Saturday, March 4, 2006
A lion of a Bearcat
Hicks eyes NBA after rough start with UC
BY BILL KOCH | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
UC senior Eric Hicks plays his last home game today against West Virginia. Here are 5 things you should know about him:
1 He's tough. Hicks plays through pain. In the first half against Louisville on Feb. 6, Hicks suffered a concussion. He still played 34 minutes, scored 14 points and made 10 of 10 free throws.
2 He's strong. In a Sports Illustrated players' poll of the Big East, Hicks was voted the strongest player.
3 He's a leader. Hicks has the third-most blocked shots in program history (243), and is 27th in career scoring (1,128 points). But his leadership on the floor is as important as his stats. Freshman Devon Downey described being challenged by Hicks: "Nobody ever gave it to me like he gave it to me. I was determined to step up and show him that I'm still here. That's why I look up to him. He's like a big brother."
4 He has heart. Hicks had to recover from a gunshot wound before his freshman year at UC. Eric's mother, Eva, told The Enquirer: "He was in the wrong place, just trying to do good."
5 He's got a reputation. Said Louisville coach Rick Pitino: "Eric Hicks is inch-for-inch, pound-for-pound the toughest ballplayer in America."
FROM ANGER TO ANTICIPATION
Eric Hicks didn't know he was shot until he looked down at his left leg and saw the blood.
"It was like a water fountain," Hicks said. "You don't feel it. You just leak. I looked down and lifted my pants leg. I actually walked back to the car and I was like, 'Man, guess what - I've just been shot.' "
A few days before he was scheduled to begin summer school at the University of Cincinnati in June 2002, Hicks was trying to break up a fight at a playground near his Greensboro, N.C., home when he was accidentally shot.
He didn't think much of the wound at first. The doctors warned him at the hospital to take it easy. They told him how damaging the injury could be.
But Hicks didn't believe them. He was up and hobbling around on his leg until he was convinced to stay off it for a week. Eventually, he said, he had to learn to walk all over again.
Four years later, Hicks is poised to walk onto the floor - this time with two sprained ankles - today at Fifth Third Arena as one of five seniors who will be honored before their final UC home game.
He has changed dramatically from the sullen, angry freshman who repeatedly threatened to leave UC because he thought he wasn't playing enough.
Hicks has become a fan favorite in a city that respects hard work and effort.
He has played a good part of the season on two sprained ankles and at just 6 feet 6 has battled against opposing centers who are much bigger than he is, playing on a team whose roster has been decimated by attrition.
He's one of the main reasons why the Bearcats are still within reach of an NCAA Tournament bid despite the turmoil that has hit the program this season.
Hicks, 22, has scored 1,128 points during his UC career. Only 26 players have scored more.
He leads the Big East Conference in blocked shots (100) and is fourth in rebounding (9.4 per game), while averaging 14.1 points.
Off the floor, he's engaging, open and friendly and has become the Bearcats' team spokesman.
It would have been hard to imagine any of that happening if you had known Hicks during his first few months in Cincinnati.
IN THE BEGINNING
Chuck Machock, the color analyst on UC radio broadcasts, remembers the first time he met Hicks, who had averaged 30.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 blocked shots per game during his senior year at Dudley High School.
He was conducting workouts with several UC players in conjunction with then-coach Bob Huggins' summer camp.
"He was struggling, trying to get the things accomplished that the other kids were finding pretty easy," said Machock, a former UC volunteer assistant coach. "The other kids were kind of poking fun at him. He came over and said, 'I can't do that now.' I said, 'Eric, do what you can do.' I said nothing to him about his leg."
When they were finished, Hicks, who also was recovering from knee surgery, showed Machock where the bullet had punctured his leg and assured him he would be able to hold his own after it healed.
Hicks remembers that day, too.
"I was trying to do stuff, but I just couldn't," he said. "I remember I tried to jump up and dunk and (Jason Maxiell) threw me and the ball down. I got mad and started an argument with Max over that. I said, 'You think it's funny. Just wait.'
"I was looking sorry. I was jumping off my right leg mostly."
But simply getting healthy wasn't enough to earn Hicks the playing time he believed he deserved. First he had to deal with the demanding Huggins.
Hicks thought he was practicing hard, but Huggins didn't agree.
"He's turning you into a man and you're just learning to deal with it," Hicks said. "I wasn't playing. I was getting cussed out every day. It seemed like no matter what happened, I was always the one who was wrong. I didn't know what was going on. It was very frustrating."
Fortunately for Hicks, his brother, Derrick, was there for him. Five years older than Eric, Derrick moved to Cincinnati for Eric's freshman year and served as an intermediary between his brother and the coaching staff. It was Derrick who persuaded Eric to choose UC over Tennessee.
