Last week I had the opportunity to jump on a call with former Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball player, Philip Hickey. We had a great time walking down memory lane and talking some Notre Dame basketball. I never get tired of speaking with former Notre Dame athletes and getting an inside perspective on what it is like to be a student-athlete at a Division I program such as Notre Dame. Not only do I learn something new every time, I walk away with an even more profound love of Our Lady’s University. And without further ado, here’s my interview with Philip Hickey.
Where did you grow up?
“I grew up in a beautiful small town called Wellsboro, in north central Pennsylvania, which is also home to the Pennsylvania Grand canyon. It is a picturesque New England style town with gaslights lining the streets. It is the type of place that you do not appreciate as a young person and you probably thought was a bit boring, but looking back on it you count your blessings that you grew up in nice, safe, beautiful town. I have two siblings. My sister, Christine, lives in Perth, Australia, and my half-brother, Jonathan, lives in Arkansas with his wife, Alysha, who is in the Air Force.”
How did you become interested in playing basketball?
“I always felt like the world was pushing me to play basketball. I was a huge kid. When I say I was a huge kid, this is what I mean: I was the same size as my teacher when I was in kindergarten. If I wanted to go on the teeter-totter, she had to go on the other side, or two kids had to. Growing up my first love was baseball. I was obsessed with the New York Yankees, and I was obsessed with right fielder Dave Winfield who was my hero growing up. He was a great role model for me. Based on his size alone, he stood out playing right field, and he was an amazing player. Come to find out he was also a great basketball player, and in addition to playing for the Yankees, he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks (NBA), Utah Stars (ABA), and even the Minnesota Vikings (NFL).”
“I played little league baseball growing up and absolutely loved the sport. My coach, Keith Tombs, had a brilliant sports mind. He could teach anything about any sport. Coincidentally, he was also the high school basketball coach. As he was coaching me in baseball, he would give me these gentle nudges that maybe I should pursue basketball, or at least try it and see if I liked it. My mom, Elaine, was a great basketball player as well and played basketball in college (Division III). All of these signs were just pushing me towards basketball. At first, I resisted it, and felt that I only loved baseball. Somewhere around fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, I started to get interested in basketball, and started to enjoy it. That was around the time when Michael Jordan was really starting to evolve as a pop culture figure, and his Nike Air Jordans were everywhere in the media. By the time I was in sixth grade I just could not get enough of basketball and it became a lifelong obsession. I was hooked.”
What made you interested in playing basketball at the University of Notre Dame?
“Obviously, the University of Notre Dame has a lot of history to it; it is a storied program and a storied school. When I was growing up, part of the Notre Dame NBC football contract included that two or three Notre Dame basketball games would get national television coverage. I watched them as much as I could, and started following players like Monte Williams, LaPhonso Ellis, and of course head coach Digger Phelps. When I started being recruited, Notre Dame was always on my interest list, and they were interested in me as well. My mom suggested to me that I take my official visit to Notre Dame during the week so that I could actually see what real student-life was like at ND, and not be wooed by a ND football weekend. In hindsight, that was a brilliant move on her part. During my visit, I fell in love with the campus, the coaches, and the players. If you combine that with the fact that they were moving into the Big East Conference, which was always my dream conference, that sealed the deal. (Philip’s first year was Notre Dame’s first year in the Big East Conference.) The combination that Notre Dame offered with world-class athletics and world-class academics, there were only a handful of schools that could compete with that and it just felt right to me. For me, it was the place to be.”
“My freshman class was targeted to be a big breakout recruiting class for Notre Dame, and it was the first nationally ranked class at ND in a couple of years. We had Doug Gottlieb, who is now a big Fox Sports personality, who ended up transferring to Oklahoma State. We also had Gary Bell, who was from Joliet, IL, and now coaches youth athletes, who was nationally ranked in both football and basketball. He finished number two to Kevin Garnett for Mr. Basketball in Illinois. We had Antoni Wyche, who has been a successful NCAA basketball coach and is currently at Siena. A big part of your success as a team is that when you come together, you have to believe that your class can contribute to the team as a whole. Overall, that class was full of talent and personality.”
