Wheelers and basketball: A family legacy

Wheelers and basketball: A family legacy

TOLONO — JT and TJ Wheeler don't play basketball against one another in a 1-on-1 setting. They play a personalized version of HORSE.

Fittingly, it's called ILLINI.

The "match this shot" game, in this household, pits JT, the current Unity boys' basketball star, against TJ, the former hoops standout at both Christopher High School and the University of Illinois.

A high school senior who has visions of playing in college against a 44-year-old who put up 883 points at that level for the Illini.

A son against his father.

"Go ahead," TJ starts.

"I've not won yet," JT admits, a bit dejectedly.

How many times have they squared off in this manner?

"Oh, it's a lot," TJ says.

"I always get them in, and then I start messing around, taking long shots," JT contends. "And he'll just do an underhand free throw and beat me."

"I start talking a lot more, too," TJ adds. "That's where he's got to grow up and mature: I get in his head pretty quick."

But what about the day — someday — when the younger Wheeler breaks through and dethrones his elder?

"He's always posting stuff on Instagram and Facebook, 'Look who I just beat,'" JT says of his dad. "So whenever I beat him, people are going to know."

This is just one entertaining chapter of the Wheelers' father-son basketball relationship. Some parts aren't quite so comedic, while others hold the same fun-loving vibe.

But no matter if the discussion turns to comparing playing styles, JT's training methods or TJ's knowledge trickling down to his son, one item is abundantly clear: The Wheelers know and love their basketball.

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That doesn't just stop at JT and TJ, either. Tom, the JT's grandfather and TJ's father, formerly served as a hoops coach at Christopher and Rend Lake Community College. Though Tom didn't coach TJ with the Christopher basketball program, that connection has given JT insight into his dad's playing days.

"Grandpa's got a whole lot (of film)," JT says. "Every time we're down there, he's got his own little shed in the backyard with a bunch of stuff."

Naturally, that allows for the drawing of similarities and differences between JT on the court today and TJ playing in the past. JT says watching his dad's jump shot reminds him of his own in the present, while TJ believes his son is more athletic as a high school player than the elder Wheeler ever was.

How about point production, though? JT surpassed 1,000 career points in a Feb. 10, 2017, victory over St. Thomas More. TJ compiled 2,528 for his career, ranking 29th on the IHSA scoring list. Among that output is a 53-point performance one night.

"I would say I could score it a little better in high school than he does right now," TJ offers.

JT grins and shakes his head.

"If we were head to head," the son counters, "I'd outscore him."

You can get these two back on the same page, though, by discussing their least-favorite part of practice: running. And then you can pull them right back off that page by bringing up their favorite shot to take.

"I love dunking," JT says. "Least favorite, lately it's been free throws."

Ironic, considering TJ left Illinois ranked third in free-throw conversion percentage.

"That's my favorite," the father says of foul shots. "I've always told him that's my favorite. You've got about 10 seconds to shoot it with nobody guarding you. You shouldn't miss it."

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TJ believes one of his strengths as a basketball player was having a father who coached the sport. But while TJ now works for athletic apparel supplier Eastbay, his hardwood history offers similar aid to JT today.

"Not during games, but outside of games," JT says. "It's like I'm with a head coach still. I'll hear him every once in a while during a game about what I need to do or what I'm doing wrong. I always know which voice is his; it's always louder."

TJ has toed the line carefully between coaching and parenting, especially as JT has advanced through his prep career. TJ says he once brought his son to tears after losing sight of that line. Luckily for TJ, he still has his own father-coach as well.

"I've changed that, as my dad told me, 'Stop being his coach and start being his dad,'" TJ says. "Now I just sit back — and I still want him to do stuff. He knows where I sit, home or away. And it'll just be the little things."

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The father-son basketball dynamic between TJ and JT really got a chance to grow once the younger Wheeler became more serious about playing. JT says that moment arrived in seventh grade, when his junior-high team upended a then-unbeaten Illini Bluffs squad in an IESA state tournament game.

"I remember that feeling after the game, we were all just smiling in the locker room, a bunch of little seventh graders from Tolono and nobody knows us, and we were just having a great time," JT says. "I was like, 'I kind of like this, I want to keep going, see if I can get that feeling again.'"

