It was jealousy at first sight when Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley first met on a basketball court as 12-year-olds at the Philadelphia-area Phenom Camp. They were on the same team, but you’d never have known it because they were trying to outplay each other as much as the opponent.
“We didn’t really like each other because he had heard rumors that I was going to be No. 1 in the camp,” Green recalled recently. “When we got on the court, we went back and forth shooting. He’d take a shot, I’d take a shot.”
Tanksley smiles at the memory. “He wanted to score,” Tanksley said of Green. “He wasn’t passing the ball; I wasn’t passing the ball.”
What they learned on a path that saw them join forces in AAU ball with Team Philly before going to Niagara University as a package deal and then following coach Joe Mihalich from there to Hofstra is that they got stronger not only by sharing the ball but also by sharing each other’s experience.
Born a day apart by eerie coincidence, Green and Tanksley really have developed into “fraternal twins” in a tight basketball family that consists of Green’s mother, Jennell, Mihalich and their AAU coach and adviser, Lonnie Lowry. Their closeness and determination to win the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament and an automatic NCAA bid to cap their college careers is Hofstra’s driving force.
“We’re playing for championships now,” said Mihalich, who took over the Pride in the 2013-14 season after a scandal in which four players were arrested and charged with burglary by Nassau County police, who said they admitted stealing more than $10,000 worth of laptop computers and other electronic gear from fellow students. “We have a good program now.
“I will always be indebted to the four players who stuck around when we took over [Jordan Allen, Moussa Kone, Stephen Nwaukoni and Darren Payen], but this is another level. Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley made us relevant again.”
Green was born Feb. 8, 1992, and Tanksley came along the next day in the hardscrabble North Philadelphia neighborhood where they got their start. Jennell Green gave her son a red plastic basketball at the age of six months. His uncle, Calvin Green, taught Juan’ya the meaning of tough love early on when he finally was allowed to play with older guys.
“As a 6-year-old kid, he was crying for the ball, and they’re telling him, you have to take it back,” Jennell said. “They would make him try to steal the ball or make sure he was able to handle the ball so no one could take it from him. If I was looking for him, I knew to find him at the playground.”
Green and Tanksley were part of different AAU programs when they first met. Once they got past their initial wariness of each other, Tanksley said they found a chemistry together on the court that carried over to their personal lives.
“We knew they can’t stop both of us if we were playing together,” Tanksley said. “Everything came easy from there on. We did a lot of winning together.”
It was a major loss off the court, though, that revealed the true depth of the friendship Green and Tanksley had developed. By the time Green joined Team Philly in 10th grade, he and his mother had moved to the suburbs to be closer to Archbishop Carroll High School, and Tanksley often spent time at their house in the summer because it was close to where Team Philly trained at Villanova University.
In the summer between 10th and 11th grade, Tanksley’s grandmother, Josephine, who was his primary caregiver and source of support, died. “My grandfather passed first when I was in eighth grade,” said Tanksley, who has two brothers and two sisters. “That was a wakeup call for everybody to get their stuff together, like my mom and my aunts and uncles to step up.
“When my grandmother died, it hit us hard. We really had to figure things out because we relied on her so much and we were so young. It was hard . . . I had no drive. I was going through a crisis. I flunked out of school. I didn’t really care about nothing, even basketball.”
That’s when Green and his mother opened their arms and their house to Tanksley. Although he still had a home in North Philly, he lived with the Greens for several months and, really, has spent most of his time in Philadelphia with them ever since.
“He was a good kid, and it hurt me to see him hurting,” Jennell Green said. “So I kind of embraced him. He’s like my second son. What I do for Juan’ya I do for Ameen. Even now when they come home, they stay here.
“With Juan’ya being an only child, he had someone he could go through things with and talk to and feel that brother relationship with. I think it made it a lot easier for him, and I know it definitely made it a lot easier for me.”
Tanksley had dropped out of Prep Charter High School, but “Mama Dukes,” as he calls Green’s mother, and Team Philly coach Lowry helped manage his transfer to Imhotep Prep for his junior year.
“ ‘Mama Dukes’ treats me just like I’m her own,” Tanksley said. “I treat her as a mom, and I respect her to the highest level. A lot of people don’t do what she did. Now I’ve got somebody who always is going to be in my corner . . . She helps my mom understand [planning for a future pro career]. We’re like two big families now, so everything is perfect in my life.”
Once they were under the same roof, Green and Tanksley grew so close that all those who knew them inevitably saw them as twins in a literal sense. “We like the same things, the same food, the same music,” Green said. “It’s rare that you don’t see us together. I have a great friendship with him, and nothing can turn it.
“Sometimes I might have a situation where I don’t want to say something to my mother. I would just talk to him, and he would give me the right answer and be positive.”
Coming from a disadvantaged neighborhood where crime is an invasive force, trust is a valuable commodity because it’s in short supply. For Green and Tanksley, basketball provided a positive track, and the trust they developed in each other served as their foundation while navigating the uncertainties of the AAU travel circuit and being courted heavily by college recruiters.
“It’s hard in Philadelphia to trust anybody,” Tanksley said. “The kids you grew up with, now it’s like there’s two different lifestyles. Kids I was friends with went down a different road than me, like jail and selling stuff. Juan’ya and I stayed positive and out of trouble. That’s another reason we’re close. We really don’t have anybody else besides us two.”
