LAKELAND — It began, for me anyway, in a corridor outside a basketball court following a dominating performance by Tyler Bergantino.
He was 14 years old, weighed about 250 pounds, and quite honestly I had no idea what I was doing there covering an eighth-grade basketball game, even if young Bergantino was 8-feet tall and single-handedly held opponents scoreless and for fun would lift his Challenger Middle School teammates up to the rim so they could dunk on opponents.
Other than his age and weight, none of the rest was actually true — he was only 6-foot-6 — but that’s how my editor pitched it to me, anyhow.
But I met Bergantino that day, and was pleasantly surprised. He was a little shy, a lot humble and polite and kind and he laughed and smiled a lot. He let me hold his size 20 shoes, he told me to interview his good buddy John Parker, and we joked around.
So I was pleased to write that story, about a hulking young man who many thought was going to be the best basketball player Hernando County had ever seen.
Pleased to write this one, too.
Bergantino hasn’t changed much, though he now stands 6-foot-9. He scored 18, dominated the boards, intimidated in the paint and blocked nine shots Thursday in a state semifinal loss to Jacksonville Terry Parker.
Lots of kids come out of middle school as mini-legends. Bergantino was different, in that there was nothing mini about him.
He was larger than life, physically freakish, pointed at by others and jeered by opposing parents who didn’t like their kids being defended by this man-child. He had to carry his birth certificate on him, lest they not let him suit up.
He was expected to develop into a great basketball player and lead his team to championships, and he did.
“Every single night we relied on him,” said point guard Blake Lowman. “I don’t think me or anyone else on the team could have handled that pressure. It was a lot of pressure. Without Tyler, we’re what? An average basketball team?”
In four seasons, his teams won 101 games and lost only 20, played in three region championships and became just the second team in Hernando County history to make it to Lakeland.
“I don’t know if I did what they expected, but I hope I did what they wanted,” Bergantino said. “I hope I left my mark on Nature Coast and the students and hope I was the best I could have been for the guys.”
Bergantino had only one forgettable season, and that was due to some very public team and family drama, revolving around recruiting allegations that involved his father and his coach, which left him embarrassed and depressed.
He ballooned to 280 pounds at one point. He stopped working as hard on the court. He wanted to hide.
“I was a brick wall out there, just stomping around,” Bergantino said. “It was one of the worst things I encountered in my whole life. Man, you talk about stress. It’s like all my energy was put towards smiling.”
He came back strong his junior year. He rededicated himself to basketball, made a name for himself on the summer AAU circuit, returned to dunking and rebounding and blocking shots. He played himself back into shape — he currently weighs 235 pounds — and his team won 29 games.
Then he topped that this season.
He politely shook hands and smiled in that hallway at Challenger Middle School years ago, and he did the same Thursday, congratulating the winning players from Parker and hugging the coach.
He even had a pair of shoes, though this time I didn’t ask to hold them.
“Still a 20?” I asked.
“No, a 17. Isn’t that weird? I grew, but I think my feet shrunk,” he said, shrugging.
His baby fat is now muscle, his once-long locks are shorn and a blond scruff frames his jawline.
“Otherwise, I haven’t really changed. I’m still just a kid.”
He still geeks out for the Transformers, prefers popcorn and coke drunk from glass bottles and movie night with his friends to parties, and he is always up for a game of Monopoly.
For his birthday, Lowman bought him the perfect gift for the big kid — a Captain America mask.
But adulthood has officially has booked a flight for the University of Massachusetts, where he will play basketball next season.
“I’m just a dork,” he said. “I don’t want to grow up. It sucks. But I’m going to have to.”
He shakes my hand, thanks me for talking to him, and slings his athletic bag over his shoulder, the same way he did when he was 14.
And this is where it ends. For me, anyway.
In a corridor outside a basketball court following a dominating performance by Tyler Bergantino.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com.