St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare recognized Tony Hicks' potential long before Hicks did.
Upon arriving at St. Rita three years ago, DeCesare saw a player who was blessed with some natural gifts, but needed to put in a lot of work if he wanted to be special.
“I’ve been hard on a lot of kids in my career,” said DeCesare, who was a DePaul assistant coach prior to St. Rita. “I’ve been really hard on Tony. I’ve been on him from Day 1 to the end of the season. I told him he could be one of the best players in the state of Illinois.”
As Hicks now puts it, he “sort of” believed what DeCesare was saying. Hicks wasn’t in love with basketball and wasn’t completely convinced he had that large of an upside, but he was willing to give it a shot and spend the additional time DeCesare thought was necessary to develop his skills.
What Hicks discovered through the process was a passion for the game and that his coach knew exactly what he was talking about. Now in his senior season, Hicks has turned himself into what DeCesare always thought he could be -- one of the Illinois’ premier players.
Hicks, a 6-foot-1 shooting guard, increased his scoring average from 13 points as a sophomore to 16 points as a junior to currently 26 points as a senior. He’s shot 49 percent from the field and 44.3 percent from 3-point range. He’s also been the reason why St. Rita is vying for a Catholic League North title and is among the top 20 teams in the area.
Hicks is also the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week.
“At the time, I wasn’t that into basketball,” Hicks said looking back to his sophomore year. “I never thought I was a bad player. I just didn’t take it seriously. When someone has faith in you, and you know he’s had so many good players and he saw you had that potential, you listen.
“It’s been something that’s come from more of a hobby to a lifestyle. I was just staying in the gym. When I’m playing every day, watching basketball constantly, I continue to grow to love it and continue to get better.”
DeCesare began to see that transformation after the two sat down at the end of Hicks’ junior season.
“How good you want to be?” DeCesare remembered saying. “Where do you want to take this?”
Hicks decided he wanted to take it far. Putting even more time into his game, Hicks learned how to control his speed and use it effectively while in transition. His shot became more consistent. He also asserted himself more and played like he was the team’s star and leader.
“He got it,” said DeCesare, whose team plays in the City-Suburban Showdown at Proviso West on Saturday. “A lot of players don’t get it. He got it. Just something clicked somewhere. I talk to our guys about how you have to work at it. You can’t be a sometime player.”
Hicks hasn’t. He’s been as consistent as any player in the area this season, despite St. Rita having injury issues most of the season.
DeCesare even believed Hicks should give Simeon junior Jabari Parker a run for the player of the year honors.
“I think he’s one of the most underrated, underpublicized players in Illinois,” DeCesare said. “I don’t think anyone has had a senior year like he has had. I think he’s had a ‘player of the year’ year. He’s meant so much to our team. We don’t win many of these games this year without him.”
Illinois high school basketball analyst Joe Henricksen thought Hicks was certainly among the top five players this season.
“Tony Hicks has put together a truly eye-opening senior year, especially when you consider every team's defensive focus is on him and the fact St. Rita has been hit so hard with injuries,” said Henricksen, who publishes the City/Suburban Hoops Report. “When you look at Hicks' body of work, he's had one of the top five individual seasons among all players in Illinois.
“He's evolved into a more complete and consistent scorer and playmaker. Plus, he's playing with a new level of confidence and comfort that I think has clearly elevated his game.”
The next stop for Hicks in Penn. Although he had some high-major interest, Hicks decided he didn’t want to go to the biggest program, but the right program for him.
DeCesare thought Hicks made the perfect choice for that.
“I don’t believe in a higher level or lower level,” DeCesare said. “I believe it’s all about fit. I believe Tony has an opportunity to get a great education and become the all-time leading scorer in the Ivy League. Sometimes it’s more about being a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. I think he has a chance to be a great player in the Ivy League.”