“I will never forget the first time I met Gary, at the Nike All-American camp. He was such an interesting character. I think he had already committed to ND, and I hadn’t, and he said to me, ‘listen man, you can jump on my back for two years, but then after that you’re going to have to do it by yourself because I’m going to go to the NBA.’ Unfortunately, he had some bad luck injuries with his back and ankles and things did not work out as he had hoped. Doug ended up transferring at the end of my first year. Antoni and I persevered and had careers we were very proud of and were captains our senior year. Attending and playing basketball at Notre Dame is a choice I will never regret and I loved every moment.”
“When I made my official visit to Notre Dame, I had a couple of students who hosted me. Keith Kurowski, who was from New Jersey, and Admore White, who was a point guard. They toured me around campus and I got to meet a bunch of the players that would become my future teammates like Pat Garrity, Derek Manner, Marcus Young, and Matt Gotsch. Being that I was there in the middle of the week, I got to hang out with them on a much more laid-back basis. My mom was right, if you love a school on a normal day, football weekends are going to be twenty times better.”
What other schools were you looking at?
“I was looking at all of the schools in the Big East Conference, as that was always the conference I wanted to play in. In particular Syracuse, Pitt, and Rutgers. I also was looking at Penn State, Duquesne, and Northwestern. And of course Notre Dame.”
What was the transition like from playing basketball in high school, to competing at the collegiate level?
“The transition from playing basketball in high school to playing at the college level is difficult on many different levels. When you get to the Division I level, the training is so intense, and there are no shortcuts on the court or academically. You are thrown into both the athletics and the academics on day one. When I arrived on campus, I had never shot around on the basketball court at Notre Dame. On my first day on campus, I went to the basketball office and the assistant coach Terry Tyler said, ‘Let’s go shoot around a little bit and you can see where you will be playing for the next four years.’ It was not a full workout, just a couple of shots to welcome me and make me feel at home. He was dressed in a Notre Dame polo tucked into his khaki pants with a nice belt. I remember shooting a few foul shots. One shot in particular (maybe the third or fourth shot) bounced off the front of the rim. Terry went straight off of two legs, grabbed it with two hands and dunked it right into the basket. I was in absolute shock. My reaction was, ‘my god, if the assistant coaches at Division I schools can do this, what are the players going to be like?’ It is something that has stuck with me my entire life. To be fair Terry was just a couple years out of his NBA career and still in excellent shape, but I did not expect that at all.”
“Besides how good the existing players were and how hard they worked, I came in as a freshman recovering from a broken toe incident over the summer. I also needed to get in a bit better shape. In addition, I failed the mandatory swim test (I could not do my backstroke), and so I had to take swimming lessons in the morning, on top of the extra practices and rehab that I had to attend in the evening. I felt like I was working out around the clock. It was quite intense. Then I started to see the results, and it made me excited for what was next, and so the hard work paid off. The transition was definitely grueling both mentally and physically, and it is something you have to be ready for, but it definitely works if you put the effort in.”
What was it like to be a student-athlete at Notre Dame?
“I am not sure what it is like to be at another school, but being a student-athlete at Notre Dame is the best. I love that there were no athletic dorms, that students and athletes lived together, and you all have a shared experience. You meet lifelong friends in the dorms at Notre Dame, and you become family. I was lucky to have lived in Dillon Hall, and roomed with (football walk-on) Justin Meko, who has become a brother from another mother, and is a lovely guy with whom I have a lifelong bond. It is an immediate network that is created for you and it is just amazing.”
“I had the normal school year experiences at Notre Dame, but I also went to a couple summer school sessions and had those experiences as well. When I attended summer school at Notre Dame, it was almost as if it was a different university for me. I worked out and was roommates with a lot of the football team; especially the offensive and defensive linemen (Tim Ridder, Alex Mueller, Mike Rosenthal, David Payne, John Wagner, and John Cerasani) and we had some amazing summers. We studied hard and worked out hard, but we also did some exploring of Indiana and Illinois on the weekends, which I had never really done before. We are still all close friends. Once you graduate from Notre Dame, you are a Domer for life. It automatically opens up a great network of alumni, family and friends that you can participate in, take advantage of, and give to for the rest of your life. It is a special place to be a student-athlete. You not only develop academically and athletically, but you also develop morals and a sense of purpose.”