When Eric would get frustrated and disgusted, when he would threaten to transfer, Derrick would talk to Huggins and then-assistant coach Andy Kennedy to find out what his brother was doing wrong, then he'd tell Eric not to give up.
"He had the same issues as most freshmen," said Kennedy, who recruited Hicks. "It was just immaturity and not completely understanding how hard it is to be successful at this level. He had always gotten by on his ability."
Derrick, who played football at North Carolina A&T, used to take Hicks with him to the local playground when they were little. In fact, that might have been where Hicks learned to play with pain.
The Hicks brothers and their sister, Tonya, grew up in the Smith-Holmes projects just south of downtown Greensboro, where, Derrick says, "only the strong survive."
"He's always been strong-minded from when he was little," Derrick said of his brother. "When we were kids, I would take him out and if he came home crying, I would get a whippin'. I said, 'You got to suck this up. If you want to come with me, you can't cry.' "
Not wanting to be left home by himself, Hicks learned to suck it up.
According to Derrick, there were three types of kids in their neighborhood - those who fought, those who sold drugs and those who played ball. Their mother, Eva, made sure they didn't engage in the first two pursuits.
"Our mom would discipline us every day," Derrick said. "We weren't scared of the police. We were scared of Eva Hicks."
A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE
As his freshman season began, Hicks found himself playing only a few minutes here and there. Derrick talked to Huggins and Kennedy, and they told him Eric should concentrate on defense and rebounding if he wanted to play.
Hicks was willing to give it a shot. As the Bearcats prepared to play Clemson on Dec. 22 in Anderson, S.C., he was determined to work hard in practice so he would get to play in front of his friends and family who were planning to make the trip from Greensboro.
But Hicks never got off the bench in the Bearcats' 58-51 loss.
That was it. As the Bearcats scattered for their Christmas break, Hicks, who had been threatening to leave for weeks, decided he had had enough.
"I said, 'I'm done,' " Hicks recalled. "If I was going to sit the bench, I was going to sit the bench a couple of hours from home."
He stayed away for five days before returning to Cincinnati on Dec. 27 at the urging of Derrick and Kennedy.
"I needed a couple of days off to gather myself anyway," Hicks said. "I was about to explode. AK called. That's why I've got so much respect for him."
Kennedy told Hicks that even if he were serious about transferring, he should finish out the season so that Huggins would grant him his release. Reluctantly, Hicks decided to finish the year at UC.
When he returned, he was determined to do what Huggins told him to do and to ignore the yelling.
His new approach paid dividends.
"The more you play and the more you're around them the more respect you get for Huggs and AK," Hicks said. "It just grew on me. They kept saying, 'Rebound, rebound, rebound.' I was so used to scoring it was kind of hard. Once I said 'forget it' and just rebounded and played defense, I started playing more. I could tell (Huggins) started to get confidence in me."
There was no more talk of transferring.
READY FOR THE FUTURE
During the summer after his freshman year, Hicks dedicated himself to weightlifting and now, at 245 pounds, he's considered one of the strongest players in college basketball.
As a sophomore, his playing time increased from 13.5 minutes per game to 19.0, his scoring average from 2.5 to 7.0 and his rebounding average from 3.6 to 5.8.
During his junior year, he averaged 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds while starting 28 of UC's 32 games. This season he has started every game and needs only eight more blocked shots to break former All-American Kenyon Martin's UC record for blocked shots in a season.
Last summer, Hicks helped the U.S. team win a gold medal in the World University Games in Turkey.
But his growth hasn't been confined to the court.
"I'm more open," Hicks said. "I speak to people now. It's something that comes with the territory. This is the position you put yourself in. If you want to play basketball and you're good at it, people are going to know who you are.
"... I had to mature and develop that. If I saw somebody my freshman year, and they'd say, 'Hey,' I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.' Now it could be anybody. I respect them as a person."
Hicks expects to graduate at the end of spring quarter with a degree in liberal arts, then hopes to follow his former teammate, Maxiell, to the NBA.
The feedback he gets is that he might get picked in the second round of the June NBA draft. The Web site draftexpress.com, which runs a mock NBA draft, has Hicks going to the Spurs with the 58th pick, and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas recently wrote, "Hicks plays like a lion on the court. ... There has to be a place for a kid like that in the NBA."
Hicks hopes to improve his stock beginning with the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational for NBA prospects after this season ends.
"When I go work out, I want to go against whoever they say is better than me," Hicks said. "If he's better than me, that's what it is. But a lot of these guys are nothing but hype and future potential."