At 3 years old, Kendrick girls basketball coach Sterling Hicks made the first shot he ever took through a milk crate nailed to the side of a house and spent nearly every day for the next 20 years figuring out how to do it better.
By the time he was in middle school, Hicks had shown as much promise at the sport as anyone in his south Columbus neighborhood, said Columbus Parks and Recreation director Tony Adams, who worked at what was then the South Columbus Boys Club on Cusseta Road where Hicks came to play nearly every day of the year.
Hicks was as tall and strong as many of the older boys, and he never had any trouble playing at their level. But most impressive, Adams said, was watching a young Hicks tirelessly work on his shot, often not leaving the gym at the end of the day until he had made 50 or sometimes 100 straight baskets.
“He had the work ethic of a high school kid when he was very young, maybe 10 years old,” Adams said. “He busted his tail every single day at getting better.”
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Even with his dedication to the game so entrenched at an early age, Hicks said he only wishes he could have done things smarter. He feels like he rushed through the college recruiting process, that he wasted time and energy by beginning his basketball career at Columbus State in poor shape and that he put too little effort into developing defensively. Since taking over as the Kendrick girls coach in 2000, Hicks has made sure none of his players slip up where he did.
“I wish I could have coached myself coming up,” said Hicks, who worked as a coach at the same gym he played in and then as a substitute teacher for several years before being hired at Kendrick as a teacher and boys basketball assistant in 1999. “I think I’d have been so much better and done those things different.”
Defense and conditioning have become hallmarks of Hicks’ coaching style as his teams have captured seven consecutive region titles, amassed a 240-38 record and seen 20 players go on to the college level. And now Hicks and the top-ranked Cherokees (30-0) sit two wins away from their second undefeated state championship run in three seasons.
Kendrick plays Carver-Atlanta today at 7 p.m. at the Macon Centreplex, and the winner advances to Saturday’s Georgia High School Association Class AAA state title game where it will play the winner of today’s 4 p.m. semifinal between LaGrange and Columbia.
Despite beginning its recruiting of Hicks later than most schools, CSU was the first to come to his home with a solid offer and the paperwork drawn up. Hicks was about to become the first in his family to attend college, and his mother made sure he accepted the offer.
Hicks said CSU likely would not have been his top choice if he had more time to make a decision, but he had no regrets. He got an education and had a good career with the Cougars, starting for three years and winning the Peach Belt Conference Tournament and making an NCAA tournament appearance his senior season in 1996. But the experience shaped the way he views his role as a coach.
“My main thing as far as being a high school coach was that I wanted to come back and try to help kids through that process,” Hicks said. “I don’t think I went through it the right way. I wasn’t patient, and I don’t think I had the guidance I needed to make the best decision for me. I try to give that to my kids.”
Hicks played basketball for three years at what was then Baker High, where he averaged 20 points per game as a sophomore and 24 as a junior. The calls from colleges started to roll in during his junior season, and he had interest from schools across the country, such as Georgia State, Florida and Minnesota. But when Baker closed and Hicks had to transfer to Carver for his senior season, the points tapered off for the four-year Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City player. Getting used to a new system and new teammates during the 1991-92 season, Hicks’ production dropped back to 20 points a game.
“Sterling had great statistics most of his high school career, but his senior year was kind of a disappointment for him,” Herbert Greene, former Columbus State men’s basketball coach and athletic director, said. “If Baker High School would have been open for his senior year, Columbus State would never have gotten Sterling Hicks.”
Since Hicks became the Kendrick girls coach after a season as a boys assistant, plenty of other players have benefited from his recruiting experience. Rosetta Hollis, a former Kendrick and Columbus State player, said Hicks helped her and several teammates make sure they were making the best choice when it came to signing with a college.
Hollis was offered by Kennesaw State, and she even liked the school and the basketball program after a visit there. But Hicks convinced her to keep her search open a bit longer, and Hollis eventually found she felt better suited to play at CSU.
“Coach Hicks told me to think about it because I was picking the place I was going to be for four years and I should make sure I was comfortable,” said Hollis, who was a junior of Hicks’ 2005 state runner-up team. “A lot of people were in my ear telling me I could have gone to a different school or a better school, but he helped me figure out what I was looking for along the way. He went to all the visits with me, talked to me about what I liked at each one, and I think it made me make a better decision.”
Conditioning is key
When Hicks signed with CSU, he was given a workout guide to follow each day before reporting to the team. He paid little attention to it and cut plenty of corners leading up to his freshman season.
“I remember being lazy, basically, and kind of naive,” Hicks said. “They sent me that workout program for the summer, and when it said to run three miles I’d run a mile. I was just always taking shortcuts. I thought I was bigger than all that. I knew I was going to play, so I didn’t bother preparing myself.”
Hicks began his freshman year at CSU as the third man in off the bench but was quickly demoted down the line when it became apparent he was out of shape.
The first season was a disappointment for Hicks and also for Greene, who felt lucky to have snagged a player with so much potential for his Division II program.
“I wanted to quit,” Hicks said. “But I thought about it and I didn’t do it because I had never quit anything.”
Hicks began practicing and working out up to three times a day during the offseason, and without realizing it he lost 20 pounds and returned to the team in excellent shape. The extra work earned him a starting spot as a sophomore, and Hicks held on to it through his senior season while becoming what Greene said was as good a player as CSU had ever seen.
It was another lesson learned for Hicks, and another one he imparts daily to his players. Conditioning is a key component of his practice regiment. He insists each of his players be able to get up and down the court as quickly in the fourth quarter as they did in the first, and he takes great pride in proving to his players that effort is more important than talent.
“I love seeing a kid who wasn’t a good player but hustled and became somebody the other team had to stop,” Hicks said. “I don’t care how good you are at basketball, I don’t want you on my team if you’re not going to run and hustle the whole game.”
It’s all about defense
Hicks can point to the moment he made that first basket as one that forever affected the way he played the game. When the ball dropped through the milk crate, he fell in love with scoring.
“Maybe if I’d played defense first, I would have fallen in love with that,” Hicks said. “But I didn’t so maybe that’s why I never really played defense.”
Most of Hicks’ coaches fostered his ability to score and built around that rather than push him harder to play better defense, a mistake Hicks said he refuses to make with his teams.
“He really put in our heads that without defense you’re not playing a good game,” Hollis said. “A lot of people had negative things to say about all our teams, that all we did was press, but that was just because it worked unlike other teams’ presses. You could throw in our first string, second string or third string and the press was the same because he was one of the few coaches who really taught us defense and made us play it.”
None of Hicks’ current players are the kind of super stars often on display this late in the season, and his leading scorer accounts for a modest 13 points per game. But it has been his ability to make up for any potential offensive shortcomings with effort on both ends that has carried his teams to eight straight state quarterfinal appearances.
“I think it’s the one thing most people don’t give him enough credit for,” said Spencer athletic director Oliver Davis, who held the same position at Kendrick when Hicks was hired there. “His kids don’t come in as superstars and great ball players, but he does a great job at teaching them how to play all aspects of the game. He shows the kids how to be in a structured program and tells them what they need to do to win, and they all follow right behind him every time.”