“And, of course, it is the most beautiful campus. It is just stunning … when it is at its best, it is incredible. You almost have to take a moment to enjoy how beautiful it really is, and what a wonderful place it is. The architecture, the landscaping, the Golden dome, the football stadium, and touchdown Jesus … or is it three point Jesus? (laughs) It is all just amazing, fantastic, and breathtaking.”
What was your relationship with Coach MacLeod like at Notre Dame?
“He was an outstanding man and a great teacher both on and off the court. He had the NBA pedigree. He worked us hard, and pushed us hard, and he expected a lot out of us. He expected us to grow into men. I really cannot say enough positive things about him or his staff. He had a great basketball staff, which included Fran McCaffery, who recruited me, as well as Terry Tyler, Parket Laketa and Billy Taylor. Additionally, I had a great bond with our legendary trainer, Skip Meyer, and we were lucky to have a great strength and conditioning program run by Billy Ray Martinov, and then Tony Rolinski, who is still there doing an amazing job. I was lucky to have played for Coach MacLeod for four years. He was kind of a private man but he was wonderful. He 100% encapsulated the spirit of Notre Dame, and everything that Notre Dame stands for. He was an honest person, he expected a lot out of you, and he held you accountable for your actions.”
“He evaluated you and told you what your potential was, and then he showed you where you needed to be and set up a program to get you there. He also provided us with opportunities off the court that we would not have otherwise gotten. For example, when we traveled to Washington, D.C. for a game, he was friends Sandra Day O’Connor, and we met her while we were there and took a tour of the White House and the Supreme Court. He gave us all of these intangible opportunities that at the time were cool but looking back as an adult were unbelievable. He knew a lot about basketball and I think we were so close to breaking through, but, unfortunately, there were a couple of transfers and a couple of injuries that kept us from getting there.”
What skills and/or tools did Coach MacLeod give you to help you manage the challenging academics at Notre Dame along with the rigors of playing basketball?
“He held us accountable for our successes and failures. It was a simple strategy. He would tell us, ‘You came here to be a Notre Dame student-athlete, which means you need to focus on both and do well in both.’ In addition, there were no short cuts anywhere. He wanted us to learn fast from our mistakes, to own up to them, and then to lean into our strengths and he helped us do that. He expected us to put in the effort both on and off the court, and on multiple occasions told us, the reason why Notre Dame is great is that there are no short cuts. This is hard. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. This is why you came here, to have these experiences, to push yourself, and to be challenged. Which was absolutely the right approach. It was all very doable with effort and determination. I was a business major and had a keen interest in English literature. There were a lot of interesting classes that I would have loved to have taken but they were in the afternoon and I could not take them because of practice. To say the least, I was very busy and rarely bored.”
What is your favorite ND basketball memory?
“I have two favorite memories to share with you. One from my freshman year, and one from my senior year. First, Coach Terry Tyler invited us (the freshmen on the squad) over to his house for Thanksgiving my freshman year. We were right in the middle of two-a-days, and were overwhelmed with trying to balance basketball and our first semester of classes, and it was a much-needed break for us. He and his wife, Sara, cooked an amazing southern Thanksgiving meal, he told us stories from when he played in the NBA, and it felt like we were in another world, a vortex of sorts. It was calm and relaxing, there was no pressure, we laughed, ate amazing food, the freshmen all bonded, and it was definitely one of the highlights from my time at Notre Dame. It is hard to explain how much that night was needed at the time but it definitely was.”
“Second, in my senior year, my senior day game was my favorite on the court memory. I tied my career high points during that game. We beat Boston College and I dunked on a few people. My Mom and sister were both there to see me play, we got to celebrate afterwards with friends, and it is a day I will never forget.”
Did you play basketball professionally after ND?
“I had been chasing that NBA dream since I was a kid and so I continued to pursue that dream post Notre Dame. After graduation, I attended the Indiana Pacers free agent camp run by Larry Bird and Rick Carlisle, which was an unbelievable experience. That really showed me where the bar was, as the Pacers team was very strong that year. From there I played a season in the CBA-IBL for the Cincinnati Stuff. The year was fine but I did not really enjoy it, to be honest, because it was a very selfish atmosphere. Everyone was playing for these ten-day NBA contracts and trying to get called up, and it was selfish one-on-one basketball. I missed the team goal of winning and it lacked the camaraderie I had experienced at Notre Dame. It was a learning year, though, and my game continued to improve.”
