The tattoo on the inside of Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard's biceps isn't just a decoration. It's a declaration. In cursive, it reads, "Blessed Forever.'' His father died when Leonard was 6. If not for the help of Brian Siler, the father of a classmate in his hometown of Robinson, Leonard doesn't know where he would have ended up, because Leonard's family had limited means while his mother, Tracie, battled health issues.
ST. LOUIS -- The tattoo on the inside of Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard's biceps isn't just a decoration.
It's a declaration. In cursive, it reads, "Blessed Forever.''
His father died when Leonard was 6. If not for the help of Brian Siler, the father of a classmate in his hometown of Robinson, Leonard doesn't know where he would have ended up, because Leonard's family had limited means while his mother, Tracie, battled health issues. Even if there weren't always a stack of Christmas presents under the tree, Leonard said, he felt special.
"I'm an extremely blessed person,'' Leonard said. "I'm blessed to have my mom, my family. Blessed to have the Silers. I'm gifted athletically. I've been given so many talents. I've been through a lot, but I would never take it back.''
Blossoming on and off the court, Leonard is a rising star whose life accelerated at an amazing speed. When No. 25 Illinois faces No. 9 Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game Thursday at Scottrade Center, Leonard is an advantage the Tigers don't have.
The mobile 7-foot-1, 245-pounder described himself as "an athletic freak'' earlier this week who could play 37, 38 minutes a game. If there are any complaints about the Illini this year -- despite an 11-1 start -- it can't be targeted at the 19-year-old Leonard.
He's averaging 13.3 points and 7.6 rebounds, fairly close to the goal of 10-10 set in the preseason by coach Bruce Weber. Even though there are times where "Meyers is being Meyers,'' as some close to him said, the kid from Robinson is growing up. It's just hard for him to keep pace. Leonard already changed his phone number to avoid calls from prospective NBA agents.
NBA mock drafts generally predict him to go in the middle of the first round, if not higher, and he will have a decision to make at the end of the season.
"It does seem like he's more mature,'' said Brian Siler. "It's been forced upon him. There are so many people trying to get in touch with him, so many people talking about the NBA and agents, and all that he has ahead of him. He's gone through so much with all the basketball stuff.''
When asked, Leonard will tell you what he's thinking about the NBA.
"If I'm a guaranteed lottery pick, there's a pretty good chance I'll go,'' he said. "If I'm not a lottery pick, there's a good chance I will stay.''
Leonard entered Illinois with credits that transferred from Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, and he could graduate in three years. Of course, he wants to make life easier on his mother.
"I hope in the near future I can start taking care of her,'' he said. "Whenever she needs something, I'll be there for her.
"It's been hard sometimes worrying about her, worrying about her worrying about my brother. We always make it through.''
Leonard's 21-year-old brother, Bailey, is serving a tour with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan.
When it comes to making a life-changing decision, whether it's this year or beyond, Tracie Leonard and Brian Siler will play a key role. So will Scott Rawlings, a trainer from Robinson who also served as a disciplinarian for Leonard.
"Honestly, throughout my life, it's been the majority of my decision with what I wanted to do,'' he said. "Coming here (to Illinois), it was not really my mom, it was me. My future is going to be based on other people's opinions, (but) it will mainly be me.
"Brian and that family will have a huge effect on what I do, because I'm going to take advice from him. Scott, I will see what he thinks. My mom, she's a big part of my life.''
The Illinois coaching staff will have some input, Leonard said, but the bulk is "what I think and what my close-knit group'' will say.
He's grown, but Leonard is still learning.
"We're trying to get him to be an adult, a mature adult on the court,'' Weber said. "He can still be a fun-loving kid off the court and enjoy himself. That's what makes him special.''
Yet Leonard matured enough to know his choices bring big payoffs, even though Christmas taught him happiness doesn't need to come with a pile of presents under the tree.
"Christmas is about being with your family and having that feeling of people caring about you and you caring about others,'' Leonard said. "It's not always about gifts.
"People don't always have money. I grew up without money. It was never about gifts. I never had a lot of gifts under the tree. That's helped me grow up and respect life even more.''
Leonard will tell you he's blessed, if you can't read it for yourself.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
No. 19 Illinois (11-1) vs. No. 9 Missouri (11-0)
8 p.m., Scottrade Center, St. Louis (ESPN2, Illini Sports Network)
ILLINOIS (11-1) ppg rpg
F Tyler Griffey 6-8 Jr. 7.4 4.9
C Meyers Leonard 7-1 So. 13.3 7.8
G Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr. 10.7 3.9
G D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr. 14.4 3.0
G Sam Maniscalco 6-0 Sr. 10.9 2.5
MISSOURI (11-0) ppg rpg
F Ricardo Ratliffe 6-8 Sr. 14.3 7.2
G Marcus Denmon 6-3 Sr. 19.6 5.3
G Kim English 6-6 Sr. 16.0 4.0
G Matt Pressey 6-2 Sr. 8.3 4.5
G Phil Pressey 5-10 So. 8.6 3.3
Noteworthy: Illinois leads the series 27-14 overall and 20-10 in games played in St. Louis, but Missouri has won the last two games between the two teams. The game is the first matchup between a pair of 11-win teams this season. ... Besides ranking second on the Illini in scoring, Leonard is also third in the Big Ten in rebounding. ... Missouri won the first 11 games by an average of 27.7 points per game. ... The Tigers went with a small lineup after power forward Laurence Bowers suffered a knee injury in the preseason.
Key for Illini: Make them defend Leonard, the only true big man in the game.
Key for Tigers: Show everyone the season's hot start is more than a schedule ranked No. 341 nationally.
Key quote: "I told them we're the underdog. See what happens. See if we can disrupt them. See if we keep it close and make the clutch plays we've made. They haven't been in that situation.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
Prediction: Missouri 72, Illinois 66