But, like hundreds of steals Hickey’s collected over the years, it was gone and heading in a different direction in a flash.
These days Hickey rests his head and makes his hoops home as a student-athlete in Stillwater, where, at Oklahoma State, he plays for another native Kentuckian, Travis Ford. The former University of Kentucky point guard welcomed Hickey with open arms in mid-June, granting a reprieve to the young point guard with a checkered past.
While at LSU Hickey was disciplined for parts of three games his sophomore season, including an indefinite suspension from Tigers’ coach Johnny Jones that lasted a game and a half in December 2012 for unspecified violations of athletic department and university policies.
The following November, at the onset of Hickey’s junior campaign and Jones’ second season at the helm, the head coach yanked his point guard’s chain again, benching him for the start of an exhibition game in favor of true freshman Tim Quarterman.
By May 13, 2014, Jones was done sending messages. No press conference was held, no explanation given, just a terse facts-only email dispatched by the LSU Sports Information Department.
Hickey, along with two other members of the program, would not be back for the 2014-15 season.
“I messed up, but who doesn’t mess up? My first three years of college I probably got away with a lot, which college athletes do,” Hickey told Scout in an interview this week. “But sometimes your time runs out.
“I know I used up some of my rope.”
FINDING OSU: FAMILIAR FACES, FOREIGN PLACE
Hickey’s new basketball haven isn’t a place he knew well, really at all, before making a decision on his next stop post-LSU.
Sure, the conference was alluring and access to T. Boone Pickens-funded facilities is a nice selling point, too. That’s not what pushed Hickey toward Stillwater, however. Relationships with the coaching staff did that.
And while it all started with Ford, Hickey also had ties with assistant coaches Butch Pierre, formerly an assistant and interim head coach at LSU, and James Dickey.
“Coach Pierre called. He was recruiting me a little bit. He just kept showing interest and calling to see how it was going whenever I left LSU,” remembered Hickey. “Coach James Dickey, who used to be at Houston, he recruited me out of high school, so I was also looking at him a little bit.”
Pierre’s inquiries and the open line of communication persisted for a week or two before Ford hopped on the phone with Pierre, a power play that swayed Hickey.
“When they called me, a couple of other coaches had called, but I just jumped on it right away when Oklahoma State called,” Hickey said. “Coach Ford, who was coached by Coach (Rick) Pitino, he’s somebody that knows the game and somebody that played the game. He coaches the game the way that I wanted somebody to coach me. Taking this opportunity has been great, and getting that call from Coach Pierre and Coach Ford was what I needed.”
The other item Hickey needed to play right away, and was granted from the NCAA, was a waiver. He utilized a loophole of sorts in the NCAA system, taking advantage of the run-off exemption since LSU did not renew his scholarship.
All that was left for Hickey was making good on what he and Ford discussed prior to his arrival, something akin to a pact between boys from the Bluegrass.
“Knowing that Coach Ford was from Kentucky and Coach Wade [Director of Player Development Tommy Wade] was on my mind,” explained Hickey. “There were a couple of guys that go to Kentucky after the season and stuff.”
Ford, a native of Madisonville, Ky., suited up for Pitino’s Wildcats from 1991-94 and was head coach at Eastern Kentucky from 2000-05. Wade happens to be from Hickey’s home town, Hopkinsville, and has coached at numerous high schools and colleges in the state, even leading Hopkinsville University Heights Academy to a Class A state title in 1991.
So even though Hickey was an import in a place unknown, he was comforted by bonds to a place that’s never really left his soul, a place that still motivates him.
“That could be the story if we just win this thing,” Hickey mused. “Kentucky guys coming together and winning the whole thing.”
CROSSING OVER: BIG 12 TRANSPLANTS REUNITE
“I’ll see you tomorrow at 6.”
If any other college basketball player texted that to an opposing head coach the night before a game, it’d be odd and borderline inappropriate. But Anthony Hickey and Trent Johnson have a history.
Johnson recruited Hickey, a late bloomer on the prep circuit who blossomed into the state of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 2011, to LSU, landing a signature from the lightning-quick point guard in May 2011, weeks after the regular signing period began.
