For WMU's Andre Ricks, life goes beyond basketball Print E-mail
Written by Ray Mernagh   
Thursday, February 12 2009
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ImageThe first time I met Western Michigan's senior guard Andre Ricks was right before his first semester in college. The meeting left a lasting impression and spoke volumes about the gregarious youngster.

I had spoken to Ricks on the phone for maybe 5 minutes six weeks earlier. It was late August and hotter than a pizza oven on full blast, when I approached Ricks' teammate, Stane's Buford, outside of Kalamazoo's Miller Auditorium. Buford shook my hand, turned to Ricks and said, "Dre, this is Ray, the dude that's writing the book."  

"How's Pittsburgh man?!," Ricks said as he enveloped me in a hug that rivaled any I'd ever received. "I'm telling you, my man Devendorf's gonna be the freshman of the year up at Syracuse, you watch. So what's been up since I talked to you on the phone? Where were you at, Vegas or something? They pay you to go watch hoop in Vegas, that's what's up!" I remember thinking I'd never seen somebody -- let alone an 18-year-old -- standing in a three-piece suit in ninety-plus degree heat so enthusiastic.   

Andre Ricks (12) looks for scoring room against EMU.

Ricks was a new recruit out of Detroit, described by WMU coach Steve Hawkins as a "jet" with extraordinary toughness and moxie. There were some around the program that worried about Ricks adjusting to college life, especially the academic side of it -- the social side, obviously, wasn't going to be a concern. Ricks himself was concerned about being able to get it done in the classroom, a concern that was no doubt reinforced by some in his Detroit neighborhood. That concern stayed with him, like a sick feeling in his gut, until he got his first semester report card. Former WMU assistant Cornell Mann takes it from there.  

"I just remember him looking at his grades -- I think he got a 2.3 that first semester -- and this smile coming over his face as he kept repeating, 'coach, I'm gonna graduate, I'm gonna graduate!'" Ricks' grades have never fallen below that GPA and he's finished semesters with a 2.9/3.0 GPA on multiple occasions since. His enthusiasm for living in Kalamazoo remains unparalleled, something he shared with another coach during his first holiday weekend on campus.  

"I got all the McDonald's I can eat "
It was Labor Day, the first Monday of September, and all the basketball players besides Ricks had gone home for the weekend. Fellow classmates Donald Cloutier to Indianapolis and the duo of Derek Drews and Shawntes Gary to the Elkart area. The coaches found out that Ricks was alone in the dorms and one of them stopped by to see if he was OK, maybe check if he wanted to come over to the house and spend some time with the coach's family. Ricks opened his dorm door while shoveling fries into his mouth and laughed when the coach asked if he was OK. "OK? Coach I got all the McDonald's I can eat, my door is locked and nobody's shooting outside the window, I'm straight!"  

Are you sensing a pattern here?  

One grateful kid, happy to be alive, while at the same time recognizing the opportunity that's been placed in front of him because he worked hard to become a basketball player.  

"When 'Dre first got here he couldn't believe he could eat as much as he wanted at the cafe," says Mann, "that was truly a huge deal to him."

Fast forward three-plus years and Ricks is a role model for hundreds, maybe thousands, of kids in the Kalamazoo area.   

Ricks goes in for a bucket against Bowling Green
"I love that kid ."
He talks to kids all the time, kids that, like the 'Dre of four years ago, can't imagine attending -- let alone graduating -- from college. He shares his wisdom with them about how, at a certain point, he had to accept he'd probably never play in the NBA, all the while making it a point to tell them anything is possible if they keep their eyes forward and value the educational opportunities in front of them while they're still young. It's a message his father, Danny Paul, kept repeating to Ricks when he encouraged him to focus on basketball instead of the other family sport, boxing. Mann beams when talking about the person Ricks has become since arriving on campus.  

"I love that kid and it's amazing how much he's grown up," says Mann. "He is the man around Kalamazoo, everyone knows him from the schools to the city administration. He's done more community service than any kid I have ever been around."  

Beyond the hardwood
Notice there's been no talk of how Ricks has performed on the basketball court in terms of numbers or statistics -- that's because this isn't a story about performing on the court. Nope. This is a story about Ricks using his ability to perform on the court, via a college scholarship, to make a life for himself off the court. It's a story about the "American Dream," about a young man courageous enough to walk through doors no matter how foreign they seemed from the outside looking in. It's about a kid refusing to become a statistic. Now he's on the inside, looking out at a world more beautiful than he'd ever imagined possible. A world where a kid from Detroit can sit down for lunch with the Mayor, do internships in city government, and go on ride-alongs with the Kalamazoo police (Ricks is a Criminal Justice major).    

You want numbers on 'Dre Ricks? Look them up.     

Instead, how about listening to Mann once more as he talks about Ricks: "From a coaching standpoint these players are the ones that really make our job rewarding, forget wins and losses. Think about the lives saved because of the chance we gave this kid and the job we did with him. Dre will help a great number of people in his lifetime and he's a great example of what college athletics is all about."  

I saw Ricks again last Sunday for the first time in over a year. As I slipped into the JAR at Akron right before tip-off he spotted me even before I took my seat on press row, pointed to me while smiling and yelled, "what's up boy?" I pointed back with the same response, smiling even bigger as I said it.

On second thought, if you need numbers on Ricks, shoot me an email and I'll see what I can do.  

You never know -- he might be able to hook you up with a job some day.   

College hoops insider Ray Mernagh is the basketball contributing editor/writer for The Pittsburgh Sports Report, a writer for the Basketball Times and author of "1 Chance to Dance: A Season inside Mid-Major Hoops in Mid-America." Mernagh will be contributing a weekly column to MAC Report Online and is also the publisher of

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