MEMPHIS -- As a proud mother and basketball fan, Angie Hollins made a point to scan high school boxscores in her newspaper every morning. One name kept catching her attention.
A. Hollins, Memphis White Station.
“I’m like, who is this?” she wondered.
Hollins found it randomly intriguing because that’s also her son’s first initial and last name, except Austin played at a rival high school. Maybe, Angie thought, she should introduce herself to the other Hollins’ parents when the two teams played. The parents sat on opposite sides of the court. Their sons — Austin, then a sophomore, and Andre, a freshman — wore the same jersey number (No. 20) and even guarded each other a few times.
Afterward, Angie approached Donna and Andrew Hollins as they walked toward the exit.
“We were just like, ‘Who are you?’ ” Donna said, and they laughed and shared their family histories.
The families had no way of knowing their initial encounter years ago would blossom into a friendship that continues today, their lives intertwined by a hometown, a last name and a mutual path shared by their sons.
Andre and Austin are starting guards on a Gophers team that enters the Big Ten tournament this week desperate for a fresh start after their once-promising season unraveled, from a 15-1 record and a No. 8 national ranking to 20-11 and a No. 9 seed in the conference tournament. The Gophers’ overall résumé still should earn them a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010, but their erratic performance the past two months inspires little confidence entering the postseason.
“That was a tough time,” Andre said, “but I think it made us stronger.”
The Gophers sure hope that’s the case and that the Hollins tandem can regain their shooting touch. Andre leads the team in scoring (13.9 points per game) and Austin is the team’s best defender, but their offensive struggles have contributed to the team’s unpredictable nature.
“Our play definitely affects how the team goes,” said Andre.
In many ways, it’s fitting the Gophers’ tournament hopes hinge largely on the Hollins’ production and leadership. Their lives off the court share enough commonalities that their parents actually explored their family trees to determine if there is a relation. They didn’t find a connection, but that hasn’t stopped their sons from pretending to be brothers, or “little bro,” as Austin often refers to Andre. It’s become a running joke between them and a standard disclaimer for TV announcers calling their games.
No, they’re not related — Austin is the youngest of four children; Andre is an only child — but as the families grew closer, they discovered subtle quirks that, when viewed in totality, make them wonder if they don’t share some cosmic connection. Andre’s father was born on Oct. 18; Austin’s father, Lionel, has an Oct. 19 birthday.
The sons plan a special day with their mothers every summer. They took their moms to brunch and to see a movie last summer. Angie and Donna arrived wearing almost identical outfits. At lunch, Donna’s phone rang. She had the same jazz song as her ringtone that Angie has programmed into her phone. The moms call each other “sis” in text messages and conversations.
Ask them separately about their son’s early years and their answers are eerily similar.
“Always my happy child,” Angie said. “He would wake up with a smile on his face.”
Said Donna: “When Andre would wake up in the mornings, every morning he had a smile on his face. Without fail, he would raise up and have that smile on his face.”
Basketball is their bond, but the pair also understand the importance of education and finding balance in life. Andre carries a 3.0 grade-point average in the Carlson School of Management and was accepted to Harvard and Stanford. Austin majors in business and marketing education, plays the piano by ear and began writing poetry in high school. He wrote one poem entitled “A Feeling of Failure” during a difficult time. He can’t remember the circumstance, but one section of the poem seems applicable now as he tries to distance himself from a rough stretch on the court.
When the sky tumbles upon us there is no need to hide;
Everyone has a drive that comes from inside.
Within each person is a fire so strong
That even by our last thread we have the strength to hold on.
A passion to be better and the faith to believe;
A willingness to move on and the spirit to achieve.
Relentless hard work
Every inch of a large trophy case in Andre’s living room is filled with accolades from a prep career that included one state championship, four appearances in the state tournament and a Tennessee Mr. Basketball Award. He joined a distinguished list of Memphis hoops legends who also won that top individual honor, including Penny Hardaway and Todd Day.
The glass case contains countless trophies borne of thousands of individual plays that Andrew Hollins remembers in photographic detail. He can recall a jump shot in the second quarter of a tournament game from Andre’s sophomore season.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Donna said.
Andrew knows his son’s game better than anyone. He coached middle school basketball while working as a teacher and administrator, and he always brought his son. He was big kid back then, so chubby and tall that everyone called him “Andre the Giant.”
