ZILLAH If you look closely at Antonio Salinas’ right shoulder, you’ll find one of the most unique tattoos you’ll ever see.
A basketball nestled in a sea of peaceful clouds, with a scripture underneath.
Remembering you is easy, we do it everyday
Missing you is heartache, that never goes away
The tattoo is a tribute to his childhood friend, Kelly Michael Zick, who took his own life in the summer of 2015.
“I first heard about it from one of my friends, and I thought this can’t be real,” Salinas said. “So, I made a bunch of phone calls, and I didn’t want to believe it. It’s something that will stick with me for the rest my life.”
Kelly and Salinas first met at a youth basketball camp, when Salinas was in first grade and Kelly in second grade.
Living only five minutes apart, they immediately became great friends. Kelly and Salinas would do everything together.
Rooming at basketball tournaments is a fond memory for Salinas.
“We would travel together to places like Spokane and Walla Walla,” said Salinas. “We would play video games, hang out at the pool, we were just being kids.”
Two weeks after Kelly’s passing, a tournament was organized as a tribute to Kelly. It was called the Kelly Michael Zick Memorial Tournament.
Teams from all over Yakima Valley came together to compete in this one-of-a-kind event. They wanted to celebrate Kelly’s life in the best way they could, playing basketball.
Toppenish assistant Jay Sanchez was a coach for Kelly Michael Zick, and he believed this tournament was important for the entire valley community.
“Most of it was for awareness,” Sanchez said. “It was important to educate young people and grown-ups. We had counselors on the premises all weekend. We really tried to take a proactive approach.”
For all intents and purposes, the winner of this tournament was not going to be the most important takeaway from this event.
But that’s not the way Salinas felt. He wanted to win it; he wanted to win it so bad for his childhood friend.
Salinas’ team would fall short in the semi-finals. Antonio’s mother, Alvina Salinas, believed the tournament was a great learning moment.
“He really wanted to win it,” Alvina Salinas said. “But when Toppenish won, he understood that it was more fitting that Toppenish would win it.”
The months following were described by Salinas as the hardest of his life. Slogging his way through tournaments, staying up into the wee hours of the morning, not knowing or understanding why.
Salinas sits on the bleachers at Zillah, reflecting on the memories of his childhood friend.
“I play for Kelly.”
Chasing a Dream
Antonio Salinas may be the most goal-oriented person you’ll ever meet.
He wants to make life easy for his family, get college paid for through his athletic endeavors and lead his school to a second state title.
There’s not necessarily a reason why he can’t accomplish his dreams. But he hasn’t accomplished any of them yet. And that’s what scares him.
“Separation in the preparation,” Salinas says as he laces up for another session. “That’s all I can do.”
You’d be forgiven if you haven’t made the trip out to see Salinas.
He’s tucked away 20 miles south of Yakima in the small town of Zillah. It’s a town known more for its grazing cows than producing Division I athletes.
But don’t be fooled, Zillah is a school that demands excellence. Since 2009, the basketball team has compiled a record of 218-22; that’s more wins than any other program in the state over that span.
As the leader of the most successful team in the state over the past decade, Salinas bears the burden of a community that demands winning.
It’s a town that sells 800 tickets to a basketball game when the population is 3,000. The program competes at the 1A level, but consistently outranks 4A schools.
When you drive into the rural community, the first thing that welcomes you is a 12-foot tall sign that says: Welcome to Zillah, home of the 1A State Champs.
It’s old school, and when you think Zillah, a spinning orange ball should pop up next to it.
For as long as Salinas can remember, basketball has been his undying passion in life.
His biggest role model growing up was his older brother, Bobby Salinas. At just six years old, Salinas would go to all his brother’s basketball games.
During timeouts, Salinas would run out on the floor and dribble the ball that was the size of his head.
“He would put a show on for the crowd,” Bobby Salinas said. “I remember in first grade he could dribble through his legs backwards. Me, being the older brother, I was just laughing.”
Salinas’ talent was evident from a young age. His speed and coordination were simply a tier above his peers.
Making his debut in first grade, he had to play with kids two or three years older than him.
It was at the tender age of nine that he started traveling the country to compete in highly prestigious showcases.
Along with other Central Washington standouts like Brock Ravet and Elijah Pepper, they would travel to places like Las Vegas and Chicago to compete against the nation’s best.
Following intense cross country showcases, Salinas would be back in the gym as soon as he stepped off the plane.
