Born To Ball

CJ Wilcox sat at a table in the back of Voula’s Offshore Cafe. Wearing a purple and gray sweat suit, Washington’s senior standout packed the remnants of an omelet into a to-go box.

As Wilcox scraped the last of his breakfast from the plate with a fork, his younger brother, Tyson, had a pressing question.

Can we play Sonic?” asked the 5-year-old, who wanted to play a video game.

Wilcox turned toward his brother, picked up an iPad and indulged his sibling. On the other side of the table his mother and confidant, Mandy, and grandmother, Lois – the woman who raised Wilcox the first four years of his life – told stories about his childhood.

With a game against UCLA later that night, the soft-spoken shooter had a few hours to spare before heading to Alaska Airlines Arena for the Huskies’ shootaround. He spent it with his family. The only person who missed the breakfast was his father, Craig, who was flying to Seattle the next day after wrapping up some business meetings.

After the dishes were cleared, Wilcox had one more thing to do before rejoining his teammates. He promised Tyson a “Mario marathon,” on the Nintendo Wii and, when it comes to family, Wilcox always fulfills his obligations.

“He knows what’s important in life,” Mandy said.

Born to ball

Before Wilcox became Washington’s career leader in three-pointers. Before the 6-foot-5 guard became the Huskies’ second all-time leading scorer and a potential NBA draft pick, he was an unofficial mascot for the Brigham Young basketball team.

Born when Craig was a teenager, Lois raised Wilcox during his father’s college career. But, even though Lois lived in Eastman, Ga., she made sure the little boy who always had a basketball in his hands was able to see his father play.

She was recently looking at some photos and came across one from Craig’s senior season. He was posing with his teammates at an NIT game. Perched in a prominent position, was Wilcox, who looked “very pleased with himself.”

When Lois found that photo, tears welled in her eyes as she looked at the child she called “baby Craig.”

“Here’s this one little kid sitting among these giants and I almost cried when I was looking at it,” she said. “We never saw him as being one of those big guys, because he was so little.”

One year before that trip to the NIT, Lois packed Wilcox into the car so he could watch his father play a North Carolina team that featured future NBA stars Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace.

“We got in the car and drove from Eastman to Charlotte, and he was very respectful. Always has been,” Lois said.

Mandy and Craig got married shortly after he graduated from BYU and Wilcox joined the family in Utah.

“I’ve raised him since he was 4,” Mandy said. “To watch him grow from that 4-year-old to the person he is now, it’s great to see.”

When Craig and Mandy bought their first house, they settled on the one with a basketball court in the backyard. Growing up he was a homebody. When he wasn’t shooting a basketball, he was playing video games with friends.

Wilcox spent summers camping with the family, and he rode horses with Mandy. She admits her son enjoyed basketball more than horseback riding but, “He does what’s asked of him and he has a good time.”

“He learned the most valuable lesson he can learn, and that is the importance of work ethic and how that can provide you with value.”

She never could get him to wear a cowboy hat. He always insisted on wearing a backward cap, so Mandy called him her “gangster cowboy.”

When Wilcox got older, he decided he wanted to play guitar, so he took lessons. He continues to play, although he hasn’t picked one up in a few months because of the basketball season.

“If I wasn’t playing basketball, I would want to do something in music,” Wilcox said. “That’s kind of my thing off the floor.”

He has always been willing to try new things, but his first love is basketball.



Finding His Shot

Wilcox walked onto the floor a few minutes before 1 p.m., more than four hours before the Huskies’ game against the Bruins. He wore a purple jersey over a black T-shirt, purple shorts and white shoes. Between jumpers he joked with teammate Darin Johnson.

When the ball found its way into his hands, Wilcox took two dribbles, elevated, flicked his right wrist – Washington coach Lorenzo Romar calls it Wilcox’s “Uzi” – and the ball splashed through the rim.

