Lessons in life and basketball
by Shelley Daily
From the November, 2021 issue
"It was probably the hardest coaching year of my life," says Pioneer High girls' varsity basketball coach Tyrone Hicks. "On top of Covid we went through an extremely volatile election cycle. It was layer upon layer of craziness." Though he kept in touch with his team during lockdown via group chat and Zoom and encouraged them to stay active, he often worried about their physical and mental health.
Though he understood the reasoning, Hicks says he was "disheartened" that Ann Arbor's schools and in-person activities were so delayed in opening. "How many of our kids struggled being locked away?"
Despite a late start to the season and an early finish because of a positive Covid test, the team finished 13-2 and second in their league. Senior point guard Lauren DeWolf says the challenges gave her a new perspective. "I just don't take anything for granted," she says. "You never know when it can be taken away."
Now beginning his seventh season at Pioneer, Hicks--who also runs the nonprofit Common Bond Basketball youth development program and is director of basketball at the new Legacy Center Sports Complex in Brighton--feels good about his team's chances, even with the loss of a star player, Mya Hicks--his daughter. Mya transferred to a Connecticut prep school, where she'll play on the basketball team. She hopes to play college ball.
"When you're the daughter or son of a coach there's a lot of pressure on you," explains Hicks, forty-seven. "I'm the only coach she's ever had. From a basketball standpoint I thought it was important for her to be on her own path." He pulls out his phone to show a photo of young Mya with an ice cream cone on vacation in Traverse City. "She's my buddy. We FaceTime every night."
Basketball wasn't always in Hicks's family. He was born in Kalamazoo, but after his parents divorced when he was two, he and his youngest brother moved with their mom every couple
years as she was promoted through jobs with the Social Security Administration. (Two other brothers lived with his dad in Traverse City, where Hicks spent the summers.)
He started basketball as an eighth grader in Racine, Wisconsin. Always tall for his age (he's now six-six), he says he had athletic ability but was "more into books, reading, and my chemistry set" than sports. But when the family moved back to Michigan his junior year of high school, "basketball really picked up for me." He played at Belleville High for Mike Garland (now assistant men's basketball coach at MSU) and went to Central Michigan on a basketball scholarship.
As a freshman "undersized" power forward he guarded Chris Webber in a game against U-M's Fab Five at Crisler Center. He laughs as he recalls how during a quiet moment at Crisler his grandmother shouted from the stands, "You guys leave my boy alone!" After two years at Central he took a year off and transferred to Drake University, where he played basketball and graduated with an economics degree.
He moved to the Ann Arbor area and met his wife working at Outback Steakhouse--she was a hostess and he was waiting tables on weekends while working weekdays to get his financial advisor career off the ground. A single mom, Monica recalls that on their first date Hicks invited her seven-year-old son Desmond along because Desmond said he "wanted dinner too."
"Ty was playing tic-tac-toe and coloring at the table with Desmond," she says. "I knew this was a good, genuine person."
Monica recruited Tyrone to "put a little team together" for Desmond at Common Bond so they could spend some time together, and Tyrone became hooked on basketball once again. The couple married in 2000--even though their pastor at Crossroads Community Baptist Church questioned their compatibility--he gave them a personality test that indicated they were polar opposites. "She's my 'the glass is always full' person," says Hicks, while he's "always seeing problems that I want to fix. It's made me a better defensive coach," he laughs. "Over the years we have really met in the middle" with their personalities, he says.
When Monica was pregnant with Mya, a Common Bond player named Mohamed, from Guinea, West Africa, needed a place to live when his mother went back to renew her visa. Mohamed--who's the same age as Desmond--moved in with the Hicks family at age twelve and ended up staying with them through high school, becoming a second "big brother" to Mya. Both young men are now twenty-nine; Mohamed lives in the area with a family of his own, and Desmond lives in Phoenix.
"We both grew up with parents who would always be there for kids and take anyone in," explains Monica, who's worked as the adoption case worker for Washtenaw County Trial Court for more than two decades.
"Tyrone loves watching kids develop and get better," she adds. "He's in it for the kids, not the adults. He does things the right way--whether win or lose. Especially for young men of color, he shows how to be respectful during times of adversity. He always apologizes if he loses his temper."
"I am soft-spoken," Hicks says, but when he steps on the basketball court "something triggers." It's the place "I had to learn to be aggressive as a player and animated and loud. It didn't come easily to me."
Fourteen years ago, he left his six-figure financial services job to run Common Bond. Despite the steep pay cut, Monica supported his decision to spend time in his "happy place" with kids at the gym. Some of those kids--there are up to 150 third- through eleventh-graders in the program--have gone on to play for him at Pioneer, including DeWolf. (He's also worked as JV and varsity boys' coach at Belleville High and as assistant men's coach for Adrian College.)
In 2015, after longtime Pioneer girls' coach Crystal Westfield died of cancer, Hicks was hired for the role. "It was another way for me to spend more time with my daughter," he says. Coaching girls, he says, he's learned new--and sometimes better--ways to communicate.
"It's important to girls to have input and a sense of community and buy-in and togetherness that's not always as necessary for the guys," he says. "Some of the best halftime talks, they came up with solutions."
He spends his days doing books for Common Bond, organizing teams, fundraising, and conducting board meetings. "But everything I do is to spend two hours in the gym. I turn it all off, and I'm helping someone be better and work on the team's goals. To see someone struggle with something and then see it all click it is so rewarding to me."
"People don't realize it takes years and hours to get better," he says. "In our society it's all about the now. [Basketball] doesn't happen that way."
He keeps in touch with players he's coached. Many have gone on to college basketball careers, including two seniors from last year's Pioneer team. But Hicks says basketball--like other sports--gives kids much more than just a potential college scholarship. "It teaches resilience. It teaches you how to work together. It teaches you how to lead--and how to follow. In the end you start to see how rewarding and empowering that is."
"As humans we are capable of so much. And when you put that in a collective, it's pretty cool," he says. "I've always been fascinated by that."
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