CHAMPAIGN — Outside the Illini Union on a cloudy Thursday afternoon, D.J. Richardson is finishing a phone call with good friend and former Illinois basketball teammate Brandon Paul, who is filling his buddy in on life in Florida preparing for the NBA draft.
As he says goodbye to Paul, D.J. shakes hands with a student who doesn´t care that he´s interrupting a conversation.
“What´s up, D.J.?”
“Hey, man, how you doing?” D.J. responds.
Inside the Union, more students abandon their study sessions to greet and steal a word from D.J., who even outside of his orange, blue or white No. 1 jersey is one of the most recognizable and approachable students on a campus of 40,000-plus.
“Hey, man, it´s been a pleasure to watch you play. I´m going to miss seeing you out there,” another student says.
D.J., the most outgoing Illinois basketball player since Dee Brown, greets every well-wisher with grace, appreciation and that wry smile that Illini fans have come to know these last four years.
The attention comes as easy to Richardson as the 278 career three-pointers he knocked down. He didn´t have to work at being a people person. That´s just who he is.
“He just gets along with people; he´s been that way since he was little,” said Brendetta Smith-Richardson, D.J.´s mom.
While the social and athletic skills have always been a natural gift for Dietrich James Richardson Jr., he´s had to work harder to keep up in the academic arena. When D.J. left Peoria Central after his junior year to attend prep school at basketball powerhouse Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, the main focus was to get his academics in line to qualify for a scholarship at an institution such as Illinois. The fact that he was afforded the opportunity to play on a team that would eventually win a national championship made the experience sweeter.
“I didn´t know much about prep schools and all that, but we talked to some people that told us if D.J. wanted to be able to play in college, that´s the way to go to make sure he had everything in order,” Smith-Richardson said. “It was hard for me, sending him that far away, but this was his dream and it really paid off for us.”
Said D.J.: “That was the best decision me and my family have ever made. That really helped me in my four years here.”
Because of that decision, D.J.´s grades and test scores improved, allowing him to sign with the Illini. With the lessons learned at Findlay and the support staff ushering him along at Illinois, D.J. is one class short of his degree in communication. Once that last requirement is fulfilled, he´ll be the first person in his family with a bachelor´s degree.
“That´s all my mom can talk about,” Smith-Richardson said of D.J.´s grandmother, Martha Smith. “She brought it to our attention that he´d be the first one in our family. We´re already so proud of him, and when he does that it´s going to be a great accomplishment.”
It stings D.J. some that he won´t be wrapped up at the end of this semester. But at the same time he recognizes the strides he´s made in that area.
While thousands of UI students celebrated commencement exercises this weekend, D.J. and his dad, D.J. Sr., moved some of his belongings out of his Champaign apartment back home to Peoria.
“It was a big challenge for me. School was not one of my strengths, but I always worked at it. I started getting better, and I realized throughout the years how important it was. I learned a lot here,” said Richardson, who depending on where he is in his career upon the completion of his degree may opt to walk in a graduation ceremony at that time. “I think basketball really helped me get to the level I´m at now. It would have been tough for me to get into this school without basketball.”
From Day 1 at Illinois, D.J. made academics as much of a priority as basketball.
Coach John Groce has raved all season about how D.J. bought into the new staff and new system early last spring after the coaching change. Debbie Willard, a learning specialist at the Irwin Academic Center who typically works with students who entered college underprepared for the academic rigors, essentially serves as D.J.´s classroom coach. She´s had the same experience with him the last four years that Groce enjoyed this past season on the court.
“He bought into the system right away, and that´s why it was such an easy transition for him, and that´s why he has come a long way. He understands the importance of academics; he understands the importance of getting his degree. ... He isn´t the type of kid who gets it done just to get it done, he really tries to understand it,” Willard said.
“He´s the type of kid who did not fight me about coming in here. He would come in here every day and say, ‘Can you quiz me on this reading? Can you look my paper over?´ He´s very concerned about the impression he makes not only in basketball but also in the classroom.”
As D.J. again walks outside the Union, he´s steps from the Alma Mater when someone yells from inside his car at the corner of Green and Wright.
“D.J., you the man! NBA, baby!”
D.J., in a gray hoodie, white shorts and black Jordans, looks up, smiles, waves and yells back, “I appreciate it,” in between bites of a chocolate peanut butter cup.
For D.J., the dream is to play in the NBA, and he´ll spend the next few months doing whatever he can to make that dream a reality. He´s already had one opportunity to play in front of NBA execs as one of 64 seniors at last month´s Portsmouth Invitational. He shot 5 for 18 from three and averaged 6.7 points in three games.
“Portsmouth was great,” he said. “I got a chance to play in front of a lot of coaches. I didn´t shoot the ball as well as I wanted to, but I was definitely a guy on the court that played with a lot of energy. I was talking a lot on defense, and I showed some leadership. I wish I could have shot the ball better.
“I shot the ball well throughout my career here, and I think a lot of teams know what I can do after seeing me for four years.”
D.J., who signed with agent Eric Fleisher of New York-based Assist Sports, said he and Fleisher are in the process of securing invites for NBA team workouts. There´s a chance he can catch on with an NBA summer team after the June draft, but his best options for a professional career are in the NBA Development League or in Europe.
“He´s a guy who unfortunately falls in between positions, so it´s going to be tough for him. He´s about the size of a big point guard, but he doesn´t necessarily have all the tools to be a point guard,” said Kris Habbas, editor-in-chief of NBA Draft Insider. “But then he´s a little undersized to be a shooting guard, which is more his natural position. Being a shooting guard at 6-3 ends up hampering him, and he falls into that category along with a number of other guys. You kind of fall into that tweener role when you´re that size.”
Habbas´ advice for D.J.: Go overseas if it´s between Europe and the D-League.
“He´s athletic enough and he shoots it well enough that he could be a 20-point scorer over there,” Habbas said. “The average salary in the D-League is just a touch more than the WNBA salary. You make less than $50,000 a year if you´re a star in the D-League. You can go overseas and sign for like half a million right out the gate.”
Wherever he ends up, D.J. just wants to draw a check playing the game he loves. He speaks frequently with fellow Peorian and former Illini Jamar Smith, who spent the last season in Israel.
“He loves it over there,” D.J. said. “That´s an experience you can always look back on and appreciate when you´re older. If that´s what I have to do, that´s what I´ll do.”
Another Peoria native, Jerry Hester, radio analyst for the Illini Sports Network, played for several years in Europe before transitioning into a career in the financial industry. He, too, had NBA dreams but took advantage of opportunities that arose.
“If a guy doesn´t make it in the NBA, don´t feel sorry for him. He´s playing a game he loves that he´s been doing since he was a kid,” Hester said. “Plus, you get to travel the world. Players have to realize they have a great opportunity to learn a lot more and to expand themselves as human beings than what they may have if they don´t get that experience.”
As he greets all his fans on that Thursday afternoon stroll through campus, which will end with another trip to the Irwin Academic Center to prepare for the three exams he has during finals week, it begins to hit D.J. that his time at Illinois is winding down. Soon, he´ll be in an unfamiliar place and all the handshakes, fist bumps and screaming well-wishers will be a thing of the past.
“I love it here; I´m always going to love Illinois,” D.J. said. “I fell in love with this place the first time I visited, and I told Coach (Bruce) Weber that I was going to do everything I could to help this university,” D.J. said. “I´m going to miss it, and I´m going to miss the people, but I´ll be back to see Coach Groce and all the guys. This is home.”