SAN ANTONIO — Many Midwest kids grow up on the basketball court dreaming of hitting the big shot. Some get to do it together on a high school team. Fewer get to do it in the NCAA tournament. For Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer of Loyola Chicago, it means that for a second time, the end of the road is near.
Custer, a redshirt junior, and Richardson, a senior, grew up together in Kansas and have played on the same team for all but two seasons since they were in third grade. They even lived on the same street.
As their high school careers came to a close with a state championship, it appeared the two friends were heading separate directions in college. Custer committed to play at Iowa State as a junior and Richardson had one offer — from Loyola Chicago.
“(After high school) I didn’t even think we’d play together ever again,” Richardson said.
“When we won the state championship, we both thought it was over for us as teammates," Custer added. "We were happy we won, but we were sad it was over.”
But when word spread that Custer was looking to transfer, things could not have gone any easier for Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser. “It was the easiest decision, who was going to be his recruiting host,” Moser said. “I went to see (Custer) and then drove over to his parents. It was one day to recruit him.”
Moser made a great first impression on Custer. According to Moser, Custer had three visits planned but "leap-frogged" Loyola to that first visit. Creighton, Wichita State and Missouri were the other schools Custer considered.
“[Moser] flew out to Des Moines and drove up to Ames,” Custer said. “I could see the passion in his eyes. I instantly started believing in him. And the fact that he drove his rental car four hours to Overland Park to see my parents, obviously I knew he was really serious.”
Richardson played a role, too. “I just kept telling him to come here,” he said. “I told him to just take a visit. If he didn’t like it, then at least we had a weekend in Chicago.”
Ed Fritz, their high school coach, had some advice as well.
“Clayton called me a few times. I told him to follow his heart,” said Fritz, the coach at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan. “I and the community will always support those boys.”
At Loyola Chicago, even Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt plays a role in recruiting.
“I always tell them something magical happens,” she said. “You don’t know what it is, but you know you belong there.”
There was just one potential complication: Custer got the impression that Moser thought he wasn’t serious about transferring to Loyola and said he "could hear it in [Moser's] voice that he didn't want him to choose Creighton or the other schools. Moser played college basketball at Creighton and spent a year on the bench as an assistant.
That one weekend in Chicago was all that it took, though.
“I went to Loyola and made the decision on the spot,” Custer said.
With the decision made, NCAA regulations required Custer to sit out a year. The transition also had a bit of a learning curve — on and off the court.
“When I redshirted I was just in street clothes,” said Custer. “I was walking to the court and everyone stopped me, and I was like, 'Why?' I didn’t know we were supposed to say a prayer with Sister Jean.”
“Man, that next season, we were both ready to go,” said Richardson. “It was on. It’s been hard work, but we are close to winning another championship together.”
The two have been winning together for a long time. In 2018, Custer was the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year this season and Richardson won the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Loyola claimed both the regular season and conference tournament MVC titles.
Moser recently recalled the scene in St. Louis, soon after the Ramblers won the conference tournament, as the teammates were on their way to the locker room. Moser calls it one of his fondest memories with Custer and Richardson.
“It was the most real little kid moment you've ever seen,” he said. “They had the hats with the nets in it, they're walking, hitting each other going, 'Can you believe this, man?' We've been winning since we were in third grade.
"They're hitting, walking, slapping each other's head. It was like it was T-ball, and they just hit a home run in T-ball. They were like two little kids. All they were talking about, it wasn't like how many you had, how many you had. It was, 'We've been winning since the third grade.' And it was a really cool moment to share with those two kids, young men.”
When they dress for the national semifinal, possibly for the last time together, that realization is not something the two dwell on.
“Me and Ben know that the end is close,” Custer said. “However, we’re locked in and so focused on trying to win the game.”
“I don’t think we’ve talked about it during this run,” Richardson added. “No matter what happens, this is a special feeling.”
“Those two, Clayton and Ben, are amazing young men,” he said. “Those two play the game the way it’s meant to be played. They play with heart, they play with passion, and they play for their team. It’s refreshing to see.”
Although the two don’t want to discuss their final days playing together as Final Four preparation is underway, both acknowledge the bookend to a great run together is near.
“I know we are nearing the end of our ride,” Custer said. “I just hope that the road ends on Monday, with a championship. Just like high school.”