Wisconsin's Ethan Happ is a top big man because he learned the game as a guard
Happ is a force for the Badgers because of drills at home -- and a big growth spurt
When Ethan Happ was in fourth grade, his father sat him down for a serious conversation.
"You can play Division I basketball," his father, Randy Happ, told him. "You have the ability. It's all depending on whether you work hard enough."
Athletic ability was never a question with the Happ family. Ethan's father had played Division III basketball at a school in the Chicago suburbs. His uncle did too. Ethan's cousin is J.A. Happ, a 10-year Major League Baseball veteran who pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays. Ethan inherited the family athletic gene and their competitive gene as well, and he pushed himself in every sport: First soccer, then baseball, football and basketball.
He didn't have the height early, but that would come soon enough. He was 6-foot-2 by his freshman year in high school, 6-6 by his sophomore year, 6-8 by the time he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, and now, as the unquestioned junior leader for a young Wisconsin team that has taken its lumps this season, a sturdy 6-10.
The question his father had was whether he'd work hard enough. And Ethan said he would. Because playing Division I basketball was his dream.
So on summer days at the family's home, a subdivision cut into the cornfields outside the Quad Cities on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, Ethan's father would print out daily spreadsheets for Ethan and his older brother. On the spreadsheets were specific ballhandling drills. How long to jump rope. How many pushups to do. How many free throws to shoot. How many jumpers to make. Often in summer, Randy Happ would take half-days off from his job at a steel tubing company, and he'd come home and work his boys out in their 57-foot-long driveway. Have them dribble the lengths of the driveway with one hand, then the other hand, then between the legs. Dribble between cones. Work on their defensive slides. It was a training in basketball fundamentals that flew in the face of today's roll-the-ball-out-and-play AAU culture.
And then the boys in the neighborhood would come over, and Ethan would find himself diving on the concrete, scraping up his knees, outworking the older neighborhood boys to prove to his father and to himself that he was going to become a Division I player.
It was as if Randy Happ were putting on a daily summer clinic to form the perfectly fundamental Wisconsin basketball player: Tall and tough, corn-fed and fundamentally sound, persistent and subtly creative.
"His adult life has been dedicated to helping my brother and me succeed, so he's not going to try and let us slack off," Ethan Happ told CBSSports.com recently. "You could definitely use the word 'hardass' for him – just a no-nonsense type of guy. But I can attribute so much of my success to the workouts he used to put us through."
Happ's success has been muted a bit this season as the Badgers struggled out of the gates. Less than a month into the season, Happ's team already had seven losses, a couple of them blowouts and a few more of them heartbreakingly close. Yet, attesting to how important Happ is to his team is this: When Wisconsin was sitting at an ugly 4-7, Happ still ranked in the top 10 on KenPom.com's player of the year standings. His usage is among the highest in the country, and he's filling the box scores up nightly, averaging 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.3 steals heading into Tuesday's game vs. No. 3 Purdue.
One reason for Happ's complete game: He didn't grow up as a center – that's just the position he plays now that he's a muscular 240 pounds. He was a point guard all the way through his freshman year of high school. Even his sophomore year in high school, when he shot up 4 inches to 6-6, he'd still bring the ball up the court for his team.
When you look at Happ and his crafty post-scoring these days, it comes from exactly the opposite of what you'd think. He hasn't been one of those big guys who has been thrown into the post all his life. He's learned to see basketball from all over.
"It comes from me being a guard my whole life," Happ said. "You have to be when you're going against guys who, at least on the better teams we go against, are 2 inches taller and have 40 pounds on me. You've gotta find a way to be crafty in the post, on defense and on offense. You gotta find a way to distribute the ball without being too passive."
"It's just taking that guard mentality into the post – that's how I got creative down low in the post," he said. "Most post players grew up being a post player, and the there's a set couple of moves. I still think like a guard down there. I don't really look at my man. A lot of post players make the mistake of looking at their man when they're making their move. I'm feeling him with my body and I'm looking at the rest of the court. If my guy's on me and he's too tight, I make a move to counter on that. Or if he's too far off me, I'll take him to space. But at the same time, I'm looking to see what's happening, if someone's setting a flare screen, if someone's coming off the double, who's cutting? Things like that."
It's a way of thinking honed from hours on the driveway court as well as hours in front of the chess board – Happ was his school's chess champion in sixth grade. All the sports he played growing up helped him in basketball. His time as a pitcher taught him how to have an even keel when things aren't going well. His time playing football taught him how to bait a quarterback into throwing a pass, which helps him get steals in basketball. And his time playing chess helps him think several moves ahead – always having a counter ready in the back of his mind for when an opponent makes a certain move.
This was the plan all along: To get a scholarship to play Division I basketball.
But Randy Happ won't pretend that, back when he was printing off those spreadsheets and working out his boys in the driveway, he expected Ethan would became a third-team All-America player as a sophomore and, depending if Wisconsin can turn its season around, could make another run for it his junior year. He never expected to be having very real conversations with his son about the possibility of playing in the NBA.
"I don't short him on anything he puts his mind to," Randy Happ said. "He's far surpassed anything I imagined. But he doesn't dwell on the individual stuff. It's all about winning during the season."
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