Wilcox has made almost 300 three-pointers in his career. When he shoots in practice, his jumper looks so natural it feels like an aberration when he misses.

While he makes it look easy, his shot is the result of a decision made with his father before his freshman year in high school.

Wilcox first showed an aptitude for basketball while playing for the Jr. Jazz with his cousin, LeSean, in fourth grade. By the time Wilcox reached middle school, Craig thought his son had a “knack for hitting shots.”

But, while Wilcox had a penchant for putting the ball in the basket, Craig didn’t think his son would be able to get that shot off in high school.

“I changed his shot,” Craig said. “I completely changed it.”

For three weeks, Wilcox couldn’t make a shot. While he worked, Craig researched shooting technique. The more shots Wilcox took, the more frustrated he became.

“I was mad at him, because he was trying to change my shot,” Wilcox said. “It worked out for the best. I just had to adjust, and it became the way I shoot now.”

“There were days when father and son were in the gym at 6 a.m. After school, Wilcox spent his afternoons shooting in the backyard. ”

When things clicked, “all off a sudden, it just turned into a machine,” Craig said.

“I’m glad he did it,” Wilcox said. “I just found a really consistent form.”

There were days when father and son were in the gym at 6 a.m. After school, Wilcox spent his afternoons shooting in the backyard.

Through all the hours of hard work, he never stepped beyond the three-point line. He became Washington’s most prolific outside shooter by mastering his mid-range game.

“The way I was looking at it, just learn how to shoot one way,” Craig said. “With age, maturity and strength, the distance takes care of itself.”

When it came time for Wilcox to sign with a college program, it was a family decision.

“We make all our decisions together,” Wilcox said. “I don’t know if I’ve made many by myself. I’m always consulting with them, talking to them.”

Craig liked Washington, because he looked at Romar and saw a coach who was successful, humble and driven by an inner competitiveness. Craig thought his son shared the same traits and wanted him to know, “it’s OK to be very humble, but it’s also very important to have that inner drive and confidence that helps you get through it.”

When Wilcox committed to Washington, he wanted to redshirt. In fact, he insisted.

“For me, it was obvious to redshirt, because there were so many great players (Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter, among others) who were here at the time,” Wilcox said. “I just didn’t want to waste a year. I envisioned having a better senior year instead of a mediocre freshman year.”

Heading into the Pac-12 tournament this week, Washington’s leading scorer feels like he has made the most of his senior season. He is putting the finishing touches on a career his coach believes places him among the best players to wear a Washington uniform.

“He has done it with extreme class,” Romar said. “He has his degree (sociology). He has never been an issue for us, never been a problem for us. He’s been very low maintenance. He just does what he’s supposed to do.”

The Next Step

Wilcox worked his way around the three-point line. Less than an hour before tipoff, he fired a three from the corner. Swish. He took a few steps to his left and fired again. Swish. He ran into the paint, made a cut and sprinted out behind the arc for a third shot. Swish.

He carried his hot shooting into the game against the Bruins, scoring four of Washington’s first six points. He scored 13 in the first half, but was limited by foul trouble over the final 20 minutes. He finished with 20 points, but the Huskies lost, 91-82.

He met with the media after the game, while his family waited a few rows behind the scorer’s table.

Each game during this final season has been precious for Wilcox. But he knows there will soon come a day when he is forced to focus on his future and the NBA draft.

When thinking about what comes next, Craig looks into the past. He remembers sitting at the family’s kitchen table, looking at his son and saying, “I think someday you may be able to play in the NBA if you work hard at it.”

As that draft day draws closer, it is the hard work that has pushed Wilcox to this point. There have been moments when Mandy has turned to her husband and asked: What happens if a professional basketball career doesn’t work out for Wilcox?

Craig isn’t worried.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “He learned the most valuable lesson he can learn, and that is the importance of work ethic and how that can provide you with value.”

Like his father, Wilcox doesn’t spend much time fretting about his future. He just wants to “live in the moment.”