“I was getting a call from Butch Pierre and wondering why he was calling me,” Johnson recalled, thinking back to a May afternoon in his office. “He ended up asking what kind of kid Anthony was. I told him he’s a helluva kid, he’s a winner. About two weeks later Hick texts (TCU assistant) Brent (Scott) and says ‘Tell Coach J I’ll see him in the league.’
“I texted him back and told him there’s a lot of classwork and stuff to be done before that.”
Hard work off the court paid dividends for Hickey, who got his chance at collegiate redemption this season as well as a couple of cracks at Johnson and his Horned Frogs.
“It was different competing against him than him being my coach, but it was fun,” Hickey said with a laugh. “Every shot I’d make I’d kinda look over there at him. And he’d say something. It was just good, us going at it again. I really hadn’t seen him in a long time.”
In the first meeting, a 70-55 TCU win over then-No. 21 Oklahoma State in the Lone Star State, Hickey struggled, ending up with six points and five assists while missing all five of his three-point attempts.
“They beat us the first time. I was kinda upset,” explained Hickey. “He was like ‘We’re going to meet again.’ I didn’t really play that well that game. But the next time we played them I got in the gym a little extra, tried to make sure I played a little harder.”
What happened the second time around?
“We got that win, and I had a fire game,” Hickey said. “He said ‘I knew you were gonna come back and play like that.’”
Johnson verified as much. “We go to Stillwater, and I know what’s about to happen. I know he’s about to be right. So before the game I’m going out to warmups and I know his dad’s going to be there because it’s Senior Night. I see Ol’ Man Hickey. This is the first time I had seen him since I left (LSU), and we embraced and that kind of thing. Soon after the game starts and Anthony plays his ass off.”
Hickey lit up Johnson’s Frogs for 20 points, including makes on all four shots from deep, five assists, two steals and no turnovers. It was nothing new for Johnson, who had seen it all before from Hickey – the play and the demeanor.
“During the course of the game (TCU assistant) Kwanza (Johnson), who worked at Georgia for Mark Fox, looked down there and said it looked like Hickey was competing against his dad, loyal and committed like he is,” Johnson remembered. “You have a relationship, although it was shorted. It’s tough. I had been through that before with other players.”
Turns out it was tough for all parties.
“The game’s over and we’re on the way out to the bus, and here comes Ol’ Man Hick with Anthony’s mom, who’s beautiful, she really is,” Johnson continued. “And she looks at me and says, ‘I’ve been mad at you, but I understand.’”
From Johnson’s viewpoint his departure was saddening, but almost three years later he’s successfully able to see the good that’s resulted from change.
Hickey’s Pokes are heading to the NCAA Tournament, a nine-seed in the West Region, taking on Oregon in Omaha. Also dancing is LSU, headed to Pittsburgh as a nine-seed in the East Region, where the Tigers will meet North Carolina State and another former Johnson player at LSU.
“The bottom line is it’s good. I’m just happy, I really am happy for Anthony because it couldn’t have ended up better,” the TCU coach concluded. “And when I say better, I mean LSU’s going to the tournament, Anthony’s going to the tournament, (NC State’s) Ralston Turner is going to the tournament, Johnny O’Bryant is in the NBA, Justin Hamilton is in the NBA, Andre Stringer is in the D-League and graduated from school still with a chance to play.
“That’s all this is about. Everybody is happy. The only real sad thing that’s happened to me in the last couple of years is that we lost Matt Derenbecker.”
KEEPING UP: A WATCHFUL EYE ON THE PAST
Most divorces spit out participants that are ready to move on, with little interest in staying connected. That’s never been the case for Hickey, who openly admitted LSU’s 22-10 season to date has been appointment television for him.
“I try to watch every game,” said Hickey. “They’re still young, but they’ve improved like a lot. Jarell (Martin) has improved his game. Jordan Mickey’s improved his game. Those two and Jalyn (Patterson) stepping up and Josh Gray have been big.”
Oddly enough Hickey can relate to Gray, the nation’s junior college scoring leader a season ago (34.7 points per game) who, for the first half of the 2014-15 season, replaced Hickey as LSU’s starting point guard and is averaging 7.2 points for the Tigers.
“It was tough for me coming in. I understand how he feels, but it’s all about the goal part of experience,” Hickey commented. “I know he’s probably getting a lot of heat down there right now, but it’s part of basketball. You’ve just got to keep playing.”
