“The change starts with each and every single one of you here,” said Anthony Ianni, member of Michigan State University’s 2010 and 2012 Big Ten Champion and Tournament Championship teams, as he spoke to dozens of middle school students Jan. 12 at West Village Academy in Dearborn.

And as the students sat patiently on the basketball court inside the school’s gymnasium listening to Ianni speak on a rainy Thursday morning, the battle being played out on the court didn’t involve any lay-ups, jumps shots, or triple-doubles, but rather, it was a fight against bullying.

Ianni, 28, travels around the country and speaks at various events as an anti-bullying advocate for his “Relentless Tour,” a grassroots initiative designed to help eradicate bullying.

During his motivational speeches, Ianni, who was diagnosed with autism when he was a toddler, pulls from his life experiences to level with the students he speaks to, because the now 6-foot 9-inch tall former MSU center was bullied his whole young life.

“When I was 4 years old, I was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, which is on the autism spectrum,” Ianni said to the students, as he kicked off the event.

A year later, Ianni, then 5, said his family was told by doctors that his chances of achieving things most people see as normal in life, would be extra slim for someone like him, who faces the numerous challenges that come with autism.

“A group of doctors and professionals told my parents that they shouldn’t expect me to do much or be much in life, that I’ll never make it in high school, never go to college, or never be an athlete,” Ianni said. “They said that, after high school, I would be placed into a group institution with other autistic kids for the rest of my life.”

Ianni would prove them wrong by going on to graduate from Michigan State University and becoming the first known individual with autism to play Division I college basketball.

“Each and every single day was different, with an equally difficult challenge,” Ianni said. “One of the biggest obstacles I’ve ever had to overcome in my entire life was bullies.”

Ianni said that kids with autism are the number one targets for bullies at just about every school across the country.

“I was bullied from my kindergarten days until I was a freshman in high school,” Ianni said.

He explained that as a kid, he would say and do things that were out of the ordinary and were different to the other students.

“People always tried to bully and tease me because of that,” he said.

During his presentation, Ianni recalled an instance when he was in elementary school, and how someone who once came to his rescue while he was being bullied turned out to be a traitor.

“There was this one kid — a fifth grader — whenever I would get bullied and picked on by other people, he would walk up to my side and tell the other bullies ‘hey, why don’t you leave my little brother alone?’”

Ianni said that when this student was around, he felt like he had support — like someone had his back. But it was all a trick.

“This guy turned his back on me, took advantage of me, and knew that, because I was born with autism, that I could be tricked into doing and saying things easily,” he said.

Ianni said that one day at recess, the bully pushed his friends aside and tricked him into putting his tongue on a frozen pole.