CHICAGO – A perfect world for Loyola senior Jordan Hicks would include two certainties -- his mother being cancer free and him succeeding on the basketball court.
They’re his two loves. They’re what matter most to him. He would give up everything else, if those two wishes were granted.
But as Hicks has learned the past four years, his perfect world lives more in his dreams than in reality.
His mother Carla was diagnosed with breast cancer when Hicks was a senior in high school in Rochester, Minn. The cancer returned and was found in her lungs when Hicks was a freshman at Loyola. Two years later, it was discovered she also had three brain tumors.
Hicks had already lost his grandfather Donald Hicks, who had been his father figure, to liver cancer while he was in high school. The odds were stacked against his mother, too. As the bad news mounted, Hicks looked to basketball as an escape.
But then basketball turned against him as well. After a productive freshman season at Loyola, he suffered a slight tear in his left Achilles' tendon in the summer leading up to his sophomore year. He played in 12 games as a sophomore then his season ended when he broke his left foot while making a cut in practice.
Hicks returned his junior season, started nine games and had his year end again when he broke the same foot while coming down on an opponent’s foot. Prior to this season, he thought he broke it for a third time when landing on someone’s foot again, but it ended up being a sprained ligament.
Between his mother’s struggles off the court and his own on it, Hicks’ world has seemed as if it couldn’t be further from perfect.
“Here’s a kid whose two most important things in his life are his mother and basketball,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “He was so worried he was going to lose his mother first and foremost. It’s a burden he carries every day. With back-to-back breaks in his foot, the thought of breaking it a third time his career would be over. That has to weigh on anybody at any age.
“You root for guys like Jordan Hicks. You want the best for them.”
The day is Jan. 18, 2012. It’s the first time Hicks sits down for this story to discuss his world. It’s not as dark as it has been, but it’s not as sunny as he would prefer.
Hicks had been back playing for seven games after missing the season’s first 10 because of his foot injuries. Half the time, he’s felt like his old self -- a 6-foot-6 energy forward who could do a little bit of everything for his team. It’s when he drains a shot or grabs a rebound, he can sense his game is close to clicking again.
Then, there’s the other half of the time when his game is off, his confidence isn’t there, and his body simply won’t do what his mind wants it to.
“Physically and mentally, it’s draining,” said Hicks, who has been granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA. “It’s been a lot of up and down. Some days, I question whether I want to keep on playing, just trying to get over that hump, keep climbing a mountain.
“I’ve already proven I can come back and be healthy again and play. It’s what I love. As long as I’m not paralyzed or anything like that or the doctor tells me I can’t play, then I’m going to keep on trying to play because a lot of people don’t have that opportunity if you think about it.”
All Hicks has been through has given him plenty of perspective. Basketball is important to him, and he’s learned not to take it for granted, but it’s also difficult for him to balance those feelings that with what his mother’s endured.
“It’s tough because what I’m going through is nothing compared to what she has to go through every day fighting for her life, and so that helps me get through my stuff,” Hicks said. “I take a step back and think about what she’s going through. I want her to be able to fight her battle. It’s tough going through everything because I want one thing to fall in the right place for one of us.
“It’s helped me be strong. She’s a hero in my eyes.”
With so much going against them both, it’s only understandable that Hicks hasn’t always possessed the grandest optimism. When his mother broke the news to him about her brain tumors last year, Hicks was struck by the seriousness of it.
“My whole world, I didn’t know what it would be like without her,” Hicks said. “It would be lost. It’s not something you think about. No father figure, then you lose your mother. You never think about it as in real life.
On this particular day, Hicks possess some hope. His mother was scheduled to meet with her doctor to get back test results in the afternoon. He was waiting to hear from her.
Hicks believed it was only a matter of time before he and his mother caught the right sort of break.
“I feel like there’s always something good that comes out of all the bad situations,” Hicks said. “You just find that little goodness out of it.”
The day is Feb. 11, 2012. Carla is attending Loyola’s home game against UIC. She’s been to a few games in the past year, but Hicks had either been hurt or underperformed.
Today would be different.
Wearing a maroon Ramblers sweatshirt and sitting beside her two sisters, Carla watched what would be her son’s best performance in over a year. Hicks scored 15 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out two assists and had two steals. On top of that, Loyola defeated rival UIC and won its first Horizon League game in 14 tries.
As Hicks had hoped, his game had recently started to find a groove. He had scored 16 points in a loss to Youngstown State in the game before. It was no longer just a play here or there where he felt like the old Jordan. He was now putting together consecutive positive plays.
“It just felt good,” Hicks said after the UIC game. “My shot’s feeling good. I’m feeling confident. My body is feeling better, now my mind is too. It’s a lot easier. It’s a lot less stressful. I’m just having fun.”
That made two of them. Carla was living through her only child on the court. He scored. She scored. He got a rebound. She got a rebound. He smiled. She smiled.
“I think it’s a stress reliever for him to be out there and just concentrate on that instead of thinking about me and what I go through,” Carla said. “As it is for me, to be here and watch him be successful, and I can forget about my problems, too.”
Carla’s problems haven’t disappeared, but they have improved. Her brain is stable, and the tumors continue to shrink. She also just completed radiation treatment, which she was told had a 90 percent chance of eliminating the cancer in her lungs.
“This is a great day,” Carla said.
And close enough to that perfect world.
“Everything is good,” Hicks said. “I can’t complain about anything.”