The Detroit Boys
Asst. coach Oats takes three kids from Detroit, brings them with him to Buffalo
Raheem Johnson said if it weren’t for basketball, he’d probably be in a gang or in prison.
Justin Moss said after Toledo told him he could not play basketball for the school, he cried.
Christian Pino was a 5-foot-7 guard with dreams of playing Division-I basketball.
Johnson is at a four-year university. Moss is playing the game he loves again. And Pino walked on at Arizona State University last year.
How was all of this possible? It all starts with their high school basketball coach – and now Buffalo assistant – Nate Oats.
Oats joined the Buffalo coaching staff in March 2013 after Athletic Director Danny White hired head basketball coach Bobby Hurley. Less than one month later, Moss joined Oats. This season, Johnson and Pino will suit up in Buffalo uniforms. Hurley sometimes refers to the trio as “The Detroit boys.”
But this isn’t the first time any of them are playing for Oats. All three played for him at Romulus High School, a public school located just outside of Detroit. All three traveled from different parts of Detroit to play at Romulus. They all wanted to play for Oats get out of the “cycle.”
Moss, Johnson and Pino grew up in rough parts of Detroit – the most dangerous city in America, according to Forbes. They saw drug use, violence and death on a regular basis. Pino wasn’t even allowed outside and Moss’ family didn’t want him far away from the home.
Oats became Romulus’ head coach in 2002 after serving as a D-III assistant for five years. When Romulus’ basketball coach was fired, his close friend and former teammate Ed Horn told him to apply for the job.
Oats had no intention in coaching at the high school level but applied anyway.
“I figured it was a way to hang out with [Horn] for a weekend and they ended up offering me the job,” Oats said.
After accepting the position, Oats began interacting with the community – going to homes and meeting families. He knew forming a connection would be the best way to find talent and turn the Romulus program around.
He was right. Three years later, Romulus was playing in the state championship game. After that, Oats said players began moving to Romulus for basketball.
Players like Johnson, Moss and Pino.
Johnson was used to moving. Trust, however, was something he wasn’t used to.
Johnson was put into the foster system when he was young. His mother lost custody of him, and although Johnson wanted to return to his mother, he was unable to. He said no one would ever tell him why.
Johnson grew up in South West – a particularly dangerous area of Detroit. He said a lot of his friends at the time are now in jail or selling drugs. There were a lot of gangs and “a bunch of nobodies who didn’t care much about me and basically life.”
He knew if he stayed in South West, then he’d get himself into trouble. He wanted to get out.
“Basketball was the only reason I didn’t stay there,” Johnson said.
Johnson moved between five different foster homes in the Detroit area. The households ranged between one and three kids. The constant moving around gave him a bad attitude. He didn’t get along with any of his foster parents or foster brothers and sisters.
“They weren’t my brothers and sisters. They weren’t my family,” Johnson said.
But at each home, there was a ball and a rim. That’s where Johnson was most comfortable. He always had a ball in his hand, whether it was walking around the house, shooting at the rim or dribbling in the garage.
“I was always cool with that,” Johnson said.
Then, he moved in with his grandmother in Romulus and met Oats. He told Johnson that basketball could “open up doors for him.”
Oats helped Johnson control his temper. Oats helped him improve on the court. Oats helped him get out of South West.
“He never lied to me,” Johnson said. “He was always straight up with me, opposed to my parents and other people who lied to me.”
Johnson wasn’t the only Romulus alumnus and current Bull who moved around Detroit throughout childhood.
Moss, Buffalo’s 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward, was born in Detroit and moved to Southfield by his aunt’s house after seven years. When living in Detroit, he said you just “had to be smart” about what you did.
He didn’t begin playing organized sports until the seventh grade. But once he did, Moss realized the importance of such activities.
“It was something to keep me busy, also kept me out of trouble a lot, so I’m really grateful for that,” Moss said.
Moss, his mother and his aunt moved to Plymouth, Michigan – about 26 miles outside of Detroit – when he was in high school. He first met Oats at a Top-100 camp in Michigan. Oats happened to be Moss’ coach for the day, so the coach had the opportunity to see him play up close.
“He was like a grown man for a sophomore in high school,” Oats said.
Moss’ mother ended up moving to Romulus and Moss played for Oats in his junior and senior years of high school. Romulus went 23-2 and advanced to the state quarterfinals in his senior season.
But Moss played his senior year with a condition only he, his mother and father knew about.
Moss was born with a heart murmur, which is an extra or unusual sound heard during a heartbeat. He eventually grew out of it – or so he thought. In his senior year of high school, Moss was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that causes a buildup of tissues that can often lead to cardiac arrest.
Toledo gave Moss a basketball scholarship in 2011, but he never told the school about his heart condition. He hoped he’d be able to play for the Rockets. But when he failed the summer physical, the team doctors told him it wasn’t safe for him to play basketball.
