After hitting the shot, Ekey gets his shot
In the days and weeks immediately following his last-second, game-winning three-pointer at Iowa, Jon Ekey expected and received plenty of praise.
“It was all kind of crazy,” he said.
In the months following, whether he’s grocery shopping with his family back home in Independence, Mo., or back on the UI campus, Ekey is still celebrated for that long jumper from the left wing at Carver-Hawkeye with Aaron White’s hand inches from his face.
“I thought after a while people would forget about it, but it seems like they still talk about it and appreciate it,” Ekey said.
While not completely comfortable with what’s now legendary status at Illinois, his new title is something he’s perfectly fine with: professional basketball player.
Illinois’ one-year wonder last week signed a contract to play pro basketball for the Saitama Broncos of the Basketball Japan League. He reports to Japan on Aug. 29.
“It’s kind of one of those dreams I had when I was younger,” Ekey said. “When I played on the AAU circuit, people talked about playing Division I and maybe pro after that. At that stage, I didn’t know if that would actually happen, but I sat down with my mom one night at the kitchen table and we laid all that out, about what could happen. All the hard work that I’ve done and everyone that has helped me, it means a lot to say I’m a pro basketball player.”
Ekey, who transferred to Illinois for his final year of eligibility after spending the previous four years at Illinois State, finished his master’s degree at the UI this spring. He returned to campus last week to visit with his former teammates, play some pickup games and thank the Illinois coaches for their role in helping him achieve this dream.
“I wanted to see everyone again and thank all the coaches in person,” he said. “Illinois helped a lot. The talent we went against helped a lot, whether every day in practice with the guys we had, or the games with the guys I was going against, that made me better. Going against that speed and size got me ready for the next level. The coaches got me ready for what it takes at the next level. The experience they have and the advice they gave me, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Attention to detail is so important to Illinois coach John Groce that just about every step, breath, pass and basket his players make throughout the course of the season and offseason is charted.
The idea now is to transfer that focus into the classroom to ensure that the Illinois basketball players are getting the most out of their academic experience, too. But with Groce and his staff devoting so many hours toward coaching, scouting and recruiting, they need help.
At Ohio, Groce used the Academic Encouragers Program, where members of the community — typically folks who were retired — would monitor classroom attendance.
“It’s something that was a priority for us back at Ohio,” Illinois director of basketball operations Mark Morris said. “We really developed trust with them, and they developed trust with the players as they got to know them as well.”
During the last two years at Illinois, various members of the basketball staff, along with members of academic counselor Jessica Goerke’s staff, observed classroom attendance. But in an effort to be more thorough and allow all parties to focus on other responsibilities, Morris said help from the outside would be beneficial.
“We’re kind of looking for people to reach out to Jessica (email@example.com) that may be interested, and we can talk from there,” Morris said. “It’s going to be people we feel we can trust in carrying out the program.”