People aren’t born already in love with Eastern Michigan University or the city of Ypsilanti.
Both are an acquired taste that comes from knowing their quirks and appreciating the struggle. Eastern students are used to being overlooked by those students from the University of Michigan, which sits just six miles away.
Ypsilanti is no different.
It is often referred to in jest as Ann Arbor’s affordable housing district, as it is a blue-collar town which, like any rust belt blue collar community, has had its share of troubles, tucked next to one of the highest cost of living college communities in the United States.
Outsiders love to point to Ypsi’s crime rate compared to the rest of Washtenaw County but they haven’t seen the sunset looking from Depot Town towards the iconic Ypsilanti water tower.
Ypsilanti is no longer used to the nicest things in life. Its charm is now built on history and grit. Eastern Michigan University is no different in that respect. Many of the students drive into campus from home, and their homes are located pretty much everywhere as the school boosts a diverse student body. Despite GameAbove’s efforts and the recent renovations on campus, EMU students aren’t used to the nicest things in the world.
Much too often, news outlets only want to talk about Eastern Michigan when something goes wrong.
A brief online search for Eastern Michigan University generally reveals some unsavory articles on sexual assaults, budgets, sports cuts, and racial turmoil. Except this week, when Emoni Bates announced that he is coming…no, staying home. ESPN, CBS Sports, Bleacher Report and many more covered the news and even tweeted photoshopped pictures of Bates in an Eastern uniform. For a school which has struggled with its branding, this coverage is invaluable.
Emoni Bates is an Ypsilanti native, he is Ypsi born and breed. When at the age of 15, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated he was still playing for his public school, Ypsilanti Lincoln. The cover read, “Born for this”, and it is likely that they didn't mean born to play for EMU. While playing at Lincoln, his games were often at the then Convocation Center, located on EMU’s West campus. His appearances drew large crowds, which forced school officials to remove the tarps from the upper-level seats.
He stayed at his public school when most top hoops prospects moved away for prep basketball factories, like Oak Hill Academy, IMG Academy or one of countless others. When he finally did make the move from public school to a prep academy his dad help founded “Ypsi Prep Academy”, keeping them within the area.
He originally committed to Michigan State as the number one national recruit in the 2022 class but then reclassified to the class of 2021 and flipped to Memphis to play for Penny Hardaway. Bates averaged 9.7 points and 3.3 rebounds as an 18 year-old playing division one basketball, when he should have still been playing as a Senior in high school.
If Eastern Michigan were to add a Power Five transfer with that stat line, they would have been excited already, but when that player is a local product who has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated? They’d have to be over the moon. He had 15 or more points in each of his first three games before the schedule got tougher and injuries sidelined him. It’s fair to wonder if the schedule will get that much tougher now that he is in the Mid-American Conference?
There is no downside to this deal for Eastern Michigan. It is an afternoon in June and you, like ESPN are caring about EMU basketball. It is almost assured to be a one-year deal, with the expectation being that Emoni Bates comes in and plays well. He instantly rises the stature of Eastern basketball, gets them a few more games off of ESPN+ and hopefully helps put them back into the NCAA tournament field for the first time since 1998, before turning pro.
That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that he turns out like Patrick Baldwin at Wisconsin-Milwaukee of the Horizon League. A five-star recruit, he committed to play for his dad and the Panthers. However, injuries and uneven performances marred his time in college before ending his season due to “undisclosed reasons”. His dad was fired after the season and he became a late first-round selection of the Golden State Warriors.
MAC fans will also remember Trey Ziegler, who played at Central Michigan under his dad Ernie. The consensus top-30 recruit spent two largely successful seasons in Mt. Pleasant, average 16.4 and 15.3 points before transferring to Pitt, following his father’s firing. Central didn’t finish better than third in the MAC West with Trey Ziegler so there's no guarantee that Bates talents will lead to a victory parade past the brick water tower.
Short of a run deep into the NCAA tournament, it will be hard to see Emoni Bates ranking among the Eastern greats. He won’t be here long enough to make the impact of an Earl Boykins, a Brandon Bowdry, or even a James Thompson IV but he doesn’t have to be.
He’s his own player with his own past and future, a future which EMU is glad to be a part of. Every night Eastern should have the best player on the court. There will be no sneaking up on anyone in the MAC and the days of a sleepy, Saturday afternoon game in places like Muncie have ended for the Eagles.
The naysayers will come.
They will come from East Lansing and say that Emoni Bates wouldn’t have cut it at Michigan State. They will come from Memphis, and say that Emoni Bates had no other choice from other Schools. They will come from the AAU circuit and question his dad’s influence. They will come from Twitter and speculate that Emoni Bates won’t last the whole season. They will run articles saying that his transfer to EMU shows how far he has fallen. They won’t bother the Ypsi locals and they won’t bother the Eastern community, we have heard it all before.
For now, we have that shiny, exciting new piece. Emoni Bates is a renovated Sill Hall but in human form and he has picked Eastern Michigan. At a time where enrollment drops, someone one has picked to stay in Ypsilanti. Emoni Bates loves Ypsilanti, the way that an Eastern grad student loves The Bomber Restaurant on a morning after a night of too many beverages the night before. We can only hope that he will have half as much love for EMU as he does for Ypsilanti but with that love of Ypsilanti, he is going to fit right in.
No one knows how this will end, but for that one day in June, Ypsilanti was the most talked about college basketball city and that is pretty cool. It is nice to have this moment in the sun for a community which doesn’t get that many. It might only be for a few days in June but the hope is that this feeling will carry well into March for the Eastern community.