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TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Aubrielle Petty’s pudgy legs wobbled as she stood atop her grandmother’s knees, her big brown eyes focused intently on the action in front of her.
The tiny infant suddenly spots a familiar mop of dreadlocks racing down the Coleman Coliseum court in the midst of a fast break, and yells out: “Yeah, Daddy!”.
John Petty Jr. Usually can’t hear his 20-month-old daughter while on the court, but he feels her presence whenever he’s there.
A few minutes later, during a timeout, Alabama’s 6-foot-5 junior wing looks up from in front of the Crimson Tide bench, and the two catch each others’ eyes.
Still trying to catch his breath, John flashes a smile and waves into the stands. Aubrielle’s own smile widens and stretches across her round face as she excitedly waves back.
“It just adds more motivation, because I can look up in the stands and I see her up there clapping,” Petty told the Montgomery Advertiser earlier this month. “Or before the game, they’ll bring her down to the rail and I’ll hug her, give her a kiss, and it just adds an extra little boost to my game.
“It just lets me know that this is what you’re playing for, these people are who you’re playing for. And you can’t let them down. … I think that actually drives me.”.
Aubrielle Nicole Petty was born March 2, 2018, in Petty’s hometown of Huntsville, the day before the then-Alabama freshman played a late-season SEC game against Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.
An exhausted Petty, who was in the delivery room for his daughter’s birth, managed seven points on 3-of-7 shooting and pulled down a team-high eight rebounds while playing a game-high 37 minutes in the 68-66 loss to the Aggies.
Petty, a former four-star standout from Mae Jemison High in Huntsville, is in his third year as an every-day starter at Alabama (3-4), where the versatile wing leads the team with 52 rebounds and 20 made 3-pointers on 45.5% (20-of-44) shooting from beyond the arc. He’s also second on the team averaging 15.1 points and 33.4 minutes per game through the first month of the season and is coming off a standout performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament with a team-best 67 points and 20 rebounds over the Tide’s three games in the Bahamas last week.
For much of his past two seasons in Tuscaloosa, Petty’s smallest fan has made it to nearly every Crimson Tide home game and even several road contests, joined by Petty’s mother, Regena, one or both of his sisters and, at least this season, his high-school sweetheart and his daughter’s mother, Tamarra Fletcher, a fellow former Jemison basketball player who graduated last spring.
“Once she sees him she’ll wave at him, or once that music plays, she just starts dancing,” Fletcher said of Aubrielle. “So she loves being there, and when we come back home she’ll be like, ‘Mommy, where’s Daddy?’ Some days she may even say, ‘Is Daddy at practice?'”.
Working together, Regena and Fletcher make it a priority to have little Aubrielle at as many of Petty’s games as possible, often rearranging their own work schedules in Huntsville to coordinate with Alabama’s.
“I know how much it means to him for her to be at the games and to see her in the crowd and after the games,” Fletcher said. “Because after the game, once she sees him, it’s over. She don’t want nobody else. Everywhere he goes she goes. Straight to the locker room or he’ll take her to meet people. And once she’s with her daddy, there’s no coming back. She’ll stay with him the whole time.”.
Petty debuted his daughter to the public when he walked a nervous Aubrielle out onto the fog-filled stage during his introduction at the program’s annual Tide TipOff event in late October.
“When she first walked out on stage (John) told me she danced a little bit, but once she’d seen all those people it kind of shocked her and she got a little scared,” Tamarra said. “For the most part I know she enjoyed it. It was a good experience.”.
On the days the two can’t be together in person — especially during the season when he battles the everyday time constraints of a normal Division I student-athlete — Aubrielle and Petty regularly chat over FaceTime.
“I just wanted it to be special, something for me to remember and also something for her to remember,” Petty said of introducing her at the Tide TipOff event. “Because I know she’s getting to this age where she knows exactly what’s going on.”.
A special connection from the start
John Petty Jr. Was in study hall Friday night when his phone buzzed with a text message from his then-pregnant girlfriend, Tamarra: “My water broke.”.
The nervous 18-year-old freshman immediately called to see if this was all some playful prank.
Nope. It was really happening.
“I’m serious, you’ve got to come,” Fletcher told Petty in early March 2018.
