Tony Hicks still remembers when St. Rita basketball coach Gary DeCesare coaxed him into a meeting after his freshman year. Hicks was recruited out of McKinley elementary school in South Holland to quarterback the football team at St. Rita. He had only played basketball for a couple of years but admitted that he didn't take the game seriously.
But DeCesare was persuasive. He had seen Hicks play in open gym and, looking at him straight in the eyes, boldly predicted that the youngster could excel in basketball if he had the desire and put in the time in the off-season to sharpen his skills.
"He got me thinking," Hicks said. "That summer I started to get good. I started to like the game a lot more. I wouldn't be where I am if he hadn't talked to me about basketball.
"I felt basketball was more of a challenge. I enjoyed being in the gym and working on my own and imitating my favorite player, Kobe Bryant. I lost interest in football. At times, I wonder how good I could have been in football. But I don't regret it. I quit playing football before my sophomore year."
Football's loss is basketball's gain. Hicks, a 6'2 senior, has emerged as one of the leading student-athletes in the class of 2013. He is committed to Pennsylvania. He has a 3.6 grade-point average on a scale of 4.0 in honors classes, scored 27 on his ACT and ranks No. 60 in a class of 165. And he is averaging 32 points per game.
"He is one of the most underrated players in the state," DeCesare said. "He is a hard worker. He has improved every year. He is as good as anybody in the state. His work ethic separates him from other players."
"Hicks is a very good scorer and an absolute steal for Penn," said recruiting analyst Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "He should be All-City this year. He is a great kid as well. He is a scorer, not a point guard, but that is fine."
Hicks took DeCesare's advice and got better...and better. He averaged 11 points per game as a sophomore, 15 as a junior. In his first three games this season, he scored 95 points. He has worked on his ball-handling and shooting, relentlessly. He spent three hours a day, taking 500 shots in the gym around the corner from his house.
"The coach let me know that basketball isn't about what you do on the court but what you do off the court, how you carry yourself," Hicks said. "If you want to be good you can do anything you want to. It all depends on the amount of time you are willing to put in and sacrifice to where you want to go."
Penn was impressed. They recruited Hicks harder than anyone else. In the end, he chose Penn over Loyola, South Florida, Tennessee, Dayton, Ohio, George Mason and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"They showed me they really wanted me," he said. "I was hesitant at first because I felt it would be too learny and book-smart. But they were down-to-earth and genuine, cool people. They showed up at all my games and showed they really wanted me."
Now that his college decision has been made, Hicks is into concentrating on the 2011-12 season. He is the leader of one of the top teams in the state. The Mustangs are 2-1 after Tuesday's 74-71 loss to unbeaten Marist and have a date this weekend in the Gonzaga Classic in Washington D.C.
Last week, Hicks scored 22 of his 31 points in the second half and had three steals and three assists as St. Rita, despite the absence of two starters, edged De La Salle 66-64 in double overtime.
"It was a great team victory," DeCesare said. "Everybody contributed in their own way. Hicks was our leading scorer but we don't win without our post defense, free throws and offensive rebounding. We can't control everything. We must be prepared. Every game is a big game. As you build a program, you have to be ready to play every night, especially in the Catholic League."
DeCesare was well prepared when he arrived at St. Rita three years ago. A native New Yorker, he grew up in the Bronx. A life-long New York Yankees fan, he has had season tickets for 25 years. Between first base and home plate, not far from Rudy Giuliani and Billy Crystal. Thurman Munson is his hero.
But basketball was his game. He played and coached at St. Raymond's High School and played at Iona College. Later, he joined Jerry Wainwright's staff at Richmond and followed Wainwright to Chicago when he became head coach at DePaul. When Wainwright was fired, DeCesare wasn't sure what to do.
"I was walking home from church with (Fenwick coach) John Quinn and he said a job had opened up at St. Rita," DeCesare recalled. "I looked at the web site, called (athletic director) Mike Zunica, met for three hours at breakfast and got the job.
"High school coaching is the purest form of coaching. In my 17 years at St. Raymond's, I had over 40 kids go to Division I schools. I wanted to do that again. I knew that St. Rita had a lot of potential, a great school, a terrific sports program. I knew it had a history in basketball but it had been overshadowed by other sports."
St. Rita was 14-13 in DeCesare's first year, 12-14 last season. He had promoted several talented sophomores to the varsity and anticipated a successful season. But he lost 6-7 A.J. Avery to a broken wrist on the fifth day of practice. The Mustangs lost seven games by five points or less.
"It was a great learning experience," he said. "How good is this year's team? At full strength, we have a good chance to do well, to compete against anyone. We have a lot of versatility, a lot of guys. We can play big or small and do what we need to do to win, whether it means pressuring opponents or pushing the ball up the court."
At the moment, the Mustangs are without Avery, who is sidelined with the same wrist injury and likely won't return until after the holidays, and 6'2 sophomore guard Dominique Matthews, the team's second leading scorer who also is recovering from a wrist injury and is due to return on Dec. 21.
The healthy ones are Hicks, 5'9 senior point guard Cullen Foulkes, 6'5 sophomore Victor Law, 6'4 freshman Charles Matthews and 6'5 senior Michael Foody. Charles is Dominique's brother.
"I think we can have a 20-plus win season and make a run for the Catholic League and state titles," Hicks said. "It isn't about physical ability but about attitude. We know we can be good. We're taking the game more seriously. We challenge each other in practice."
And Hicks is eager to discard his "underrated" tag. His teammates claim he is one of the quietest players on the team. His parents always remind him that if he does what he is supposed to be doing on the court, people will take notice. If he continues to average 32 points per game, they won't be able to take their eyes off him.
"I feel I have a higher ceiling than what I have shown," he said. "I can play better."
That's a scary thought.