Beyond learning more about basketball's basics from his father, JT also was able to improve his physique and well-being with dad's assistance. JT, according to TJ, caught the weightlifting bug in junior high, which proved beneficial as the younger Wheeler transitioned to high school.

Also helping is the Wheelers' backyard workout facility, Club 44. A number of lift machines, a bench-press setup, a squats station and a bevy of dumbbells fill the room, which is available for use throughout the year by Unity's athletes and coaches at no cost beyond occasional throw-ins for equipment upkeep.

With this full-service workout station just steps from JT's reach, he has been a frequent visitor — sometimes with TJ, sometimes without.

"When I lift out there in the morning ... he's out there in the morning with me," TJ says. "And there's probably not a lot of 17-, 18-year-old kids that wake up at 5:30 to lift. ... He was dedicated enough to set up hurdles himself, box jumps on his own. I'm like, 'I'm not going out there with you every night. You're going to have to go one night on your own.' So that's probably the proudest I am, that I don't have to tell him, 'You need to go do this.'"

JT, whom TJ estimates put on 13 to 15 pounds between his junior and senior seasons, says motivation is easy to come by when he tries to make gains in the weight room.

"I always have my grandpa and (dad), of course, telling me, 'If you do this, this and this.' I just have it in the back of my head, 'One more, just keep going,'" JT says. "I want to do this, be better in this situation, and it just has me prepared for every little thing going on. Knowing they both know the game so well, it just helps me out."

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JT has a chance to take on two other aspects of his father's high school career as 2017 turns to 2018. The first involves winning a regional championship, which would be the first for Unity since 2012.

The Rockets went 11-13 last season, with JT averaging 21 points per game as the group's obvious scoring threat. He's still Unity's leading point producer amid a 5-0 start, but a lack of graduations has created a more balanced team in the present. Of course, the Rockets must contend with moving up to Class 3A this postseason after playing in 2A previously.

"I think it'd be awesome for our school," JT says. "Since football (finished in the postseason's) second round, seeing basketball start to succeed again would be big for younger kids coming into the program wanting to play."

The situation echoes that of TJ during his junior prep season. He was on a senior-laden Christopher squad that sought a trophy or two. In fact, the Bearcats had never even won a regional crown entering the 1988-89 school year. And to achieve that mission, they had to defeat a West Frankfort squad that was playing down from its typical Class AA perch alongside Christopher in Class A.

"I was fortunate to hit a last-second shot to win it," TJ recalls. "The enjoyment was probably seeing my dad, his former players, everybody who's been around Christopher forever finally get their first regional."

The other possible mirror between TJ's prep exploits and JT's has nothing at all to do with basketball.

Instead, it's the chance JT could follow in his father's footsteps as a track and field athlete.

TJ competed in a number of events — father Tom was the Bearcats' track and field coach — but was especially adept in the hurdles. He finished sixth in the 1990 Class A state championships in the 110-meter highs.

JT eyes a possible jumping career as well, though in the triple jump. It's something he says he's explored in the past for Unity, but complications with AAU basketball have prevented previous tries. It appears that may not be the case now as JT's time in high school winds down.

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Of course, there's also college hoops. TJ's time at Illinois under famed coach Lou Henson is well known. He says people will occasionally recognize his name while on business calls.

So is there a similar future in the works for JT? He hopes so.

"I hope to play, four-year for sure," JT says. "We've talked to a few schools lately. Playing would be fun. I love it. I want to major in sports management. If I could play ball and still manage when I want to, that would be great."

TJ doesn't want his son to rush any decision, though. While the family is fielding calls from teams — neither father nor son would specify which or how many — they're on the same page about JT enjoying his senior season.

"Let the game speak for yourself," TJ says. "It's going to be up to him, like my dad left it up to me. Whatever you're comfortable with, and if you've got the relationship with the staff and you think you can do it, I'm going to support him."

That support is also just one part in the Wheelers' bond, which basketball has helped foster. Though there are moments where the two have butted heads over different topics — and plenty of times where TJ has pulled out an ILLINI win against JT — they're glad for the unique relationship.

"These last couple years, we've probably grown closer," TJ says. "I don't think these last 18 years I would change anything with him."

"I think we've got a different bond than most father-sons," JT adds. "Most father-sons will be at home talking at dinner, how was your day at school. We talk college basketball, we talk NBA, we talk about other kids in high school we know about. Basketball's our main topic. Our bond is different and something I wouldn't change ever."