CHAMPAIGN – The basketball player booms through the front door of the YMCA, all smiles and sneakers and sound.
The first sign you're dealing with a baller: the black Jordans, vintage and crispy, just as cool as they were 20 years ago. She's also rocking the requisite baggy shorts.
Her son arrives a second later. It might be the farthest they've been apart since he left their house for Centennial High School that morning. He's the mellower side of this package deal.
"He won't play me because he knows I'll win," Rhonda hollers. "I beat him when we were up at Drake. Tell him about that, Rayvonte!"
Heads swivel around the gym. It's like a tornado has blown in. And with this storm, you can hear it coming. Rhonda's is a voice that carries from west Champaign to Rantoul.
"She's always been that way. When she was in school, if you walked down the hall," says Lee Turek, who once coached her on the girls' basketball team at Elgin High School, "You always knew when Rhonda Rice was in the hallway."
Across the court, Rayvonte Rice – Rhonda's son, if you couldn't tell – shoots a jumper, exposing a tattoo that's worth a closer look. When the left arm is dangling at his side, the tattoo reads "Ray Rice." Raise the arm and you get the other half of this equation.
"When he shoots, (the tattoo) goes upside down," Rhonda says, "And it says my name."
It should be in all caps. She SPEAKS in all caps. She LIVES in all caps. She LOVES her son in all caps.
This is a story about Centennial star Rayvonte Rice, the leading scorer in Champaign-Urbana boys' basketball history and the 2010 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year.
Or is it?
Like the reversible tattoo on his biceps, Ray comes with Rhonda. It's an association as permanent as the ink on his arm. One is not exclusive to the other. You get Rayvonte; you get Rhonda. If he won the award, well, you better believe she won the award.
She's the one (not him) that had a Facebook page created in her name ("Rhonda Rice: Biggest Fan in Centennial History"). She's the one with the stacks of T-shirts that tell the world about her son ("Mama's Boy" and "Mom, No. 24" and "Mr. Basketball.") She's the one that didn't miss a game in Rayvonte's four seasons at Centennial.
It's the ultimate package deal.
"I wouldn't be surprised if she moves to Des Moines when he goes to school (at Drake University)," says Sonny Walker, a Centennial assistant and longtime family friend.
"He's (Rayvonte) already told me if he sees me walking across campus with a book bag, he's going to transfer," Rhonda says with a laugh.
It's not hard to envision Rhonda following Rayvonte when he leaves for summer school at Drake in early June. It's harder to imagine them apart.
* * *
Before Rhonda gave birth to Rayvonte De'Tra Rice, she was an award-winning athlete of her own. She excelled in hoops, softball and volleyball – "Anything they would let me do," she says – and earned all-area honors on the basketball court.
"Rhonda played for me. What a story," says Turek, the former Elgin coach now retired in Florida. "What you see now, that's what she was then. She was a loud, fun person to have on the team. Was she a leader? You know, when you're coaching, you couldn't give her too much rein. You had to hold onto her.
"I always brought her off the bench. I remember when I put her in the game, there was smoke coming out of her ears because she had so much energy. And I'll tell you what: She could jump to the moon. She could really jump."
"She wasn't a guard, wasn't a forward. She was kind of in between," Turek says. "Kind of like the kid (Rayvonte), by the sounds of it."
Rhonda pegged her son as a star at age 2. "Because his hands were huge," she says. Born at 9 pounds, 12 ounces, Rayvonte was usually bigger than his peers, and Rhonda would ask doctors if the rest of his body would catch up with his oversized mitts. It did.
In his senior season, as a 235-pound guard/forward, Rayvonte averaged 23.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 2.9 steals for the Chargers (31-3). He set the school's single-season records for points (814). He set the career records in scoring (1,810 points) and field goals made (710) and attempted (388) and ranks second in scoring average (18.9), rebounds (678), free throws made (272) and attempted (388).
"He has that smile that can light up a room," says Tim Lavin, the ninth-year coach at Centennial. "I've been fortunate to have kids that come to practice and play hard. I haven't had many problems the last four years."
And in Lavin's three years coaching Rayvonte, he says, there were no major disciplinary issues, and that matters. The coach benched his best player a time or two, mainly for loose play on defense or not pushing his personal limits, but nothing to stir headlines.
"We know he can be good; he's shown that. But if he gives maximum effort all the time, he can be really, really good," Lavin said. "Sometimes it gives you the appearance he's going through the motions, but it just comes easy to those guys."
* * *
Rayvonte backs her down into the post. Rhonda puts a forearm on his hip. She slaps at the ball, trying to knock it away. He grins. Two men are playing one-on-one on the next court over, but there's only one man on this court, 17-year-old Rayvonte, which begs the question: Where's dad?
"He's locked up," Rhonda says bluntly.
Sherman Williams is eligible for parole in 2016, she says. Rayvonte hasn't seen his father since he was 4 or 5, she says. Father and son have spoken and traded letters on occasion, she says, and Rayvonte shrugs off the non-relationship. Still, there's a sense of bitterness. There's also a sense of we did just fine, thank you.