“People might think that our family pushed this on him,” Bobby Salinas said. “But that’s not true, I’ve never seen a kid want something as badly as he does.”
Move to Kittitas
If you can believe it, Salinas’ intentions were not to play high school basketball for Zillah.
“I was Kittitas bound,” Salinas said sheepishly.
He was raised until middle school in Zillah. But that all changed when his father, Robert Salinas, took a job as a police officer in Ellensburg.
So, at the start of seventh grade, Salinas enrolled at Kittitas. It’s a town on the outskirts of Ellensburg.
The plan was for Salinas to team with Brock Ravet at Kittitas, forming potentially the most lethal backcourt in the state.
In the tight-knit Washington basketball community, Salinas and Ravet were widely considered two of the top players in the 2019 class.
Ravet is now actually committed to play Gonzaga basketball.
The duo had grown up playing together on the AAU circuit (off-season basketball). It only made sense that they would team up for their latter years as well.
But as the boys grew older, and dreams of playing college basketball started to become a reality, tension would develop.
Salinas and Ravet both played the same position — point guard — and both had the same playing style: Shoot first, ask questions later.
But as the old saying goes… there’s only one basketball, and so, something had to give.
Tournaments started to turn into a circus. Some games it felt like Salinas was taking all the shots, other games it felt like Ravet was taking all the shots.
There were whispers that Salinas was a ball hog, or perhaps Ravet was a ball hog?
But the reality was neither was a ball hog. They just both needed the rock, because shooters shoot.
It became clear that both players were going to need to go their separate ways in order to continue developing their game. It was nothing personal, and to this day Salinas and Ravet are great friends.
So, prior to his freshman year, Salinas packed his bags and headed back to Zillah.
Return to Zillah
When Salinas made his return to Zillah, there were already big plans in place for him.
In a program as competitive as Zillah, you have to be a special player to get playing time as a freshman.
Head coach of Zillah basketball, Mario Mengarelli, has known Salinas since he was in kindergarten.
“It was bittersweet watching him go to Kittitas,” Mengarelli said. “When I heard that he was coming back, I was extremely excited.”
Knowing the type of talent he was working with, Mengarelli made Salinas the first freshman on Zillah’s varsity team in more than eight years.
While his minutes were light, the opportunity to play alongside standout seniors like Scotty Burge and Danny Ellis was priceless.
“Those guys didn’t see me as lesser just because I was younger,” Salinas said. “They wanted to see the program succeed for generations to come.”
The experience he got in his first season would set the table for his sophomore season, however.
In his second year, Salinas absolutely broke out. He became Zillah’s starting point guard and would go on to win a state championship.
Winning a state championship meant everything to Salinas. If you see him at school, at the grocery store or at the local library, you’ll never catch him without his 16-17 state championship ring.
It was early 2017 that Mengarelli started to see college potential in his point guard.
He cited Salinas’ improvement at one on one basketball and clutch play as key reasons why colleges would soon start noticing him.
“I knew he was going to be a next level guy,” Mengarelli said. “He does what he does, and I’m on his side.”
Plenty of colleges have reached out to Salinas over the past two years, but there’s one common gripe from college coaches he keeps hearing.
I Am Not Undersized
Salinas insists that he’s 6-feet tall.
He could be. It’s all subjective really. It depends on if he’s having a good day.
With a unique hairstyle that adds a couple inches to his stature (which he claims he doesn’t use any product for), we may never truly know.
Height is obviously a big deal in the world of college basketball, and so it has become a major talking point for Salinas.
“I’ve had coaches come up to me and say, ‘If you were two inches taller, we would’ve offered you already,” Salinas said.
It’s not just the height that has recruiters scratching their heads, it’s also the physical measurements.
In today’s modern era of recruiting, height isn’t the only factor that measures a player’s size. Analytic charts pulled out of ESPN Sports Science break down a player’s intangibles.
Salinas doesn’t have large hands that can palm a basketball, wide shoulders to block 215-pound wings, or a long wingspan to defend the 6-foot, 5-inch guards.
So, he wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and heads to the Zillah weight room. Then, he enters Zillah’s home gym and puts up 250 shots.
“I work hard to prove doubters wrong,” Salinas said. “You can say I don’t have what it takes, and I’m going to work and make it happen.”
One of the greatest tools a basketball recruit has right now is social media.
You can post your game highlights, announce your showcases and communicate with colleges coaches.