Package deal for college
Although Green attracted scholarship offers from several high-major schools, most viewed Tanksley as a solid mid-major recruit. The “Team Philly Twins” decided they wanted to go to school together as a package deal. Some schools might have taken Tanksley to make sure they got Green, but Mihalich assured them he not only wanted both but projected both as immediate starters at Niagara.
“I had to take a step back because the same schools weren’t calling Ameen,” Green said. “But we had a great chemistry together, and that can take you a long way. I figured we’d go to the same school together and hopefully it would be the right choice, and it was.”
Mihalich has twin sons of his own, so he understood the special bond shared by Green and Tanksley when he recruited them. “Even when they bicker, you know they’re like brothers,” Mihalich said. “They’re as close as any brothers I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Green said he and Tanksley connected with Mihalich from the start. “He always wanted the best for me, and he never tells me a lie,” Green said. “I love him more every year.”
Tanksley added, “Joe told us, ‘You’re not freshmen. You’ve got to carry us. You’ve got to grow up now.’ No matter how many times I messed up my freshman year, he kept me out there battling. I appreciate it now because there’s nothing I’m not ready for in games.”
As sophomores, Green and Tanksley led the Purple Eagles to a 19-14 record and the MAAC regular-season title before losing in the conference tournament semifinals and going to the NIT. After they lost to Maryland in the first round, Mihalich accepted the Hofstra job.
Green and Tanksley immediately decided to transfer and were blocked by Niagara only from going to another MAAC school. They left it to Team Philly coach Lowry to sort through the transfer offers.
“For Juan’ya, I got Michigan calls, Virginia calls, Florida State, Penn State, Villanova, all of those high-major schools,” Lowry said. “Ameen had more mid-majors. There were a handful that said they’d take both, but the level wasn’t as high.
“Hofstra made sense when I broke it down to them. They were playing considerably better competition in the CAA with more exposure, more everything.”
They redshirted during the 2013-14 season under NCAA transfer rules, but Green and Tanksley led the Pride to a 20-14 record last season and a CBI berth after a crushing 92-90 double-overtime loss to William & Mary in the CAA semifinals on a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
“That game still breaks my heart,” Tanksley said.
The memory has driven the improvement of a Hofstra team that goes into Sunday’s game against defending conference champ Northeastern (15-13, 7-8 CAA) with a 19-8 overall record and an 11-4 conference mark that puts it in second place — 1 1⁄2 games behind North Carolina Wilmington (21-6, 13-3) — with three regular-season games left.
Tanksley is averaging 15.8 points and 5.3 rebounds. Green has fulfilled his status as the leading contender for CAA player of the year honors by scoring 17.9 points per game and averaging 7.3 assists, which is tied for fourth nationally. Earlier this season, Green became only the fourth player in Division I history to score at least 1,000 points at two schools. He now has 2,194 career points.
Looking toward the conference tournament, Green said, “We’re just trying to get to that championship game. What happened last year, we don’t want to have that feeling again. We know what it takes. We can’t take a possession off.”
Beyond the postseason, Lowry is working to prepare Green and Tanksley for possible pro careers, whether it’s in the NBA or overseas. He did the same for his younger brother, Kyle, who played two years at Villanova on the way to becoming an NBA first-round draft pick in 2006 and earning All-Star recognition the past two seasons with Toronto.
Describing his role with Green and Tanksley, Lowry said, “I tried to be a father figure and tried to counsel. Neither one of them had a dominant male figure in their lives. I played that role with my brother. With Kyle, I wasn’t like his brother, I was like his dad. With Juan’ya and Ameen, it was the same thing.
“I’d get them the information to make a great decision. Miss Green would tell me, ‘I trust you. I just want to make sure they’re not set up for failure.’ We were very honest with them about everything from high school to AAU stuff, college, transfer, everything. As far as the agents, it’s very simple. We keep the kids away from it so they can focus on basketball.”
Mihalich and Lowry expressed confidence that Green at least will be invited to an NBA training camp if he is not drafted. Lowry hopes Hofstra can earn an NCAA berth to give Green a showcase against top-level talent in front of NBA scouts.
“I stressed to Juan’ya, ‘You’ve got to find a way to win three games [in the CAA Tournament] in March,” Lowry said. “If they get into the NCAA, anything can happen.”
HOFSTRA’S ‘PHILLY TWINS’
Preseason CAA player of the year 2015-16
Bob Cousy PG Award finalist (1 of 20)
2014-15 All-CAA 1st team
2012-13 All-MAAC 1st team
Current NCAA rank: T4 assists (7.3)
Career stats — 17.3 pts, 5.7 assists, .397 FG pct., .340 3P pct., .810 FT pct.
One of four in Division I history to score at least 1,000 points at two different schools (Niagara — 1,131; Hofstra — 1,063 and counting; Total — 2,194 and counting)
Needs 22 points to reach 1,000 at Hofstra
1,638 career points and counting (Niagara 660, Hofstra 978 and counting)
Career stats — 12.9 pts, 5.7 rebs, .416 FG pct., .364 3P pct., .703 FT pct.