A walk-on’s walk off

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Jeff LaBelle

Beverly Poindexter was in her moment as she sat in the bleachers staring at her son, Chris Hicks, in his final home game at Assembly Hall. Nothing could steal her attention from the Illini’s reserve guard – “Christopher” she called him – as her face lit up and a smile, one that runs in the family, broke wide open.

“This has been exciting for all of us, especially him,” she said, fixated as he took a seat on the Illinois bench. The orange shirts in the stands and the action on the court only served as a backdrop to her own personal show: tracking her son and everything he did in his final minutes in the building. “I know all of this is hitting him hard. But it has been so much fun being here, with the game, with the team and everything.”

The crowd started to rumble as halftime in Saturday’s home game against Minnesota came to a close. The Illini led for much of the game, but Chris was in his usual spot at the end of the bench, scoreless and minuteless. The senior walk-on, the fan-favorite, the “funny dude” as senior center Shaun Pruitt called him, would get his chance.


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All in the Hicks family

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“My goal was to get him into the game,” Weber said afterward.

Hicks, the least-heralded of three departing seniors on the Illinois basketball team, debated whether he wanted his moment to come so soon. A few weeks ago, he wondered if he would accept his fourth year of eligibility and return next season, delay the inevitable. His teammates have asked him to come back and there’s a part of him, too, that wants to be back for another year.

“He might come back, I don’t know,” starting point guard Chester Frazier said at the time, pointing to his leadership as a reason for him to stay, even if he has only played 58 minutes in three years. “I’m still holding out hope that he will.”

But when head coach Bruce Weber succumbed to the chants of “put in Chris Hicks,” near the end of regulation, the decision was all but made for him.

With less than 60 seconds to play, he was finally on the court. A few blown defensive assignments later and he was back on the bench, shaking his head, until all but the final fifteen seconds had rolled off the clock.

He finally reentered the game and on the last play, with no time left, hurled a hope-filled 25-footer into the air, watched as it floated, and with it a career, a dream and a journey started coming to an end.

Freshman rejection

Hicks lounges in an extra deep couch at the Ubben, Basketball Complex, the team’s practice facility, reflecting on the events that unfolded that led him to Illinois. He finds humor in almost everything he says, remembering what it was about “massaging legs, getting ice bags, stretching people out,” that turned him on to athletic training in the first place.

“I was on the other side of the spectrum. I loved, well, I liked being an athletic trainer,” he said.

As a freshman, Hicks was working closely with the men’s track team as a kinesiology major, hoping someday for a job in the field. He did it, he said, to stay close to athletes, their mind-sets and the spirit of competition. He did it to stay around the atmosphere he had loved since grade school.

“It was a way to stay around sports, to stay around athletes in general,” he said. “Other people know that once you’re out of high school, athletes miss being around that atmosphere. Athletes are a different set of people, so to be around them every day was a joy.”

On the side, Hicks played pickup games at all the gyms on campus to keep his basketball game polished and was figured to be one of the best players without “Illinois” written across his chest. He played four years at Whitney Young High School in Chicago and averaged 12 points and six rebounds during his senior season. When he tried out for the 2004-05 team at the beginning of his freshman year as a walk-on, his chances weren’t good with the likes of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head penciled into the guard spots. But nothing stopped him from trying. To this day, he wishes things had somehow worked out differently that year.

“When I didn’t make it the Final Four year, coach told me they were thinking about taking me but then decided not to that final minute. That kind of eats at me at the end of the day.”

Weber said Hicks had one of the better workouts before that legendary season when the Illini went 37-2. But in the end, he said, the talent on the roster was too stacked.

“That was the year we just didn’t need anybody,” Weber said. “He was one of the better guys, but we really, unless somebody was just unbelievable, we weren’t going to be able to keep anybody.”

One year later, Hicks started seeing flyers for walk-on tryouts again, announcing this time that the team had two spots it needed to fill. It had been his dream since high school, since before that even, to play basketball in college. Hicks said it was one of three big goals, other than “getting straight A’s one semester in high school” and making his high school team, that he set in his life.