"When he's out? I would probably keep my distance. I know he's still my father and all that, and I respect that," Rayvonte says. "But it's not that hard this way. My mother's been like a mother and a father to me. She's my mom and my dad."
"It was very challenging as a single parent. You have the bills and you have a child to raise," Rhonda adds. "We had our good days and our bad days."
The good days?
"The good days is being here on the court with him."
And the bad?
"When you don't know how you're going to pay bills. You don't want him to see you struggling."
Mom manages the Prime Sole shoe store on Bradley and Mattis. On this day she's behind the counter, working the books under a photograph of Barack Obama. Son works in the shop about three days weekly, stocking Jordans and Chucks between pickup games at the Y.
"Trey!" Rhonda says from behind the counter. "Let's go by the house."
Rhonda has at least four names for her son. He's usually Trey, a reference to his middle name (De'Tra). Sometimes he's Ricky.
"You ever see 'Boyz n the Hood?' " she says.
"You know Ricky then. Ricky was always eating. Trey's always eating. He's got to have his Subway before games. Ham and cheese – ain't that right, Trey?"
"With a little mayo," he says.
On the rare occasion he crosses his mom, she shouts his full name: Rayvonte De'Tra Rice. She hollered that name when, as a kid, she caught him sending text messages in his room after 11 p.m. That was a no-no. "She took my phone until the morning," he says.
Then there was that one time – "I think it was my freshman year" – when he was involved in a scuffle at school.
"Nothing big. Guy hit me, I hit him back," he says. "My mom told me I don't need to be doing that. She told me I'm better than that."
When Rayvonte was younger, to ensure he wasn't running with the wrong crowd, she says, Rhonda would go through his cell phone and check his Facebook page.
"I always stay in his business. But he's never been the type that wants to be on the street or hang out in the street. He's a homebody," Rhonda says. "I'm not going to say he's never done it or he's never going to do it. He's a kid. There's temptations. I'm not crazy to think it's never happened."
"She's done an amazing job raising Rayvonte," Walker adds.
"I know my boundaries with my mom," Rayvonte says. "But she's my friend, too."
Mom has a simpler explanation for how she handles discipline.
"I'll kick his (butt)," she says.
Rhonda had more than one hand in his basketball career, and sometimes her personality has rubbed others the wrong way. "I always sit directly across from the bench," she says, usually wearing one of her special-made T-shirts. She shouts for Rayvonte to "Take the baseline!" and "Slap his hand away!" and "You sound like Kobe – stop complaining!" It's a rare night when hers isn't the loudest voice in the gym.
"I'm coaching," Rhonda explains. "Everybody says I should be a coach."
Well, not everybody. The routine wears on coaches and earns sharp looks from other parents. But good luck holding Mom down. Her influence extends into the classroom, where, when Rayvonte's class schedule included a Home Economics class, she visited the school.
"I said, 'Give him a business class. Look at him. Does that boy look like he doesn't know how to cook?' "
* * *
Sliding onto the edge of his bed, Rayvonte looks around his bedroom. There's the middle school jersey (Edison Comets, No. 34), the Big 12 Conference Scholar-Athlete award (he carries a plus-3.0 GPA), the photo posing with Jerrance Howard, Deron Williams and Luther Head at an Illinois basketball camp. He points to a photo of Lenzelle Smith, one of his closest friends and an Ohio State recruit. Right then his phone rings.
"It's the Drake coaches."
Rayvonte's first scholarship offer came from Wagner, a smaller program in New York. His second came from Oregon State. The decision eventually came down to Nevada or Drake, and he starts summer school at the Missouri Valley Conference program June 6.
"Everybody always asks me why I didn't go to a high-major, a big school. I just didn't want to be anybody's second choice," Rayvonte says. "Drake, they were at every one of my AAU games – the head coach, not just the assistants. The head coach always made sure he was there. I could say the same thing for Nevada, too."
When a local kid is involved, there will always be the question of whether Illinois should have recruited him. (It's called a haunting.) In the case of Rayvonte, who flourished later in his career, and Illinois, which has recruited more wings than Boeing, it's understandable. Not above question, but understandable.
"I think they think Chicago players are better than us, but I don't really see why. When Waukegan came down here we manhandled them (Rayvonte had 32 points in a 71-55 win at the Assembly Hall in December)," he says. "If they would have offered me from the beginning – before they got all those players and all those guards – I would have committed there. I love that school. But they've got too many guards. Even if they came at me now, I don't think I would have went."
Across the hallway is what Rhonda calls "the Drake room," a collection of Rayvonte-centric memorabilia. There's a Drake basketball and her "Mama's Boy" T-shirt draped over a chair. Soon after he inked a letter of intent, he inked a tattoo on his right leg: "Drake Bulldogs, No. 24." To get the tattoo he needed a permission slip signed by his mom. Anything so permanent would, of course, require her approval.
"I don't know what I'm going to do when he's gone," she says quietly.
It's a five-hour drive to Des Moines, she says. And Drake has road games at Illinois State, Bradley, Indiana State and SIU.
"I'll be there."
She's been there every step of the way.