College Basketball

Chris Chiozza has his grandmother in his heart and on his arm

From the time he was running around with boundless energy on his grandparents’ farm in Mason, Tennessee, and described by his own mother as a teeny-tiny kid, Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza has been a blur.

Curtistine Crenshaw-Chiozza can still hear her late mother, Pearlie Crenshaw, marveling with that grandmotherly affection, “That boy has more energy than anybody in the world.” Anybody who has ever matched up against Chiozza on the basketball court can relate.

It’s only fitting that the SEC’s best point guard carries a little bit of his grandmother with him everywhere he goes. He sports a full-color tattoo of his maternal grandmother on his left shoulder, one he had done last season to honor her memory and the lasting impression she had on that “teeny-tiny” kid who had big dreams and now has an even bigger game.

“She meant so much to me, so I was always trying to figure out a way I could commemorate her and always have her with me forever,” said Chiozza, who in his first season as a full-time starter leads the SEC with a 3.22 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks ninth nationally.

Chiozza still speaks softly when he talks about his grandmother, who died the summer before his junior year of high school. At the time, he was painfully undersized and barely a blip on the recruiting radar of basketball’s blue bloods. His grandmother’s death hit him hard, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. His Team Thad AAU team, based out of Memphis, had a big tournament in Pittsburgh the same weekend as her funeral. As Crenshaw-Chiozza was planning her mother’s funeral, she knew her son was struggling emotionally with what to do.

“We told him to go play basketball, that his grandmother would want that for him,” Crenshaw-Chiozza recalled. “That was the best way he could honor her.” And boy did he.

Chiozza played some of the best and most inspired basketball of his life, leading Team Thad to the championship game — even with two of its best players missing.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. Chris took his game to a whole different level,” recalled Norton Hurd IV, co-founder of the Team Thad program and Chiozza’s AAU coach since middle school. “That was the tournament that turned his life around. I know he was torn about his grandmother’s funeral, but he made the right decision.”

For the weekend, Chiozza averaged 27 points, seven assists and seven steals against elite competition and went from a set-up point guard to a point guard who could do it all.

“He was everywhere, throwing bounce passes on the string and ripping guys every time they turned around,” Hurd said. “He had some mid-major offers going into that tournament, but a few weeks later, Florida, Ohio State, UConn, Tennessee … they all got onto him. He got 10 high-major offers just like that.”

The reality is that Chiozza’s size kept a lot of the big-time schools away initially. Hurd jokes that Chiozza might have been 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds “dripping wet” when he started with Team Thad, but Chiozza prefers to think that his transformation from an undersized kid who played hard to a heavily recruited prospect goes a bit deeper than sheer measurables.

“My basketball career went to a whole different level, and I know a lot of it was my grandmother being up there watching me,” Chiozza said. “That’s when people found out who I really was, and I’ve just felt like a different basketball player since she passed away.”

Chiozza spent countless hours with his grandparents as a kid. In fact, Pearlie Crenshaw retired early from her job to watch Chiozza so that Crenshaw-Chiozza could go back to work.

“She didn’t want him to have to go to daycare, so he was with my parents a lot and had a free run on their farm,” said Crenshaw-Chiozza, whose favorite picture of Chiozza remains one of him wearing her father’s cowboy hat and sitting up on his John Deere tractor.

Chiozza’s grandfather, Emerson Crenshaw, was a deacon in their church, and Chiozza spent Sunday mornings going to church with his grandparents and sitting in the same place in the pews every Sunday. In fact, it’s still the church his parents attend. They drive 35 miles from their home in Bartlett, Tennessee, and “pass a million other churches” to worship at First Baptist Keeling.

“It’s a big reason why I have so much faith in myself and they had so much faith in themselves: me, family and God,” Chiozza said. “That’s a big part of who I am and why I’m so confident.”

Chiozza’s grandfather died seven months after his grandmother, but his paternal grandparents, Francis and Mary Chiozza, are still living and now reside in Orlando, Florida. They’re at every home game to watch their grandson play for the Gators.

“Before every game during the national anthem, I close my eyes and say a little prayer and think about my grandmother and everybody else who’s been a big part of my life, like my mom and dad, my whole family really,” Chiozza said. “I think about all they’ve done for me. I just want to make them proud.”

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Florida beats Missouri on the road thanks to a last-second steal and basket by Chris Chiozza.

Crenshaw-Chiozza admits she didn’t know what to think when Chiozza first told her he was going to get a tattoo of his grandmother. He already had some serious ink on his left arm, somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 different tattoos, although he jokes that he hasn’t counted them lately.

“He called and asked me for a picture of my mom,” Crenshaw-Chiozza said. “I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe he’s just missing her and wanted a picture,’ and I sent him one. He then told me he was thinking of getting a tattoo of her, and I thought, ‘My gosh, I don’t know if my mom would want him to have her on his body.'”

Even then, Crenshaw-Chiozza wasn’t sure he would go through with it, but once she actually saw the tattoo, she was impressed.

“I don’t have any tattoos, and each to his or her own, but it was such a likeness of my mom that I couldn’t help but like it. It looks so much like her,” Crenshaw-Chiozza said.

Chiozza’s flair for the dramatic — be it his 3-pointer in overtime to beat Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 last season or his last-second steal and layup to beat Missouri this season — is well known to Florida fans. But his focus right now is getting the Gators back on a more consistent trajectory as they point toward March.

“We can be the best team or one of the lowest teams,” said Chiozza, who ranks in the top five of the SEC in assists, steals and free-throw percentage. “It’s something we’ve got to figure out, how to be on that high end every time. We’ve had a roller-coaster season. We’ll have great games and then we’ll have games where we’re terrible. That’s going to cost us if we don’t change it.”

Florida coach Mike White said there’s no substitute for having a point guard of Chiozza’s caliber as you near the postseason.

“He’s the real deal, the entire package,” White said. “He’s got great focus, elite-level speed and quickness, but I think his greatest attribute is his level of toughness. He’s tough as nails.” And never too far removed from his grandmother.

“I always believed I had this in me, and she did, too,” Chiozza said. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve never worried, whether it was last year when I wasn’t starting or when a lot of people thought I was too small in high school or at the end of games. I’ve got faith in myself that I’m always going to do something good or make something happen to help the team.”

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