Andrew had access to area gyms so he put Andre through rigorous 6 a.m. workouts before he taught summer school classes. He drilled him on dribbling and shooting and footwork fundamentals. Even now, Andrew often oversees his son’s workouts when he returns home in the summer.
“We work on flaws in his game,” Andrew said.
Case in point: Andrew detected a slight flaw in Andre’s shooting mechanics last season — “He was shooting it a little too soon,” he said — so they worked to correct that. Andrew records every Gophers game and replays it several times. He also videotaped all of his son’s high school games, which they reviewed together.
“Andrew has taught him well,” Donna said.
Lionel Hollins taught his son the game, too, though he purposely avoided steering him in that direction to remove any undue pressure that might exist because of his own basketball résumé. Lionel played collegiately at Arizona State and was selected sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1975 NBA draft. In 10 seasons, he won one championship in 1976-77, played in an All-Star Game the following year and was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive team twice. He entered the coaching profession after retirement and is in his third stint as head coach of the NBA’s Grizzlies.
“I wanted my kids to have their own passion for it,” he said. “I wanted them to find what they enjoyed doing.”
Austin found it in basketball and other sports, but he never worried about any comparisons or assumptions that inherently accompany legacy situations.
“There was never really any pressure from that aspect,” he said. “I never tried to measure my game against his game. I’ve just tried to pave my own way.”
He developed his game on sweat equity. As a kid, he stayed in the gym shooting until his dad made him leave. In high school, he organized pickup games at gyms around the Memphis area. Gophers coach Tubby Smith described Austin as the team’s “hardest worker by far” and said his junior guard has not allowed a shooting slump to affect his work ethic.
As he blossomed into a Division I recruit, Austin could hear his father’s pet phrase reverberating in his mind: Are you a good player? Lionel asked him that all the time. Good players, he’d say, don’t just score and rebound and then check their stat line after the game. Good players do little things, too.
“You’ve got to make a difference when you’re on the floor and help your team out whatever way you can,” Austin said. “Whether it’s defense, diving on the floor for a loose ball, blocking shots. Whatever it takes.”
That competitive spirit was ever-present in a house full of athletes, whether the family played back yard basketball or engaged in a heated game of Monopoly. Once, Lionel took out a $100 bill and offered to give it to his daughter if she beat Austin in a game of one-on-one. Austin blocked her first shot so hard the ball flew over a fence in the yard.
“She quit,” Austin said. “That was it after that.”
Hollins meets Hollins
Their homes are separated by 17 miles in the Memphis area. Andre grew up there, Austin moved from Arizona in sixth grade. They didn’t know each other personally in high school, but they knew of each other. That’s because everyone knows everyone in Memphis basketball circles.
“In Memphis, people go around to the different gyms and they watch everyone,” Austin said.
The city has long been recognized as a recruiting hotbed. High school games are tough and competitive. Three Memphis teams were ranked in the Top 50 nationally in Austin’s senior year.
“The games were insane that year,” Andre said.
They played in the same conference until their final season, competing against one another. Their teams had some memorable clashes, from which a mutual respect emerged. Andre still marvels at the lob play Austin converted every game, even though everyone in the gym knew it was coming.
“He would have these crazy layups, like a backhanded flip, and he made them all the time,” Andre said. “His senior year, he caught two lobs on us. One he caught off the backboard.”
Austin later became a sounding board for Andre as he mulled his college options. The two talked and texted frequently as Andre sought information about the Gophers program, the campus and life in a northern city.
“Just having that connection really made me feel comfortable,” Andre said.
The Gophers’ postseason fate now rests largely on that connection. Guard play is paramount at tournament time, and the Gophers need the Hollins tandem to provide a spark that makes their team successful again.
Andre ranked sixth in the Big Ten in scoring (14.6 points per game) in conference games and remains the team’s most important player. He bears the heaviest responsibility as both ballhandler and leading scorer. Austin’s strength is in his versatility, but his shooting slump caused his entire game to suffer. He made only 30.6 percent from three-point range in Big Ten games and seemed to lose confidence in his shot in recent games.
They get a fresh start this week, though. The whole team does. The Gophers’ 15-1 start and top-10 ranking were undone by a maddening collapse that altered the outlook for this postseason.
“This is a new life for us,” Austin said.
It’s up to them what they do with it.