“I kind of knew what was going to happen, but it was heartbreaking,” Moss said. “I cried when the doc came in and said it. I knew I had heart problems, but I played through it. It never really affected my game.”
After he was told he’d never be able to play again, Moss received an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) in his chest in November 2011.
Toledo told Moss it would honor his scholarship but still wouldn’t let him play basketball. Harris Charalambous, a former Toledo basketball player, died in 2006 during a conditioning practice. Charalambous had an acute heart condition. Moss believes fear of another incident was a major reason the school didn’t allow him to play.
He left Toledo because he wanted to keep playing basketball. Moss said there was about a “50/50 split” from doctors if it was safe for him to play after receiving the ICD.
But Moss was able to continue his playing career, largely due to Oats. Oats had connections with Barret Peery, who was the head coach at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. Previous Romulus players played for Peery, and Oats told him to give Moss a shot. Moss played there for the 2012-13 season before receiving a phone call from Oats.
He told Moss he accepted a job at Buffalo and wanted the forward to join him. Moss became one of Hurley’s first recruits to UB in April 2013. Buffalo doctors examined him and Moss said he had written documents from other physicians. Moss, his family, Oats, Hurley and the team doctors felt it was safe for him to return to the court.
“It’s kind of cliché, but I really don’t know where I would be without [Oats],” Moss said. “He’s done a lot for me, so I’m really appreciative that I met him.”
Moss averaged more than 9 minutes a game last season. This year, he will likely be called upon to play a larger role because of the graduation of all-time leading scorer Javon McCrea .
He said he hasn’t had any heart issues since the ICD was put in. He doesn’t think about his condition when he plays. He’s just grateful that Oats gave him the opportunity to continue playing basketball, first at a junior college and now back at Division-I.
Christian Pino is much different than your average college basketball player. Usually, a Division-I basketball player stands out when walking around campus. But when they get on the court – surrounded by players relatively their own size – they look normal.
Pino is the opposite. The 5-foot-7, redshirt freshman guard looks like just another college student when walking around the university. But put him on the basketball court, and you have to double take.
Pino drove more than 30 minutes every day to get to Romulus High School for 6 a.m. practice. He often slept in what he planned on wearing the next day, kept shoes and socks in his car and went straight from his bed and out the door at 5:15 a.m.
This is how badly he wanted to play for Oats. Pino said he “didn’t see [himself] progressing” at Birmingham, his previous high school.
“Romulus was like a college program,” Pino said.
Pino was a part of Romulus’ 2013 state championship team – Oat’s only state title at the school – his senior season of high school. This also ended up being Oats’ last year at Romulus. Pino went on to Arizona State University, but Oats didn’t forget about one of the main players from his championship run.
Oats reached out to Peery again, who was now an assistant at Arizona State, and told him about Pino. The 5-foot-7 guard tried out for the team and received a walk-on position.
Pino spent the majority of practice trying to keep up with 5-foot-10 Jahii Carson. Carson, who is currently playing professionally in Australia, was one of the best guards in the Pac-12 last season.
Oats and Pino remained in contact – even from opposite sides of the country. After the season, Pino was unsure if he wanted to remain at Arizona State. He wanted the opportunity to receive playing time.
Pino decided to transfer to UB, where he is a “primary walk-on,” Oats said.
“He’s just one of those guys I feel you need on the team to contribute the spark,” Moss said. “Put him on a point guard, [the point guard] gets annoyed, [Pino] causes turnovers.”
Now at Buffalo, "The Detroit boys,” as Hurley sometimes refers to them as, look to bring their successes from Romulus to UB. Oats went 222-52 and won seven straight conference championships at Romulus. His teams were either ranked No. 1 or finished in the final four in each of his final six seasons.
Oats achieved this through his relationships with his players.
Johnson was nicknamed “The Dream,” when he was a freshman at Romulus. And no, his dream wasn’t to play Division-I at the time. It was to play varsity for Oats.
Schools like Wichita State and Oklahoma State – both with much better basketball programs than UB – and “basically all the Mid-American Conference schools,” recruited Johnson, he said. Still, he chose UB.
“Just my relationship with coach Oats [is why I came to UB] because I knew if I came here, he was going to take care of me, as opposed to going to some other school and not knowing the coaches,” Johnson said.
Moss knew the decision to go to Romulus four years ago “was an opportunity to go to school for free.” It ended up being just that.
Pino wasn’t happy with the direction of his basketball future at his former high school. After being in Arizona State’s program for a year and now having the opportunity to play at UB, he’s much happier.
Oats is the reason Johnson, Moss and Pino went to Romulus. Now, he’s the reason they are at Buffalo.
Moss emerged with 25 points and 13 rebounds in Buffalo’s first game of the season. Johnson had three rebounds and two blocks in the 69-67 victory.
"The Detroit boys” will largely dictate Buffalo’s immediate and long-term success.