Petty notified an Alabama team staffer and the two piled into a car and made the 2 ½-hour drive to Huntsville to be in the delivery room for Aubrielle’s arrival.
“It was like she waited for him to get there because right after he got there, 10 minutes later I was at 10 centimeters,” Fletcher recalled. “And after I had her, they gave her to me, … And at first, when I had her, she was crying. And then once he got her, she stopped crying. (Laughs) He was emotional and it was a different vibe and feeling I’ve never felt before after she came out.”.
The emotions of seeing his child come into this world was especially poignant for Petty, who openly cried as he cradled a minutes-old Aubrielle in his arms. In that moment, the rest of the world disappeared and Petty found purpose.
“When they finally let me hold her, it was like everything (else around disappeared). It was like there was a straight tunnel from my face to her face,” Petty said. “And I still remember the feeling, it was unbelievable. I actually cried, because it was just the most special moment I’ll probably ever feel in my life, until I have another one. But in that moment, it was the best feeling I’ve ever felt.”.
After her first bath, a cooing Aubrielle laid on her back as Petty stood over her, his dreads dangling down like a mobile as her saucer-like brown eyes examined the man before her.
When he stepped back to take a picture on his phone, Aubrielle let out a cry that drew a quick “uh uh” from her father and the newborn abruptly fell silent.
Leaning back over her, Petty smiled and asked: “You want that thumb?”.
For the next 15-20 seconds, Aubrielle remained fixated on Petty’s gangly 6-5 frame, looking him up and down as if sizing up her own father. And when he stood up, the tiny infant leaned her head back to get a better view of her father’s face, causing Petty’s own mother, Regena, to shout: “Oh my goodness.”.
“I knew she was going to be special when she was born, I told them that,” Regena said. “I said, ‘Lord, thank you, she’s going to be a special baby.’ Of course it brought tears to both John and me.”.
The brief excitement elicited another scared cry from Aubrielle, but that too soon stopped as Petty again leaned in and whispered: “Why do you keep crying?”.
The connection between father and daughter was apparent from the beginning.
“It’s like she had looked up at him, and for a newborn, it was unexpected, because she was like two minutes old,” Tamarra said. “I was just amazed. … She had a little facial expression. But they had their own little thing going on, (like) they already knew each other.”.
Emotional roller coaster of parenthood
When she first learned her 18-year-old baby boy, in the midst of his freshman year at Alabama, was having a child of his own, Regena Petty was admittedly disappointed and upset.
Parenthood was not in the plan.
“I (told him) when you get kids, that’s a lot on you, it brings about a big change in your life,” Regena recalled. “Especially when you want to be that parent and do what’s right, it brings a lot of emotion, it just brings a lot of pain. With him being (in Tuscaloosa) and her being here, that’s a lot.
“It did, it really hurt me for a minute, but, you know, I eventually got over it.”.
After much prayer, Petty’s mother eventually got on board and has provided regular guidance and assistance to both he and Fletcher, as have her parents.
But coming to terms with being a teenage father was much harder for Petty, whose own challenges as a full-time major Division I basketball player several hours away from his budding family had just begun.
For Petty, his first two seasons have been a quiet battle of trying to make it work as both a student-athlete and a father, often feeling pulled in two opposing directions.
He felt particularly powerless during Fletcher’s pregnancy.
“I kind of affected me a little bit, just worrying about her mother before she had (Aubrielle),” Petty said, “worrying about her and making sure everything was OK, and I never knew when she was going to come.”.
Up until the last several months, it was difficult to even get time to visit Huntsville during the often rigorous 24-7 daily schedule of class, practice, study hall, and workouts — even during the offseason.
“It took a little toll on him, and I’d worry about him,” Regena said. “It was an emotional roller coaster, dealing with that and other stuff too. It took a big toll on him. But he’s determined, he’s determined to be in her life. He’s determined to do the best he can. He’s determined to make sure that some of the things he went through, (Aubrielle) don’t have to go through that.”.
Balancing the sometimes-conflicting responsibilities as a new parent and a Division I student-athlete weren’t easy, but sage and prudent advice from his mother helped Petty come to terms with newfound reality.