Immediately following the workout, excited about his chances, he gave his younger brother, Aaron, a call, just to let him know what had happened.

“The first year he found out he didn’t make it he was really disappointed. I really wanted to be down here with him and help him through it,” said Aaron, now a 20-year-old student at Southern Illinois University. “But then the next year he called me on his way home from the tryouts to say, ‘Hey Aaron, I think I really did it this time. I think I made it. But don’t say anything to the family until I hear from the coach.'”

“I had to keep it a secret so I kept it, or else he would kill me. Yeah, that was a great time for everybody.”

Weber said that in his second tryout, Chris showcased a determination that he hasn’t often seen from walk-ons, especially under the circumstances.

“He tried out the first year, didn’t make it, and a lot of kids would get heartbroken,” Weber said. “He comes back, he tries out again, and it just happens it’s a year we don’t have many guys so we need some bodies. Everybody likes him and he’s got a great attitude, so we invite him back.”

A productive tryout earned him a spot on the team and a front row seat to the hottest ticket in Champaign. Funny to think that were it not for a conversation he had with his mom a few months earlier, none of it would have happened.

Almost transferring

Contacts established while playing for AAU summer league teams in Chicago started turning out offers after his freshman-year setback. He heard from a representative of Matt Doherty, the coach at Florida-Atlantic at the time, best known for his three years at the helm of North Carolina. Doherty, who now runs the program at Southern Methodist University, told Hicks through the representative that “we would like to take you,” Hicks said, but that the only thing holding him back was that he didn’t have highlight tapes.

“He said ‘I’d love to take your advice’ but that he’d really have to see me play before we could do anything. I told him I couldn’t do it because, you know, I didn’t have any highlight tapes.”

Does he have any now?

“No, I don’t. But (film coordinator Jeremy) Izzo is making me one at end of the year for my senior gift.”

Other Division II and III programs sent feelers Hicks’ way and, after getting rejected in his first walk-on tryout at Illinois, the 6-foot-2-inch guard with a potent outside shot seriously considered taking one of them.

“I had the opportunity to go down south to D-II, D-III schools and actually play. That’s how much I missed the game,” Hicks said. “I had asked a lot of people about transferring and I told myself, ‘I’m going to go ask the one person who I trust and believe in, who I know would give me an honest answer.'”

Hicks went to his mother, Beverly, for advice.

“I kind of knew she was going to say she would support me, it’s kind of expected, but for her to give me a definitive answer, ‘I think you should stay at Illinois,’ that was like ‘OK, that’s what I need to do.'”

“She’s told me plenty of times, ‘Put on a hat,’ and I don’t do it, so I get a cold. She’s been Miss Everything in my life,” he added. “She’s given me more than probably I deserve, provided everything. She takes care of her mother – my grandmother’s sick with Alzheimer’s. We own an apartment building, she does loads of work on it. I honestly don’t know how she does it.”

Hicks, through watching his mother and learning from her tenacity, found his own intensity and drive that made him the motivator his teammates know today.

“If I could be half the person she is and if I could find a wife, who is half the woman she is, that would be perfect,” he said. “To work hard at something takes a lot. For her to set an example of doing that, it’s just been amazing.

“You just want to thank her somehow, someway. That’s just one reason I wanted to go to the NBA, just to buy her a house,” he said. “I guess I have to find a way through med school to do that. I never doubted that she would give me the right answer.”

Beverly remembers the tumultuous time in her son’s life well. Her daughter, Denise, had been a student at Illinois, so trips to and from school had become routine and enjoyable. By association, Beverly started falling in love with the school, and when Chris came calling, she only had one thing to tell him.

“I had been down to the school before, so I kind of fell in love with it myself,” she said. “When he came here I was glad of that, that he made it here. When he talked about going away I said, ‘Don’t do that.’ It was just, I didn’t want him to go anywhere else. I wanted him to be here. It’s just the right fit for him.”

Is he really leaving?

