California head coach Cuonzo Martin grew up in a housing project called "The Hole" in East St. Louis. Sandra Martin -- a single mother of four -- raised the future Purdue star and his three siblings while earning five college degrees, amidst rampant crime and poverty in one of the most troubled cities in the nation. Martin got out. He made something of himself.
Not far down that list of rough-and-tumble cities is Detroit. That's where 2017 wing Donnie Tillman was born. At the age of 13, his mother, Donna Holmes, suffered a grand maul seizure. It was the most severe outward sign of epilepsy. She couldn't work a regular job. It was a wake-up call for Holmes and her two sons -- Tillman and now-former Wayne State basketball player Clark Bishop, who's five years older than Tillman. Bishop took care of both his brother and his mother, until he went off to college.
Just a few years after that grand maul seizure, before Tillman's sophomore year of high school, Tillman and Holmes moved out to Nevada, where Tillman and his cousin Kitaka Holmes share care of Donna, while Tillman attends Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep.
Even before the Bears and Martin extended a scholarship offer to Tillman on Monday, the sons of East St. Louis and Detroit had compared notes.
"For about a week, me and coach [Tracy] Webster and coach Martin, we've been talking very day, sometimes two times a day, sometimes nonstop," Tillman said. "I really relate to these guys. They genuinely have my interest at heart, and I can really relate to them. We come from the same background. He overcame adversity, and I have, also. That's what life's about. Just keep working hard and keep pushing through."
Tillman missed all but five games this past season due to a knee injury -- a meniscus tear and cartilage damage -- but given what he'd gone through before, the recovery was a cake walk.
"I don't really know how it happened," Tillman said. "It was probably in practice -- practice is pretty intense. I thought my knee was just acting up, but I noticed before our sixth game of the season -- I was playing great, and I wanted to keep playing -- but I was warming up, and I noticed my knee was swollen. It was as big as a softball. It was huge."
He could barely walk, and could barely sit down. The only comfortable position was laying down on the floor. Coaches came over to Tillman and said simply, "You're done." That bump on the knee in practice was checked out, and diagnosed. After a second and third opinion, surgery was deemed not to be the best option, so he rested. Surgery would have required him to miss the entire AAU summer season with the Oakland Soldiers, as well as part of his senior year. Since he's been on the circuit, he's drawn rave reviews, and most importantly, he feels full strength. In fact, "It feels great," Tillman said.
"All I've been through, it made this easier to get through," Tillman said. "I've been through worse. I didn't expect to b out for the whole season, but I've been through worse."
That's what Martin loves so much about Tillman -- the tenacity, the gumption, the perseverance. It translates to the court, as well. At a rangy 6-foot-7, Tillman can make an impact on both ends of the floor, and can guard the two, three and four. He passes well out of the mid-post, and he's a scorer, too, who can create from multiple positions. One observer pegged his best NBA comparison -- at least in motor and broad skill set -- to Draymond Green.
It's a comparison that Tillman, himself, sees, too.
"I take things from Draymond Green, a lot, because he's position-less," Tillman said. "We both have high motors, and can defend multiple positions."
There's also a lot to love about Tillman from an academic perspective. He finished this year with a 3.3 GPA, with a cumulative GPA in the same vicinity, and sees the offer of a Cal education as more impactful to his future than just the opportunity to play basketball.
"Education is No. 1," he said, emphatically, when asked if the education and the basketball opportunities would be of equal value. "Education is No. 1, and that's what my mom has always preached. I want to take a visit, maybe, an unofficial. I'll be out in Cali in a minute, so maybe I can check things out, talk to them more. We're talking today, actually, me and Cuonzo, and that's the most important thing -- relationships, and what you can offer me, academically. Basketball will take care of itself."
By those standards, the Bears are going to be a tough offer to turn down, though recently, Duke and Kansas have shown interest, and Tillman has offers from Boston College, Cleveland State, Iowa State, Creighton, USC, UNLV, UTEP, Marquette, San Diego State, Dayton and Toledo.
"As long as I keep talking with them, going on unofficials, they're rebuilding, and they say they need a big class -- he said he needs dudes, and I could come in right now -- I like the idea that I could be that person," Tillman said. "I'm really happy about it. It's an opportunity, another door opening for me."