HAMMOND — Dean Tate is scheduled to begin his college basketball career Friday, and Purdue Northwest’s freshman guard has high expectations for himself and his team.
His standards are lofty, and his past warrants it.
In March, Tate led Warren Central to the IHSAA Class 4A state championship. He paced the Warriors in the final with 22 points — scoring 16 in the fourth quarter — and helped cap off a perfect 32-0 season. After the game, Tate was praised for his role in leading Warren Central to its first boys basketball state title. But after the initial excitement and buzz around his performance subsided, reality set in.
"My recruitment process was slow, but it was expected," Tate said. "It was scary for me at the moment because I didn't know where I was going to end up."
Tate averaged 9.5 points per game during the regular season and 16.1 points during the Warriors’ seven state playoff games — showing that when the lights were brightest he was at his best. But a few months afterward, his phone wasn’t ringing and the basketball offers weren’t there. He just needed one program to overlook his 5-foot-8 frame and give him an opportunity. Otherwise, he'd have to give up on his hoop dreams and focus on continuing his athletic career in football.
In his senior season, Tate was one of the Warriors' most versatile players on the gridiron. He racked up 873 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air, 188 rushing yards, 280 receiving yards and 100 return yards. After his standout campaign, Tate earned an Associated Press all-state honorable mention and also participated in the Indiana Football Coaches Association All-Star Game.
He reeled in nine catches for 102 receiving yards — proving he could play football at the next level — but Tate still hoped one basketball program would give him a shot. And on a chance encounter, he got it.
“We had won state already, and it was the month of June,” Tate said. “My high school had a summer league game, and I just happened to be there watching. And coach Noel (Larkins) came up to me when I was walking up the steps and said, ‘Are you Dean?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’”
Purdue Northwest’s assistant coach sparked up a conversation with Tate and encouraged him to come to an open gym at the university later that day. Tate said he wasn’t sure if he should go at first. But after he spoke to his mom, he cleared his schedule to make an appearance.
“My mom brought me some shoes to the open gym,” Tate said. “And then me and coach (Boomer Roberts) talked after the open gym. I played really well. And I think a week and a half or two weeks later, I came up for a visit and committed that day.”
Roberts said the open gym wasn’t an official event but more of a collection of players who simply wanted to have fun and compete. And when Tate took the floor, Roberts was impressed with his playmaking ability and leadership.
Tate didn’t let his size sway his confidence when facing current and former college players. He played with the same poise and swagger he’s had since he first picked up a basketball at 4 years of age. And although Tate wasn’t blessed with many of the physical attributes that most college basketball players have, Roberts believes he makes up for it with his intangibles.
Height, wingspan and standing reach aren’t teachable but neither is desire, passion and heart.
“The best thing I can say is Dean’s a gamer,” Roberts said. “He’s not afraid of the big moments. He’s a really good shooter. He’s got great feel for the game. His IQ is very high, and obviously he’s a winner.”
In some ways, Roberts said he and Tate’s backgrounds are parallel. Tate became the first athlete in Warren Central’s 94-year history to make the All-Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference team in football and basketball. And before taking over at Purdue Northwest, Roberts had his share of noteworthy accomplishments at his previous stop as well. As the head coach at Trinity International University, an NAIA program in Bannockburn, Illinois, Roberts orchestrated a seismic turnaround.
In 2013-14, the season before Roberts arrived, the Trojans went 5-25 and lost 15 of their last 17 games. But when the 2016-17 campaign came to a close, Trinity International posted a record of 30-6 and earned a share of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular season championship.
Roberts now finds himself in a similar rebuilding situation heading into his first season with the Pride. Purdue Northwest joined the Division II ranks last year and finished just 2-26, including a last place finish in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The Pride will have a chance to redeem themselves and prove they belong when the season begins Friday in a road game against Rockhurst.
“An area where Dean and I are really similar is I think we both thrive in underdog roles,” Roberts said. “I like being told, ‘This cannot be done.’ It’s a fun challenge for our staff and our team to go do it when people say it can’t be done. Purdue Northwest has not had a fantastic history of basketball. But we have an athletic director, a chancellor and a university that is really hungry to put this program and university on the map nationally.”
Roberts said his team recognizes where it was last season and how far it still has to go. He added that his incoming players and returning athletes have already come together to create realistic goals for the upcoming year, but he and Tate still wouldn’t shy away from their ultimate aim of winning a conference title.
An uphill battle isn’t new to Roberts or Tate. Five months ago, Tate didn’t know if he would even play college basketball. And five years ago Roberts didn’t know if he could turn Trinity International into a winning program.
They believed in themselves and used the doubt as motivation to keep moving forward.
“Where I come from, we face adversity probably every day,” Tate said. “It’s not a day that we don’t go through anything. So either you’re going to get through it or you’re going to back down. And I’m not a person that backs down. I just get better each and every day.”