can’t-miss standout for the top-ranked Falcons, who travel to Yakima for the state tournament this week.
Now he’s The News Tribune’s 2016-17 All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year — and has no problem dunking on anyone, anytime.
He’s dunked 79 times this season. And none have been cheap.
He came in as a physical specimen. People come to games now and they’re expecting some sort of crazy dunk.
Foss boys basketball coach Mike Cocke’
When Gittens dunks, the gym wakes up. It’s as if he’s trying to rip the rim off the backboard.
His favorite was a windmill dunk last year against Mount Tahoma. He beat UW’s Markelle Fultz in a dunk contest at the prestigious Les Schwab Invitational last year when Fultz was a senior at DeMatha Catholic.
“He’s always been a high-level dunker,” Cocke’ said. “He came in as a physical specimen. People come to games now and they’re expecting some sort of crazy dunk.”
Cocke’ put Gittens next to Foss graduate Ar’Mond Davis, who now plays at Alabama, as the two best dunkers he’s seen.
Lincoln coach Aubrey Shelton thought of Abes grads Tre’Shaun Fletcher and Josiah Barsh among some of his best high school dunkers. The best dunks he could recall were when Mount Tahoma grad Rondie Pate threw one down against Lincoln, or when Bremerton grad Marvin Williams stopped the game with a dunk against Foss.
He asked a couple of his players for their thoughts. Both said “Berto.”
Federal Way coach Jerome Collins thought of some of his former players — Michael Dickerson (the Federal Way grad turned Houston Rockets first-round pick), Jaleel Williams and Jalen McDaniels.
Wilson coach Dave Alwert? He first recalled of former Garfield player LeNard Williams and Rainier Beach graduate Nate Robinson as some elite leapers. But in the Tacoma area, Lincoln graduate Justin Holt and Gittens came to mind.
“I would put Berto right up there,” Alwert said. “He’s got power that goes with everything. And he can go off one or two feet.”
But Gittens, a 6-foot-5 Boise State commit, said he used to get made fun of for his lack of leap.
“People would be like, ‘What? You can’t dunk?’ ” Gittens said. “So my seventh-grade year all I did was work out.
“I would wear ankle weights everywhere and my dad would say, ‘It’s not good on your knees.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t care. I want to dunk.’ ”
A lot of the things he does in high school I wish I had the ability to do. He’s not the player I was. I was quiet and would have a nice dunk and show no emotion. I wish I would have been more like his personality in terms of showing that emotion, because it shows he enjoys the game. Some people questioned my aggressiveness and no one questions his. He’s more of a free spirit who allows himself to enjoy the game.
Roberto Gittens Sr., father of Roberto Gittens Jr.
Roberto Gittens Sr. was a highlight-reel dunker, too, playing at Hofstra University for then-coach Jay Wright (who is now the coach of defending national champion Villanova). Hofstra lost to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2001, with Gittens Sr. scoring seven points with eight rebounds. Gittens Jr. remembers being held as a child in Wright’s arms.
Gittens Sr. currently lives in Maryland and has traveled to see his son play about once or twice a year.
“That’s one of the things I was known for, was dunking,” said the 6-foot-6 Gittens Sr. “But he does it with a lot more style than I did.”
They were very different players.
Gittens Sr. was a powerful post with an even-keeled temperament. Gittens Jr. plays every position (point guard, too) and plays with his emotions on his sleeves.
“A lot of the things he does in high school I wish I had the ability to do,” Gittens Sr. said. “He’s not the player I was. I was quiet and would have a nice dunk and show no emotion. I wish I would have been more like his personality in terms of showing that emotion, because it shows he enjoys the game. Some people questioned my aggressiveness and no one questions his. He’s more of a free spirit who allows himself to enjoy the game.”
But it took Gittens Jr. a few years to learn channel that aggressiveness.
He and Cocke’ share an obvious bond. They are so similar — both fierce, fiery competitors. Cocke’ said he considers Gittens his son. Gittens will babysit Cocke’s two younger children, Mae and Carter, who frequently flock to Gittens after practices and games.
But this is a far more mentally mature Gittens than the one who was a freshman and sophomore. Cocke’ said he had to kick Gittens off the team at least three times his freshman year.
“I always felt people were after me,” Gittens said. “Like when refs would give bad calls, I would just snap.
“I used to be a hothead. That was my rap around Tacoma. ‘He can’t be coached. He’s a hothead. He’s always getting teased.’ But you can’t just let it out all over the place. Now I try to channel it in a different way.”
People want to label him because he’s a Foss kid and he plays with all this emotion. He’s a great kid on and off the floor. He’s so awesome. I think everybody wants a player that has his temperament and is mad at the world when he plays. But it’s been about channeling it. That’s the difference between the great ones and the ones that never figure it out. And I think he’s figured it out.
Foss boys basketball coach Mike Cocke’
A senior-heavy group two seasons ago — which included Cocke’s oldest son, Michel — was instrumental in reeling Gittens in and holding him accountable.
“He fought it and fought it for a while,” Cocke said. “But by his junior year he turned a corner. The lights came on and he stopped challenging me. It was like every time I yelled at him or talked to him about a certain situation, he completely trusted me. He believes I have the best intentions for him.”
Gittens still stomps his feet and beats his chest after a rim-rocking dunk. But that’s who Gittens is. He’s looking for the poster moment — whatever he can use to add gasoline to his inner fire.
“Cocke’ said he wasn’t going to take my attitude and emotions away from me because that’s what drives me as a player,” Gittens said.
And Gittens is so much more of a complete player. Not only on the court with his ability to play any position, his precision passing and improved shooting and ball handing, but also off it in his mental maturity.
“His leadership — that’s where he’s improved the most,” Foss assistant coach Chris Hyppa said.
“We talk about his character — how good of a person he is. How he’s matured as a person,” Cocke’ said.
“People want to label him because he’s a Foss kid and he plays with all this emotion. He’s a great kid on and off the floor. He’s so awesome. I think everybody wants a player that has his temperament and is mad at the world when he plays. But it’s been about channeling it. That’s the difference between the great ones and the ones that never figure it out. And I think he’s figured it out.”
Now he’s hoping he can bring Tacoma its first boys basketball championship since Lincoln won in 2002. Foss last won in 2000. Ten Tacoma schools qualified for the state tournament this year.
“It would mean a lot,” Gittens said. “All the state championships go to Seattle. People are going to be like, ‘It’s 2A, it doesn’t mean anything.’ It will mean a lot to me.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
TNT ALL-AREA BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
A look back at some of the past few TNT players of the year
2016-17: Roberto Gittens, Foss
2015-16: Malachi Flynn, Bellarmine Prep
2014-15: Viont’e Daniels, Federal Way
2013-14: Bogdan Bliznyuk, Todd Beamer
2012-13: Dezmyn Trent, Foss
2011-12: Ahmaad Rorie, Clover Park
2010-11: Gary Bell Jr., Kentridge
2009-10: Cole Dickerson, Federal Way
2008-09: Abdul Gaddy, Bellarmine Prep
2007-08: Abdul Gaddy, Bellarmine Prep
2006-07: Terrell Smith, Federal Way
2005-06: Isaiah Thomas, Curtis
2004-05: Brandon Moore, Bethel
2003-04: Rodney Stuckey, Kentwood
2002-03: Joey Henley, Kentridge
2001-02: Justin Holt, Lincoln
2000-01: Corey Belser, Bethel
1999-00: Curtis Allen, Wilson