Care to come along on one of the unique player journeys in major college basketball this season? You won’t mind an eight-hour bus ride from Evansville, Indiana to Maryville, Missouri will you?
Meet Ryan Hawkins, the leading scorer and rebounder for a 19-9 Creighton team currently pushing for an NCAA Tournament bid. Besides the fact that he has a Big East-leading 11 double-doubles, is working on his fourth college degree and has a career record of 143-16 in games in which he’s played, is there anything else we should know about him?
How about the part where he competed in six different sports in high school?
Or how he’s a contender for all-Big East mention and has become a powerful leader in the Bluejays’ locker room, mentoring a young team with 11 freshmen and sophomores — all that when a year ago this week, he was getting ready to play Emporia State in Division II?
“You don’t dream of something going this well,” he said the other day.
“You talk about leaving a legacy, leaving a legacy that goes beyond basketball is a true legacy. And that’s what he’s done,” said his coach, Greg McDermott.
But we should get back to that bus ride. Late March, 2021. He had just led Northwest Missouri State to its third Division II national championship in five years, scoring 31 points and 18 rebounds in the championship game to earn the tournament MVP in Evansville. The Bearcats were on the long return to campus, through the farmlands of the Midwest.
“I was sitting there trying to nap on the way home to pass the time, and my mind started wandering,” he said. “I just kind of started thinking, maybe it was time to move on. Why not take a leap of faith and try something new?”
Five years before he had left his small hometown – Atlantic, Iowa – as a lightly-recruited kid. That was the place with the grass lot across the street where he honed his many games. “I always joked it was my parents trying to get me out of the house, they’d give me a different ball for Christmas,” he said.
That was the place with the high school where he competed in football and cross-country in the fall, basketball in the winter, soccer and track in the spring and baseball, too. Pitcher, with a fastball in the high 80s.
It was the community that enveloped him in love and support at the age of 15, when he lost his father to cancer and “I definitely had to grow up a lot faster.” Quite a hometown, Atlantic. Local legend has it the place got its name when founders figured they were almost halfway between oceans, so flipped a coin. Had it come up the other way, Hawkins would have hailed from Pacific, Iowa.
He became a strong player and a man at Northwest Missouri State, forever grateful for the chance the coaches took on him and the guidance they provided. He scored more than 2,000 points. He also earned a degree in business management. Then marketing. Then his MBA.
But the pandemic had given him and all athletes an extra year of eligibility, so maybe he could take one shot at the big time. And so, after much inner soul-searching, Creighton.
“It was the hardest decision of my life, but that just shows you how blessed a life I live, if choosing where I’m going to play basketball at college is going to be the hardest decision I make,” he said. “I felt like this could be such a great opportunity for a lot of personal growth and a chance to step outside of my comfort zone, that I would look back in 10 years and thank myself for making this decision.
“I kind of had to distance myself from a lot of my friends at Maryville to make that decision. I went home for a weekend and thought about it, talked with my family. If I had stayed in Maryville to make that decision there’s no way I would have left.”
It didn’t take long for McDermott and the Bluejays to understand what they had.
Hawkins’ goal was to “show them what consistency looks like.” Every day, every practice. “It’s easy to say what you’re going to do but it’s another thing to prove it,” he said. “So I think that was a big point of emphasis for me, to make sure I was going to continue the habits that I was fortunate enough to develop at Northwest and try to bring that to Creighton with me.”
His first Division I game was against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He put up a double-double. Later would come such things as 25-point games against ranked BYU and Iowa State. Creighton won six true road games. He had double-doubles in all of them. His 11 double-doubles are the most for the Bluejays since Doug McDermott a decade ago. In the locker room, he had not forced himself on his new teammates with tales of his past deeds, but let the relationships grow on their own. A Creighton squad picked to finish eighth in the Big East grew into a force.
“He’s 24 and they’re 18. He let that kind of happen naturally,” McDermott said. “He got to know them and he got to learn about them and then he began to lead them. That’s the sign of elite leadership.”
McDermott has been struck by how Hawkins is never down, through the good days or bad. That goes back to Hawkins’ childhood when “I wasn’t too concerned about trying to get scholarships for this or that. I was just trying to be a kid and have fun. I don’t think enough kids are doing that these days.”
One other thing about his demeanor. In times of stress, he hears his father. “There’s just moments when I play I just feel a sense of calmness and almost peace . . . I feel my father’s presence still with me. I’ve played in a lot of chaotic and hectic games and it just kind of slows down and everything moves in slow motion.”
So here he is near the end of the saga. Creighton has won because that is what Ryan Hawkins teams do. He has 2,498 points and 1,167 rebounds in his combined college career, and that puts him in the top two among active players. But the 143-16 record means more. “The points and rebounds, none of that matters if you’re not winning games. … That’s what playing in college has definitely taught me, that your impact on the game is not limited to the stat book.”
What’s next? He’ll soon have a second master’s in organization leadership, but maybe there is a pro basketball opportunity out there somewhere. “I’ve been pretty good about keeping those thoughts out of my mind during basketball season. I’m pretty open to anything,’ he said. “Obviously this is going to have to come to an end at some point. I just want to make sure that when that final moment does come, I was having fun up to the last couple of seconds of the game.”
Rhonda Hawkins, the mother who had to chase him home so many nights from that grass lot in Atlantic, will be there to share. In a way, his father Greg, too.