For a player like Salinas, it’s become one of his most valuable resources.
“It is way harder getting noticed being out here,” Salinas said. “Some people don’t take it seriously because it’s not 3A or 4A basketball.”
The reality is he’s not playing in front of 3,000 people at a soldout Seattle gym. There certainly aren’t dozens of college coaches lining up for Zillah vs Goldendale.
It becomes up to Salinas to get his name out there, or risk falling behind.
He has used social media to his advantage and over the years has developed a massive following.
Despite living in an isolated town in the countryside of Washington, Salinas has accumulated more than 13,000 followers from all over the world.
A quick ‘Antonio Salinas’ Google search will net you everything from YouTube highlights to recruiting rankings to player profiles.
It’s not just his on-court skills that have people talking.
“I’m also a rapper,” Salinas said. “It’s something that I’ve been working on and hopefully it will take off.”
Similar to famous basketball players like Damian Lillard, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Durant, Salinas has dived into the world of hip-hop.
Along with teammates ‘Big Boy Brock’ Ellis and Kaden Magana, they work together to create viral rap songs.
His number one single, ‘Never Gonna Stop,’ has accumulated more than 3,500 plays on SoundCloud.
Whether it’s creating basketball highlights, or making rap songs, Salinas understands the value of social media.
In fact, without it, he likely wouldn’t be on the radar of several Division I colleges.
Playing college basketball has been a dream for Salinas for more than a decade now.
He knows this time next year he’s going to be playing in a college arena, but which one that will be is the biggest mystery in his life.
Right now, he’s talking to schools at every single level, in almost every part of the country.
At the Big Sky level, he has communicated with Eastern Washington, Montana, Portland State and Cal Poly. Then there’s Colorado State, Denver, World Incarnate and Seattle U.
At the Division II level he’s heard from Central Washington and Western Washington.
He’s also received interest from Junior College powerhouse College of Southern Idaho, and Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the biggest one of them all, however, is Oregon State University. It’s a school he’s visited several times in the past.
“I’ve been lucky enough to spend lots of time on their campus and workout at their facilities,” Salinas said. “I think playing in the PAC-12 is a goal for every west coast recruit.”
This will be one of the biggest decisions Salinas will make in his life. There’s about a thousand different factors in play, and the stakes are absurdly high.
Does he risk getting less playing time at a Division I school? Does he roll the dice at a Junior College? Could he handle the rigors of the Ivy League?
“My Dad tells me that if I want this, I need to separate myself,” Salinas said. “I have a board on my wall that says, ‘the education that’s free is the education for me.’”
Salinas says he wants to study either exercise science or architecture. He’s always been fascinated by athletic performance and also how the physical world is made.
The timetable for this decision is April 2019.
A Second Title
A calendar sits on Salinas’ wall. It counts down the days.
March 2, 2019 is the day when the 1A State Championship is going to be played. It’s a game that he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself to win.
While he did win a state title in his sophomore year, he also fully acknowledges he had the help of a loaded senior class.
The desire is there to win a championship as ‘the man,’ amongst the many other accolades he hopes to earn.
MVP honors, All State honors and hoisting the gold trophy come in March. He wants it all.
Of course, basketball is as great of a team sport as any, and Salinas has some amazing teammates to work with.
If Salinas were not on the team, shooting guard Brock Ellis would be the one carrying the team. He is a lethal playmaker.
Then there’s high-spirited Cesar Diaz. He’s going into this third year as a starter and plays with as much heart as anyone.
The big men, Weston Ide and Sebastian Godina, are totally locked into their roles.
Add in phenomenal bench players like Cody Vance, Kaden Magana, Claysen Delp and Dakota Hibbs, this is a championship level roster.
Last year, this group made it to the semi-finals, before falling 76-67 to Freeman High School.
“I took that loss to heart,” Salinas said. “We were young last year, now we have no excuse to get another gold ball.”
You would be hard-pressed to find another human that wants something as bad as Salinas wants to be great.
Whether it’s winning a championship, or committing to a college program, his biggest enemy right now is time.
So many goals to accomplish, so little time.
These next few months are going to shape the rest of his life. Things are happening fast, and he needs all the help he can get.
If there’s one thing he can count on, it’s the Zillah faithful riding with him till his final days.
“I want to say thank you to the Zillah community for supporting me over the years,” Salinas said. “I promise I’m not going to let you down.”