By Jeff Thompson
Anthony Freeman Jr. has been playing basketball since third grade, but now the 6-foot 8-inch senior hopes he can help the Union Bulldogs prove themselves in NCAA Division II basketball.
Since the home opener, the Bulldogs have struggled to find wins early in the season. With the team’s record now at 1 and 5, Freeman leads the team in scoring with 101 points and has an average 6.7 rebounds per game.
As the Bulldogs begin this season, the pressure is on as they begin play in the Gulf South Conference.
Union hosted its first Gulf South team on Nov. 29 against undefeated Valdosta State University.
Even with Valdosta’s impressive 6 and 0 record, Union put up a fight to keep the score close throughout the game.
Freeman led the Bulldogs in scoring with 20 points, followed by Corieon Pearson with 16; but Valdosta took control, leading with as many as 17 points, defeating the Bulldogs in an 83-70 win.
The Bulldogs continued their Gulf South play at home against the University of West Florida. The first half was close, with 10 lead changes and five ties, but Union was outscored in the second half, giving West Florida the victory 77-66.
Many are expecting Freeman to play a big role on the basketball court, including head coach David Niven.
“Anthony Freeman is someone that we really expect to be one of the best posts in not only the Gulf South but also in Division II,” Niven said. “He is a guy that we are really building around and try to put the ball in his hands a lot.
“The great thing about him is that he has a really strong ability to score around the basket, but we feel like we can put the ball in his hands a lot because he’s one of the most unselfish players and he will pass if he doesn’t have a good shot.”
Freeman, a sports management major and communication arts minor, grew up in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., and started playing T-ball when he was 5 years old. His mom also enrolled him in indoor soccer at a young age.
“I did everything, but basketball was the one that stuck,” Freeman said.
Still basketball didn’t always come easily for him; by his fifth-grade year, Freeman lost his spot on the more competitive city league team.
By his freshman year at Tualatin High School, his then 6-foot 2-inch frame had people noticing how he was developing as a player.
Unfortunately, even that advantage still didn’t equal time on the court. In fact, Freeman recalls having to fight for playing time.
“I got bullied around a lot as a freshman,” he said, adding that with nine seniors on the team and another half dozen talented juniors and sophomores, only the best players got time on the court.
Freeman’s hard work eventually caught the attention of his coach, Rich Osborn.
He said he later realized Osborn was pushing him because Osborn recognized the young player’s talent.
“I knew that AJ had the physical tools to be a very good player,” Osborn said. “I was concerned about the impact high expectations would have on him as he competed against older players.”
Freeman remembers Osborn yelling at him for a lazy pass during a passing drill.
“He always set a high standard for me,” Freeman said. “I was really naive and thought that he got on everybody like he got on me, but he wanted me to be the man. That’s why he was hard and put pressure on me.”
That tough love from his coach would lead the Tualatin Timberwolves to win two back-to-back league titles in 2008 and 2009.
Skills gained during those years would stick with him during his two seasons at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon. The now-experienced player would continue his winning career by helping his team win the 2010 Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges championship.
Scouts from around the nation had their eyes on the rising forward, including Niven, who said he was initially skeptical about Freeman’s abilities after seeing his stats, but after watching some film, Niven saw an opportunity to add a gifted athlete to Union’s roster.
“The main thing that I thought after watching him was that he had a lot of tools and could be a really good player for us; and that certainly is the case,” Niven said.
Freeman said he liked what he saw at Union, and after hearing of the Bulldogs’ many championship titles and prestigious academic recognition, Freeman began play in the 2011-2012 season.