Former MSU hoops player overcomes autism, bullying

Speaking tour stops at Anderson Middle School

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published October 30, 2013

 Former Michigan State University basketball player Anthony Ianni speaks to students Oct. 23 at Anderson Middle School in Berkley.

Former Michigan State University basketball player Anthony Ianni speaks to students Oct. 23 at Anderson Middle School in Berkley.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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BERKLEY — Anthony Ianni wasn’t supposed to be a Division I college basketball player on arguably one of the best programs in the country.

In fact, Ianni wasn’t even supposed to be enrolled in college at all.

At the age of 5, doctors diagnosed Ianni with high-functioning autism and told his parents he would likely graduate high school, but his brightest future after was to be placed in a group home with others with disabilities.

When Ianni was told this as a freshman at Okemos High School, right away, his mindset was to prove anyone who doubted him wrong. He graduated high school on time, he earned a full-ride scholarship for basketball to Grand Valley State University and then, as a senior, a full-ride scholarship for basketball to Michigan State University.

On May 5, 2012, Ianni graduated with a college degree from Michigan State. Now, his goal is to make sure others with autism know they can live any life they want, despite the diagnosis.

Ianni spent an hour Oct. 23 talking with roughly 600 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Anderson Middle School in Berkley as part of his Relentless Tour. He started the presentation telling the students a story of an autistic boy who overcame adversity.

“I had a friend at age 5, doctors told his parents they came to the conclusion he would barely graduate high school and would never go to college and would never be an athlete,” Ianni said. “He had autism, a brain disorder you are born with, but my friend overcame a lot. He had the motivation to prove wrong the naysayers.”

Once Ianni admitted his friend was, in fact, him, he went on to tell the students at Anderson about the successes he has enjoyed in life, despite the challenges he faced.

Ianni didn’t play a ton of minutes for the Spartans in his time there, but he was the captain of the scout team to help the starters get a look at what opposing teams would bring at them in upcoming games. As a lifelong MSU and basketball fan, Ianni knew he was helping the team more than others thought.

Besides trying to prove others wrong, Ianni said, for him, what really helped him push forward was a quote from his father.

“My father passed this quote down to me and he always said, ‘The harder you work, the more you earn,’” Ianni said. “That helped me graduate high school on time and get two full-ride scholarships, and helped me graduate from MSU. I proved what hard work can get you in life. A Big Ten championship ring is never just given to you. A degree is never given to you; it is earned.”

Another of the key reasons Ianni wanted to visit 659 schools around Michigan in a year was to talk about bullying. Growing up with autism, Ianni said he took things quite literally as a child and didn’t understand idioms or sarcasm, rather looking at things in black and white.

As a first-grader, a fifth-grader tricked Ianni into putting his tongue on a frozen metal pole, getting his tongue stuck in the process. Ianni said he thought the boy was his friend, and the fifth-grader took advantage of him.

In sixth grade, one student called Ianni the Jolly Green Giant, but after weeks of teasing, Ianni scored 20 points on the boy in basketball. Similarly, Ianni later in life got to face the fifth-grader who tricked him.

“When that kid tricked me, the teachers didn’t know and the principal didn’t know, because I didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “About 15 years later, I was walking out of the Breslin Center and that same kid from recess was now standing there with a ball and a Sharpie and was so excited to see me. I put on my happy face, and he asked me to sign the ball for his brother, but I remembered he didn’t have a brother.

“Now, 15 years later, he wanted my autograph. I got the best of the bully.”

At Anderson, several students are part of a group called No Place For Hate to crack down on bullying. Autum Hauser, an eighth-grade member, said it was great listening to Ianni’s stories of overcoming.

“It really took to me that everyone is bullied and that he was bullied and everyone told him he couldn’t; it is inspiring,” Hauser said. “I have seen a friend get bullied because she got held back, and this one kid always bullied her and called her a bunch of names and cussed at her, and I had to go to the office with her because she was crying. I don’t want anyone to be bullied.”

Another eighth-grade member, Natalia Tovarez, could relate with Ianni. Just a few weeks ago, Tovarez had to endure bullying during a soccer match.

“We were winning by four, and everyone was calling me crappy names; parents, coaches and even the ref was calling me names,” Tovarez said. “I pushed through it and played my best, and we ended up winning. I didn’t want them to be mad at me, but I proved them wrong by doing what I could do.”

For any student who suffers with autism or from bullying, Ianni wanted everyone to know overcoming obstacles is not impossible.

“I overcame a lot in my life and faced challenges bigger than school, and it helped me become who I am today,” he said. “I would wake up every day with the mindset of who doubted me today. If they said I couldn’t score 20 points, I would get 25 points.

“I was not a straight-A student and I struggled a lot, but I worked hard at everything and had a ton of support.”

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