Phil Pressey was scared.
Yes, the Southeastern Conference preseason player of the year, the star point guard and the captain of the No. 15 Missouri men’s basketball team, was scared.
He was a diminutive, angular seventh grader with long braids strolling onto the floor of Suffolk University’s gym in Boston, Mom by his side. For Boston's top AAU team, the Boston Amateur Basketball Club, practice was about to start. Today, Pressey would join in.
But there was no way he could play, right? For the BABC, the alma mater of 19 NBA players? Not a chance. A seventh-grade kid on the eighth-grade squad? He was too small, too weak. Maybe next year. But now? No way.
“I saw this skinny kid with braids, and he had his mother with him,” said Alex Oriakhi, then the starting center for the BABC, now MU’s prized transfer from Connecticut. “And I was just like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I almost didn’t think he could play.”
BABC coach Leo Papile, then vice president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, invited Pressey to practice after talking to his father, Paul, an assistant with the Celtics.
“He was always hanging around the gym,” Papile recalls. “He was like a NASCAR, always running around.”
Pressey ducked his way through defenders and badgered ball-handlers all practice. He found Oriakhi in transition for some layups.
The kid could play.
“I was kinda scared,” Pressey said, his eyes widening. “That team was one of the top teams in Boston, and I was just kind of happy to be a part of it. It took me a long way.”
Oriakhi joined the BABC in 2005, just weeks before Pressey. Even as a middle school student from Lowell, Mass., 25 miles north of Boston, Oriakhi had size, a wide body with big feet.
“You could see he was gonna grow,” Papile said.
Still only a fraction of his current 6-foot-9-inch stature, he played the same role on the club he had on a basketball court all his life. He was the big-boned defensive enforcer.
Papile compared him to Ben Wallace, the former NBA star, snatching rebounds out of the air, finishing with contact in the paint, knocking bodies with opponents, anchoring the BABC defense.
“I think Phil’s the type of point guard that I need because he makes the game easy because the game’s already hard enough,” Oriakhi said.
He was an easy guy to like: disciplined and kind, well-spoken. He had a good head on his shoulders. He didn’t keep distractions in his life.
Oriakhi was the ideal teammate for the close-knit BABC, which Papile compares to a college program. The team might graduate five or six players a year and rely on squads at different age levels to perpetuate the program.
Teams play 100 games a year, he said, more than an NBA schedule. Papile keeps the boys together the night before tournaments to eliminate distractions. That could mean sleeping on the floor, on a couch or in a hotel room.
“It’s a lot of fun because of the relationships you have with the families,” he said. “They become lifelong friends.”
Pressey joined the team weeks after Oriakhi — midseason pickups are not unusual on the AAU circuit — and quickly cracked Papile’s seven-man rotation.
From 2005 to 2008 that lineup included Oriakhi, Darryl Bishop (now playing football at North Carolina State), Gerard Coleman (playing basketball at Gonzaga), Malik Smith (Florida International), Ron Giplaye (East Tennessee State) and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (Hofstra).
By the middle of the year, Pressey was the BABC’s starting point guard. His ball handling was superb. He orchestrated Papile’s offense, a 1-4 set with mostly ambling forwards screening and cutting, with ease. On defense, he checked the opponent’s playmaker, wedging his flexible frame between man and ball and starting the club on the break.
“To play for us, on offense, you need a point guard who’s a wishbone quarterback, who can just hold the ball,” Papile said. “On defense, Phil was very good at making decisions when we got steals in transition.”
As Pressey started the fast-break game, Oriakhi learned to run the floor. His hands got better. He started looking for the ball. Pressey kept finding him.
The BABC went from contender to powerhouse.
With Pressey and Oriakhi leading the way, that power came to the forefront in 2006. The club won AAU’s national championship, then the Orlando Super Showcase, AAU’s holy grail of tournaments.
Papile’s core seven had played nearly 200 games together since the time Pressey joined the club and were, for all intents and purposes, a band of brothers.
“We all really grew up together,” Oriakhi said. “The chemistry has always been there. Those guys, we’re like brothers. A lot of us still talk to this day.”
Yet from that championship on, no two were closer than Pressey and Oriakhi. As Pressey’s family moved when his dad took jobs with different NBA franchises, Pressey stayed with the Oriakhi family over the summer so he could play in Boston.
“To play for us, on offense, you need a point guard who’s a wishbone quarterback, who can just hold the ball,” Papile said.
But the chemistry of the unit as a whole was tested some eight months after being anointed AAU’s champions. The No. 1 seed in the 2007 Boo Williams Invitational in Hampton, Va., the BABC dropped its first-round game and struggled to make it out of pool play.
Forget the tournament, Papile said. He worried his team would implode after the loss. Here they were, the top-ranked squad in the nation, the reigning champions, upset in the first round of an early-season tournament.
“The guys came out angry and with a purpose (the next game),” he said. “They all bonded and we won the tournament Sunday. That was a turning point because people committed when they could have folded, and we made a hell of a run.”
Pressey and Oriakhi agree the loss was a wakeup call. The BABC was not untouchable, but their bond, their brotherhood, was.
“We’ve been through a lot of things together,” Pressey said. “We’ve slept on the same floor together. We know each other. We’ve just been playing with each other and living with each other for so long, our communication on and off the court is like no other.”
By 2008, Paul Pressey took a job with the New Orleans Hornets and the family moved to Dallas. Papile’s point guard left Boston. A bird flew the nest.
Pressey stayed close with Oriakhi, Papile and the rest of the seven, even current Missouri freshman Dominique Bull, then a budding star in a new crop of BABC guards.
By 2010, Pressey and Oriakhi’s teammates were all in college. Pressey joined his older brother, Matt, at Missouri. Oriakhi went off to UConn. Still a time zone away, the team, especially Pressey and Oriakhi, kept in touch.
Then, when UConn was handed a postseason ban for academic violations, Oriakhi, who won a national championship with the Huskies in 2011, wanted a new place to play. He thought of his brother in Columbia.
The two talked often about the transfer to MU. Late-night phone calls lasting up to an hour and a half were not uncommon, Oriakhi said.
“We talked about how we wanted to do big things,” Oriakhi said. “He was talking about how he needed me. I think Phil’s the type of point guard that I need because he makes the game easy because the game’s already hard enough.”
MU came off a disappointing end to the season in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The team had just two players listed over 6 feet, 9 inches. A true inside presence was needed. There would be a lack of experience heading into the new season, just two returning players.
To Oriakhi, Missouri fit like a glove, but so did reigning national champion Kentucky and regular dynamos Duke, North Carolina and Xavier, who were also courting the transfer.
The big man readily admits Pressey was one of the main reasons he chose MU. He stayed with him on his official campus visit in May. The same way Oriakhi took to welcoming “the skinny kid with braids” in 2005, Pressey was there to welcome his friend to Columbia.
“I could use Phil as a resource if I had any questions about the coach or the school,” Oriakhi said. “And I know he wouldn’t lie to me because he’s a good friend of mine and he was the ultimate source I could use. … Phil’s like a little brother to me.”
As it happens, their colors were black and gold when they played in Boston.
Papile remembers what he told his assistants in 2005:
“They’re perfect for each other.”
For more from coach Leo Papile on the growth of Phil Pressey and Alex Oriakhi, see our extra