Tony Hicks has always been a star. In his days at St. Rita of Cascia High School, Hicks led them to a Chicago Catholic League title and was the ESPN Illinois Player of the Year. At Penn, the guard was the team’s leading scorer in two of his three years and averaged double digits in each of them. Now, he is on his way to one of the most successful programs in the country and, well…he wants to be a star.
“Me just being a competitor and confident,” he told The Empire in a recent interview, “I feel like I can play anywhere.”
The soft spoken guard from just outside of Chicago began his collegiate career at Penn, where he proved himself to be one of the best players in the Ivy League, earning himself All-Ivy honors twice and scoring 1,000 points by his junior season.
However, with just two weeks left before his senior season, Hicks decided to leave the team. This decision came to the surprise of many around the Penn organization. He decided that he would sit out the season and attain a year of eligibility to become a graduate transfer. And after all of his success in the Ivy League, it was no surprise that on January 5th, Hicks committed to the ACC’s powerhouse, the University of Louisville.
As a result of sitting out, he has been forced to find a way to fill his time which is normally occupied by the basketball season. Some people may say that this time was spent “away from basketball.” But actually it's been the opposite.
“I’ve watched a lot of film,” he said. “I still work out twice a day and I’m still lifting. Just to get runs, I go to local gyms or I’ll go to New Jersey and find some good competition… I typically workout by myself. I feel like I can mentally lock in and put myself into game mode..I get a ton of shots up...[It’s also been good] to watch and reflect on my game. Now, I am gaining more of an edge and more hunger because I’m not playing.”
While some may also think that the school work would be easier without basketball, allowing him to focus more on honing his game, he disagrees.
“You almost have too much time,” he noted. “When you’re on a team everything is scheduled, so I know ‘this is when I have to do my work.’ While now, I have so much time so it sometimes feels like ‘oh, you can put that off.’ It’s tougher to discipline myself to set times and actually do work and study, while in the past, those times were already scheduled.”
Furthermore, despite the way things went down at Penn, he has no hard feelings for anyone on the team or the university. As a matter of fact, he’s been to almost every home game this season.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Hicks said in reference to his teammates. “We hang out with each other on and off the court, so I honestly will miss my teammates and the coaching staff...I am very close to all of the guys. I was the captain for the last two years. Last year, when the sophomores came in, I kind of took them under my wing in the summertime. We did everything together...I would say I am fairly close with all of the guys.”
Hicks will always miss playing in the Palestra which he says is “a special place. There aren’t too many college venues like it...Historically, it has an aura about it.”
He looks back on the game against Temple to open up his sophomore season as one of his most memorable moments at Penn.
“We ended up losing that game,” he reminisced. “It was one of those games where it was sold out. It was absolutely rocking. That’s what I am talking about when I say the Palestra is just a magical place. It was just a special game to be a part of.”
He’ll miss the city too and the love that surrounds the Penn campus. He was specific to shout out the local food trucks and Philadelphia's fantastic cheesesteaks.
But in his time off, he’s also eagerly spent a lot of time thinking about where he would end his collegiate basketball career playing. He was most interested in Louisville, Miami, and Oregon, but ultimately decided to travel to Louisville for his final collegiate season.
There were many reasons for his decision. Not only has his high school coach, Gary DeCesare, known Louisville head coach Rick Pitino for 20 years, but Hicks has a pretty close relationship with former Drexel star Damion Lee, who now plays for the Kentucky based school.
“It’s coach Pitino, it’s the ACC,” Hicks added about his choice. “It’s the highest level. The whole city is behind them. The expectation there is national title every year and that's something I’ve never been apart of...On the court, coach Pitino is very intense. But off of the court, he seemed like a real person, very genuine. He cares about his players and will do anything for them... He’s someone I want to play for. He’s a Hall of Fame coach, he’s one of the best coaches of all time. It was just something I couldn’t say no to.”
While some may question Hicks’s ability to play at one of the top programs in the country, he is not worried about that. He is confident that he is ready to go.
He understands, though, that he still has work to do and aspects of his game to improve on.
“A lot of times at Penn I would be able to finish over guys, but that won’t always be the case in the ACC. [I’ve worked on] a lot of different types of finishes around the rim, putting up floaters, so I can be creative around big men.”
Hicks will graduate in the spring as a sociology major and begin taking graduate student classes almost immediately after at Louisville. He will take his success at Penn as a basketball player to the state of Kentucky, where he can hopefully cap off his career on a high note.
Some may ultimately question his offensive efficiency or size, but the bottom line is, Tony Hicks has always found a way to succeed, whether in high school or college. Louisville should be no outlier.
Photo: USA Today Images
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament