Rock Chalk Weekly: Patiently Waiting But Always Ready
Written by Erica Mings, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
It’s 1:45 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and Hunter Mickelson has 45 minutes before he has to be in the weight room. The senior forward’s six-foot, 10-inch frame is comfortably stretched out in a recliner in the dimly lit men’s basketball lounge, soaking in a few minutes of rest before returning to his many commitments as a member of the Kansas men’s basketball team.
Mickelson promptly rises from the recliner and cheerfully declares, with a little southern twang, “I’m ready.”
Mickelson’s southern roots lead back to the small town of Jonesboro, Arkansas where the trees are never-ending—something Mickelson misses about his hometown.
“There’s nothing but hills and ridges. And when you drive from Jonesboro up to Fayetteville the roads are lined with trees and there are mountains just covered in trees,” Mickelson said.
The serene, breathtaking green scenery of Arkansas is where it all began for Mickelson, but the road that led him to the University of Kansas is a little different.
Growing up in Arkansas, Mickelson spent his time playing sports, hunting and hanging out with his friends. While he fell in love with hunting at an early age, Mickelson says he’s been playing sports for as long as he can remember. And even though he participated in several sports as a child, the basketball standout says baseball was his thing.
Mickelson’s dad, Darien, coached his baseball team and instilled in Mickelson the qualities and characteristics that make him the respectful and hardworking athlete he is today. His dad, who Mickelson referred to as “Pops,” also hooked Mickelson on hunting and fishing; something Mickelson does whenever he gets the chance. When it comes to hunting, ducks are his thing. It’s something he’ll continue to do long after playing sports is no longer a part of his life. Kansas head coach Bill Self says Mickelson’s country roots are something that really stands out about him.
“The guy loves to hunt and fish,” Self laughed.
When Mickelson wasn’t hunting, he was playing baseball. Convinced baseball was going to be the sport he played through middle school and high school, Mickelson spent a lot of time on the baseball diamond in his early years. But when he reached the seventh grade something changed. There was no defining or epic moment that swayed Mickelson from swinging a bat to dunking a basketball. It was simple.
“I grew,” Mickelson laughed.
In the seventh grade Mickelson began to sprout toward his current six-foot 10-inch build that makes him one of the Jayhawks’ big men. He began to notice that he was taller than most baseball players his age, and the increased altitude came with a few other things that pushed Mickelson away from baseball and to basketball.
“I started to get more awkward,” Mickelson said through a little quirky half smile. “Then I started to not be as good at baseball—so I switched to basketball.”
Mickelson was ready to take on the challenge of focusing on a completely new sport.
“Mechanically, they are so different,” Mickelson said.
But the switch to basketball seemed to be a smooth transition for Mickelson, and when he got to high school he was able to play for an AAU team called the Arkansas Wings.
The founder of the Arkansas Wings, and Mickelson’s coach at the time, was Ron Crawford. Mickelson credits Crawford as being one of the people who has had a lasting impact on his life. Being a team member of the Wings gave Mickelson his first taste of travel basketball. From there, Mickelson went on to help Westside High School win a 4A state title, and was well on his way to becoming a Jayhawk.
Before attending the University of Kansas, Mickelson spent his first two years at the University of Arkansas under coach Mike Anderson, where he emerged as one of the best shot blockers in the nation. After successful freshman and sophomore seasons at Arkansas, Mickelson decided to trade in the Razorback for the Jayhawk.
Loyalty is important to Mickelson, so leaving Arkansas wasn’t an easy decision. At the time Mickelson was excited to be there, but he knew Arkansas wasn’t going to get him where he wanted to go. It came down to doing what was best for himself, and Mickelson knew the University of Kansas had what he needed.
“In the end, if you don’t think the place you’re at is going to get you to where you want to be, you have to make a change to give yourself a better opportunity to get to where you want to go,” Mickelson said.
Transitioning from Arkansas to Kansas meant Mickelson would have to sit out the 2013-14 basketball season, leaving him without the one thing every athlete craves—competition. This would be the first time since Mickelson began playing sports that he would be on the bench the entire season.
“It was tough,” Mickelson said. “It was the first time in forever that I hadn’t been able to compete.”
But the absence of competition didn’t deter Mickelson from being ready for the next time he would suit up and step out on the court. Focusing on practice and preparing for the time when he would get to once again experience the adrenaline rush from playing in front of basketball fans kept Mickelson motivated.
Not only did Mickelson have to transition from competing at Arkansas to siting out at Kansas, but he also had to transition from coach Anderson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” to Bill Self’s style of coaching. Self said it took some time for Mickelson to transition to being part of a new team. Mickelson says it was a mental thing, but he’s glad he went through that year, because it got him to where he is today.
In the 2014-15 basketball season Mickelson was able to show his teammates and his coaches that he was someone they could depend on. He stepped up when Perry Ellis injured his knee in a game against West Virginia. Coach Self said there’s a reason why Mickelson is always ready and willing to step up to the plate when his team needs him.
“He’s fallen in love with the game,” Self said. “Everybody goes through phases where things haven’t gone as good for them, and they can get a little bit frustrated. He experienced that when he was leaving Arkansas to come to KU. Now he’s much more a part of the team and has much more of a leadership role this year.”
Mickelson has a get-it-done attitude and isn’t one to complain. He says he does what is asked of him—and a little extra. Self says Mickelson has put himself in a position to be a leader and have a big impact on the team.
“Everybody loves how hard he works, and everybody loves his attitude,” Self said.
Mickelson’s character and work ethic have earned him the respect of his teammates, coaches and, hopefully the fans.
The saying, “champions are made when no one is watching” is something Mickelson seems to live by when it comes to his basketball career. Putting in extra time on the court is important to him. After practice with the team, he spends honing his skills on his own; something he learned early in his basketball career; something that he says contributes to his ability to always be ready to compete at a high level.
“That’s what it takes,” Mickelson said. “My AAU coach always said you have to work harder and do extra to make it to college. And then I made it college and it’s the same thing. You have to work harder and do extra to make it past here.”
A positive attitude and hard work on the court is something Mickelson is proud of. He may not be a vocal leader, but he leads by example; a way of life that he hopes rubs off on younger generations. Being a good role model is important to Mickelson.
“I try not to get in trouble too often—or at all,” Mickelson said with a hint of mischief in his voice.
To the young athletes wanting to play college sports, Mickelson says, “Keep working hard, be respectful, and do your best.”
Mickelson’s hard work behind the scenes paid of this summer in Gwanju, Korea, at the World University Games where he helped Team USA win a gold medal. Not knowing what to expect when he arrived for the Games, all Mickelson could do was remain focused and ready to perform when the time came for him check into the game. And that time did come.
Mickelson started in five of the eight USA victories and led the team with nine blocked shots and also had eight steals; a performance that convinced Self Mickelson could be a viable player in the competitive Big 12 Conference this year.
Mickelson feels that playing in Korea definitely gave him an edge.
“It was definitely a confidence booster to be able to go out there and play well,” he said. “And we ended up winning. So that was a plus.”
Mickelson hopes that he and his teammates will take everything they learned in Korea and apply it to this season.
While playing well and working hard is important to Mickelson, he wants the fans to know that he doesn’t do it all for himself. Mickelson sees a bigger picture.
“In my time here, we have only won two conference titles, but we get the opportunity to shoot for KU’s 12th [consecutive] title,” Mickelson said. “The guys before us played really well, well enough to make this streak as long as it is. We are just trying to build for the people who will come after us, and make sure they have the opportunity to play and do things as well as we are trying to do them.”
Mickelson explained that Self always says no one is bigger than the program, and that’s something Mickelson has held on to. He wants the fans to understand the team’s philosophy.
“We work hard,” he said. “But we work to build what’s coming after.”
As far as his future is concerned, Mickelson hopes that professional basketball is what comes after KU.
“I want to be able to play ball,” Mickelson said.
He also knows that things don’t always go as planned. That’s one of Mickelson’s fears—having a plan for the future and then that plan falling through. If playing basketball isn’t in his future, Mickelson definitely plans on keeping his options open. His college career has had some ups and downs and Mickelson has been able to stay positive through it all.
“It seems like it’s on its way up now, and I hope it’s up to stay,” Mickelson said.
You may not see Mickelson in the starting lineup for the Jayhawks yet, but regardless of the situation he is placed in, he always seems to be quietly, and patiently waiting for the moment when he can show the world what he’s made of —patiently waiting, but always ready.
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