“I said, ‘It’s a job, and you put yourself in this position, so now you have to take care of business.’ It’s not about you anymore, it’s about her,” Regena said. “So when you’re on that floor, you think about her. … I’ve told him nothing’s easy, but when you’re out there grinding, and you think about your daughter, that’s going to make you go even harder, that’s going to make you smile.'”.
That smile has been ever-more present this season as Petty is at peace having embraced all aspects of being a parent.
“It’s just basically seeing something you created and just watching her grow. Every time I see her she gets bigger and bigger, she’s getting smarter, she’s learning new words, her sentences are starting to be more fluid,” Petty said. “Every day I talk to her, she always has something new to say, and it’s just amazing. My heart just fills up with love every time I see her face, every time we talk on the phone. She always say, ‘Hey Daddy, how you doing? How was your day today?’ And it’s amazing, she’s 1 years old asking how my day was. It’s amazing.”.
Full-circle growth on, off the court
As a sharpshooting wing that built his game around his prowess from outside the 3-point arc, Petty often fell victim of his own expectations of perfection.
During his first two seasons at Alabama, a missed 3 would snowball into a difficult shooting drought, which then affected other aspects of Petty’s game.
If he went into halftime struggling with his shot, it wasn’t rare to see Petty’s head and shoulders slumping coming out of the break.
But with the arrival of first-year Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats and his wide-open, shoot-it-if-you’ve-got-it mentality from the perimeter approach offensively, Petty has found a renewed confidence, one that has been reinforced off the court as well.
“Being a father, you can’t hold onto stuff, so it actually ties back into basketball, you can’t hold onto a missed shot, because you might get another shot the next play,” Petty said. “With being a parent, you can’t control what your child does, because she’s a baby. … It all ties in together, and (Oats) tells us you’ve got to move onto the next play because the game don’t stop just because you miss a shot. And she’s not going to stop doing (stuff), just because she’s a baby.”.
In fact, Oats — who has three daughters himself ages 15-7 — has provided Petty a welcomed example of fatherhood done right, as well as a source of infinite perspective from which to draw from as he continues to make strides in his dual-role as Division I basketball player and parent.
“I think he’s come full circle,” Oats said of Petty. “When I came (to Alabama), there were people with comments, warnings ‘not sure about John,’ but I think he’s misunderstood to be honest with you. Once you really get to know him, he’s a really good kid … And he’s trying to be the best father he can be while he’s still in college.”.
In fact, having a daughter expedited Petty’s personal development and how he views the world around him.
“She changed me a lot. When she came into this world I just started looking at things different,” Petty said. “I think about her before every decision that I make, I think about my family, her mother, because they’ve been with me for the longest. You have to think about them every step I take.”.
That included this past spring when Petty joined three other Tide players in the NCAA’s transfer portal on March 27, the same day Oats was announced as Alabama’s next head coach following the end-of-season ouster of former coach Avery Johnson.
But within two days, following a face-to-face meeting with Oats, reports surfaced Petty was staying in Tuscaloosa, and he withdrew his name April 2.
“I didn’t really want to go nowhere too far, I put my name in the portal just because I didn’t know exactly what was going to (happen) or how this was going to turn out,” Petty said. “But when coach Oats got here, we had our talk, and ever since then we’ve just been connected. … We just came together and decided to let’s do it together.”.
Along with finding scoring success within Oats’ spread-out system, Petty’s also found an affinity for rebounding, averaging a team-leading 7.4 per game with 36 defensive boards and 16 on the offensive end — many of which led to second-chance points for him or his teammates.
“I think he’s come a long, long ways trying to be a leader on this team and playing hard whether his shot’s going in or not, and I think that speaks to the maturity that he’s showing,” Oats said.
“There’s a maturity level that comes with being a father that we’re seeing out of him, and I think there’s a lot of different combinations in his maturity, but certainty having a daughter is one of them.”.
Because in his role as Aubrielle’s father, Petty found the one shot he’s never going miss.
“She just means the world to me. There’s nothing on this earth that means more to me than her,” Petty said. “I’d give up everything — if I had to give up basketball just for her, I would do whatever it takes just for her. It’s an unconditional love. … Just being able to see her, her smile at me, her call me ‘Daddy,’ her hug me, it’s something you could never possibly imagine unless you have a daughter or a child.”.