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'Change will always start with you'

Cary Ashby • Updated Sep 21, 2018 at 10:41 PM

MILAN — Former Michigan State University basketball star Anthony Ianni had a person who bullied him in fifth grade ask him for an autograph.

The man wanted his basketball signed. 

“He was super excited to see me; I didn’t want to see him at all,” said Ianni, a 2010 and 2012 Big Ten champion and member of Michigan State’s Final Four team, who signed the ball and chatted with the man.

Later as he drove away from the arena, Ianni said he had to laugh because his one-time bully had asked for the autograph on behalf of his sibling, but he knew his former bully didn’t have any brothers or sisters and simply was too chicken to ask for the signature himself.

On Friday, Ianni brought his anti-bullying “Relentless Tour” to Edison high and middle schools. He started the initiative five years ago. Through the tour, Iannia and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights are raising awareness about autism and problem of bullying. Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley joined Ianni at the state capitol to kick off the “Relentless Tour” on Oct. 17, 2013 with the goal of reaching nearly 660 schools in the state.

Ianni’s honors include the Michigan State Tim Bograkos Walk-on and 2012 Unsung Player awards and being a 2013 Detroit Pistons Community Game Changer finalist. Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 4, he said he is most proud of being the first-ever Division NCAA athlete with autism and graduating from Michigan State.

Due to having autism, Ianni was the subject of bullies from the time he was in kindergarten through about junior high. He often was teased about his height, being bigger than other students and because he didn’t act like other children. Ianni said pop star Justin Timberlake was teased in school because of the way he sang and he often appeared to talk to himself when during lunch, he rehearsed his lines for a play.

After having endured bullying from one person, Ianni said he came home fed up and decided the next day he would punch him — if for no other reason than to finish the ordeal. But he added he realized “if I knock this guy out,” the situation might just get worse and this wasn’t who he is and what his family raised him to be.

Ianni had the last word on the basketball court years later. He and the bully were on different teams.

“This guy had to guard me the entire game,” Ianni said. “I went out and dropped 20 points on him.”

Some time afterward, he attempted to shake the bully’s hand to be a good sport, but he said the other player walked away and never bothered him again.

One of the messages that Ianni had for the Edison students was to let their talent and education speak for who they are. He also said it’s important to be aware of how they treat people now because later in life, “that person could end up being your boss” or be the absolute best at what they do.

“I want to eradicate bullying as much as I can,” said Ianni, who was touched by a phone call after one of his middle-school assemblies in Michigan six years ago.

A student’s mother told him her autistic son “had the best day ever” when “my son’s bully walked up to my son and apologized,” he recalled. Following the anecdote, Ianni told the Edison High School students they can be the reason a fellow student has a really good or bad day. 

“The change will always start with each and every one of you,” he added. “That change starts right here in this school.”

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