Another point guard in purple and gold stays even closer to Hickey’s thoughts.
Tim Quarterman, who Hickey mentored on the court last season, has enjoyed a bounce-back season as a sophomore, posting well-round averages of 11.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.4 steals. The Savannah native has taken over as LSU’s starter at the point, and he’s still taking cues from Hickey, despite 650 miles of separation.
“I think they’ve been coached very well and they’re maturing a lot,” Hickey said of his former team. “Tim taking over at the point position and stepping up a little bit more, I like that. I try to encourage him a lot. He has my number, and we conversate a lot. I give him all the advice that I can, me being a senior, just trying to help him out.”
Still, the question begs. Why is it important to Hickey to watch every LSU game that he can?
“Because that’s where I started. I don’t worry about the small stuff,” leveled Hickey. “It happened. What happens, happens, but you move on from it. Those are still my boys and that’s still my family, regardless. I just love watching them play to see how they compete. I saw the Kentucky game, where they competed very well. They had their opportunities and they should’ve won that game. I keep up with them as much as I can.”
With LSU and Oklahoma State in the Big Dance, the Tigers’ first trip since 2009 and also the maiden voyage into March Madness for Hickey, there’s a certain poetic justice the player recognizes.
“Hey, there’s a first time for everything,” said Hickey. “Me getting there and LSU getting back there for the first time in a while, that would be great. It really would be.”
STANDING TALL: NEW LEASE FOR WISER COWBOY
America is unmistakably a land of second chances, and many times more than that. Hickey isn’t the first or last athlete to land on his feet after having his collegiate career cast into purgatory.
His story of perseverance holds weight not only because of renewed success on the hardwood but because, for perhaps the initial time since he left the high school ranks, Hickey has dedicated himself in the classroom.
“I take care of my business a lot more,” Hickey explained. “I’m using my time-management well, being on time for everything, leading my team in the right way, keeping my guys together. I’m stepping up and being that leader that I really hadn’t been.”
On the floor Hickey hasn’t missed a beat. If anything he’s improved from his final campaign at LSU.
Recently named to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team and All-Newcomer Team, Hickey averaged 9.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals for the Cowboys, also posting career-best percentages from the field (43.5, previously never above 38.6) and three-point line (40.0, previous high was 34.6).
He led the Big 12 in steals with 59 thefts and garnered the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference at 2.19. Hickey’s 2.06 made threes per game in league play was second-highest in the conference.
“It’s been great. Just experiencing the Big 12 is big. Moving here was something big too,” assessed Hickey. “I didn’t know the opportunity I was getting when I signed out here, but it’s not just college basketball. It’s something else, something big in the Big 12.
“It was also my first time to come in and just fit in with guys who had already been there. There was no having to fit in first before I could become the leader on the court, where I had to take that back seat. Now I think I developed into (a role of) leadership and I’m just leading the team. I’m showing guys they can count on me, on and off the court.”
At least one person familiar with Hickey’s body of work, the good and bad, has taken notice of his development. He’s also quick to point out some things Hickey-related never change.
“As a person he’s grown and matured so much since he was a freshman, but that’s what happens,” said Trent Johnson. “The competitive spirit is still there. Here’s what people need to understand: Anthony Hickey has always won. His freshman year we went to the NIT. His second year, when I left and Johnny came in, they probably should have gone to the NIT. The next year they went to the NIT. And now he’s going to the NCAA Tournament. That’s all he’s ever done is win. But his growth from a high-spirited young man or boy, and he’ll hate it that I say this, to a man, it’s unbelievable.”
Anthony Hickey’s basketball path is nowhere near its end. He’s hopeful he’ll have a shot at playing in the NBA and plans to pursue his lifelong dream once the season is over for Oklahoma State.
Whether he winds up in the Association or not, the future for Hickey is bright due to a major course correction – one that was not always easy in the public eye – he was willing to undertake and in which he has largely succeeded.
“Everybody makes mistakes. It’s about how you mature through your mistakes,” acknowledged Hickey. “I’ve matured a lot. I don’t hold grudges on anybody because I feel like certain situations, you can’t handle them. It’s about what you make of it next. I just try to make the best of it now.”