Chester Frazier said two weeks ago he was still holding out hope that Hicks would decide to stay on the team one more season, help push them through one more year. Guard Trent Meacham refused to make a prediction one way or the other.

“Initially he was talking about, thinking about maybe coming back for another year, but I’m not sure exactly what he’s doing with school,” Meacham said. “He’s into stuff that will require a lot of time and effort so I think he’s pretty focused on that. We all wish him the best of luck in that if that’s what he decides to do, but I hope he comes around some.”

Because he didn’t make the team his freshman year and everyone carries four years of eligibility to a team, Hicks could stay on for one more season even though he’s graduating. He went to Aaron again to talk when he wasn’t sure what to do.

“He talked to me about it last week because I was asking him what was going on with the team or whatever and he was like, ‘You know, they’re struggling,'” Aaron said. “He was like, ‘Do you think I should stay or not?’ and I was like, ‘Well, it’s your choice, but if things aren’t going right, the way you think things should be going, then maybe it’s time to leave.’ He said, ‘Well, OK.'”

Even if his time at the University is coming to a close, Hicks’ effect on others while with the program has been undeniable.

“He just gives me a different perspective on if you want something you have to go get it,” senior Brian Randle said. “Coming in early, doing the extra skill work with the younger guys, it doesn’t so much matter for him if he’s going to get in or not. It’s just giving himself the chance. In all things that we do, it’s important to put everything we have out there. Don’t hold back because of fear or out of a possible income, you have to do it whole-heartedly. That’s Chris, that’s what he does in every aspect of his life.”

Dimmer dreams

Hicks’ shot of playing in the NBA may never come, but that hasn’t stopped the guard from wondering what life would be like if he put off a potential stint in medical school for a foray overseas playing ball. What if he decided not to pursue sports medicine, and the year he said he’s going to spend being a personal trainer after he leaves Illinois, he spent playing overseas somewhere?

“I don’t have a future in the NBA, but I’ve actually thought about going overseas,” he said. “I’ve gotten to a couple people that said maybe I could. I don’t know.”

Hicks’ coaches and players sounded shocked by the news he’d even briefly considered the option, and his brother had to do a double-take. Frazier said that, although Hicks’ foot-speed is lacking, he might be able to make a go of it in Europe.

“Europe? To do what, play ball? I don’t know, he could,” Frazier said. “Chris has some days in practice, man, where he looks good. He definitely can shoot the ball. I don’t know. He probably still has the same foot-speed as those guys. Actually, he’s pretty slow.”

It was the first Aaron had heard about the dreams to play professionally but as he watched his brother warm up on the court, he started remembering the days the two did battle on a Fisher-Price hoop set at home, near 80th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue on the South Side of Chicago.

As they grew, they would leave their home, a six-flat apartment, to test their luck on the real rims at the elementary school a few blocks away.

“I don’t want to put him down. I only beat him once,” he said. “I remember he took me out to the park one time outside my house and he was like, ‘All right, Aaron, this is your last chance to try to beat me because this is the last time I’m going to play you.’ He killed me. I was like, ‘Aww, man.’ I was a sophomore in high school and I haven’t played him since. He kept his word.

Does Aaron think Chris has a shot somewhere in the professional basketball world?

“I think personally he should keep going toward the basketball thing,” he said. “But I think he’s better to be a coach because he is the backbone of the team. He’s really knowledgeable in basketball even though he may not play like he talks. But he’s really smart, and he could honestly lead a team.”

Jerrance Howard, one of the Illini’s current assistant coaches and former “player-coach” in his days as a guard, once played behind Dee, Deron and Luther on the depth chart. Assistant coach Wayne McClain, who watched both Howard and Hicks put their leadership skills on display, said Hicks could make a career for himself in the basketball world.

“He is incredible,” McClain said. “I think he’s destined for great things. To be an athlete of that level and to come in and know you’re just going to be the emotional core of your team takes something special.

“Guys like that are smart on the sideline. Chris says things to me, picks up things that I don’t even see. He’ll say, ‘Oh, he went over the screen instead of under,’ or, ‘He needs to drag his dribble a little more.’ There’s always this light going off in my head that says these guys are going to be coaches one day. If Chris chooses to stay in coaching, he’ll be a great coach, I’m sure, because one thing about being on this level is you get to see everything, you’re at the highest level of basketball. It prepares you if you want to stay in it.”

His last shot

The basketball finally comes down from its eternal free fall, descending the heights of the Assembly Hall air with a fury. The last shot of Hicks’ home career, the last shot of the team’s regular season, falls through the netting and to the floor, a three-pointer, but nobody hears it bounce. By the time Hicks has released himself from a statuesque shooter’s pose, the crowd loses control. His brilliance becomes the pandemonium of everyone in attendance until teammates begin huddling around him, not believing what just happened.

“It’s like it was meant to be,” Shaun Pruitt said.

It’s unlikely Hicks could have picked a better way to go out, and the shot, in all its drama, made his decision easy.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It’s not like I shot it any different from the rest of my shots, I kind of just threw it at the rim. It wasn’t like I was even trying to make it, I was just trying to get a shot off. I don’t know. I think somebody must have grabbed it and put it in there for me. I don’t know how it went in.”

Hicks said he wasn’t going to shoot it at first, not after looking over at Minnesota coach Tubby Smith on the sidelines. “Out of respect,” he said. But once he got in, and once he looked at head coach Bruce Weber and smiled to let him know what he was about to do, his instinct took over. Was it the right thing to do with the Illini clearly set to win? Was it sportsmanlike? All Hicks knows was it was the shot he needed to end his Illinois career.

“I told a couple people, it’s like Jeffrey’s (Jordan) father – I’m going to leave after making my last shot,” Hicks said. “I think it’s a perfect ending, and for it to go in, I think it’s just the perfect sign that it’s time for me to go.”

Weber, in his post-game press conference, said he apologized to Smith for the shot but rationalized it by explaining Hicks’ unique situation. Nobody seemed to mind at all.

“(Chris) said, ‘Coach, I was thinking “no,” but I sure wanted to shoot it,'” Weber said. “That sucker went up, he looked over at me and it went swish. I just ran over to Tubby and said, ‘Please, I’m sorry.’ You know, you don’t want to rub it in. I explained he was a walk-on senior and Tubby said, ‘Man, he’s a good shooter.'”

Hicks’ father, Cornelius, sat trailing a slow stream of tears after the stadium had started clearing out, the game finished. The final score of 67-58 meant little except for those three points by his son, only a small sliver of the legacy he will leave.

Hicks and his father shared a rocky relationship when he was younger. “It was rough,” he said, “we didn’t agree on a lot of things.” And once his parents split a few years ago, his father thought the bond would deteriorate even more. But to have him in attendance at his last game, and to share a moment so profound, brought the two closer together.

“It was special for both of us,” Hicks said. “I’m glad he was there to see it.”

For Cornelius, too, it was a moment he had only dreamed about.

“He’s been sitting on the bench for a long time. But that was his moment and my moment, too. It brings tears to my eyes, I can’t describe it, but I love it,” he said. “I’m going to tell you something right here. I call him, and maybe he don’t like the term that I use, but he’s the cheerleader of this team. Maybe he doesn’t like the term, but he’s a motivator. He’s always been a motivator. He’s always been kind, happy, and I love him, man. I just love him. I love him more than anything.”

After the game, with the tears flowing, in a whirlwind of hugs, and with the smiles of Illini nation raining down on him, Chris Hicks stepped up to a microphone near center court and thanked everyone, anyone that was listening, for “making a little kid’s dream come true.”

He looked around one last time as if to say ‘goodbye,’ smiled, and let out one last laugh that echoed through the building.

His mom looked down on him with a smile almost as big as his.

“My mom’s always taking pictures of me sitting on the bench,” Hicks said. “But for her to actually see all of that, witness that, it’s a nice way to go out.”