“The next year I played in Finland and it was one of the best years of my life. I really got to focus on basketball and play on a team where the goal was to win and come together. I loved it and I had a great season. Then I played for the London Towers in the EuroLeague, I played in Slovenia and in Belgium, and then I hurt my knee. After I hurt my knee I was going to hang it up and then John Simon from the original team I played for in Finland called and asked me to come back and play for them for two years. While I was there, I also had the opportunity to go back to school at the Helsinki School of Economics and get my Master’s Degree. It was like being on scholarship again (just a bit older). It is also where I met my wife, Anne (in MBA school), and we lived in Finland for eleven years. It was a great choice. Playing basketball professionally was a wonderful experience for me and it allowed me to see the world and meet my wife.”
Where did life take you after basketball?
“Once I retired from playing basketball, and graduated with my MBA, I was hired in Helsinki to do marketing at Nokia, who was the biggest mobile phone maker in the world at the time. Then I took a job with a company called Rovio Entertainment and headed up the marketing for Angry Birds, which was a mind blowing kind of experience as it became a pop culture juggernaut. That led to my current job where I head marketing and brand for the Best Fiends franchise at Seriously Digital Entertainment (A Playtika Studio), which moved us from Helsinki, Finland, to Los Angeles, California. The company is based in both Helsinki and Los Angeles which is great because it gives us a reason to go back to Helsinki, but we also love being in Los Angeles. My wife and I have 2 boys, Liam (8), and Fin (5), and we have two family dogs. Living in Finland was a great experience for us, and we may end up back there, but it sure would be hard to give up the Los Angeles weather.”
How did being a student-athlete at Notre Dame prepare you for what you are doing today?
“Of course graduating, and all of the experiences you have at Notre Dame, and the wonderful classes and professors, all prepare you for life after college. But I think Notre Dame has a way of holding you accountable for your own successes and failures, and it teaches you that quite early. You have to learn an inner motivation while you are there, in order to be successful in a place where you are surrounded by so many other smart, very motivated, future successful young men and women, and that inner drive is what you need to become a successful adult. Being surrounded by so many talented people also causes you to find that inner motivation quickly, and to act on it, because you have to in order to survive.”
What advice would you give current student-athletes?
“Ask questions, be curious, and put yourself out there. Learn from others and offer your expertise. Build a network. Push yourself both on and off the court (or field). Even if you are lucky enough to eventually play professionally, it going to end one day, and you are going to have to be prepared for what is next, and Notre Dame will prepare you for that. However, you have to put in your own effort, and you have to be determined to do that. It is important that you start thinking about that early. Even if you are the greatest athlete around, it is going to end at some point and there is a whole another life after athletics. There is no better place than Notre Dame to figure that out.”
Do you have a funny story about your coach?
“Coach MacLeod was a stickler for each one of us to wear jock straps. To me, it was something like my grandfather would have worn. It was uncomfortable and weird and everyone in my freshmen class hated them. I just stopped wearing it and wore the normal spandex sports things that you would wear. I do not know if someone told on me or what, but he got wind that I was not wearing mine. So we were at practice one day, and he stopped us right in the middle of the lay-up line. Out of the blue, he came right up to me and started frisking me TSA style, to see if I was not wearing it. It was the most awkward funniest thing and the rest of the team was just standing there, watching, trying not to laugh at this situation I had gotten myself into. He went on to give us a speech on me not wearing my jock strap, and why it was important for us to wear it. It was such a surreal, weird, awkward experience, and my teammates still talk about it to this day. Doug Gottlieb loves to bring it up every year in one of his sports broadcasts, and then everyone starts texting me, ‘oh, he’s talking about it again!’ I think year after year the story grows into more of a legend.”
Do you have any philanthropy work or charity involvement that you would like to promote?
“I work with a couple of partners through our company that I love, and I have one that I am particularly excited about. I have always worked in the mobile game space, and we have collaborated with a company called SpecialEffect in the UK. They help people with physical disabilities of all ages find joy through playing video games. They build these unbelievable tech apparatuses that allow them to play games by blinking their eyes or using their feet and it is so incredible to see the smiles on their faces. They thought they would never be able to play a PS5 and now they have this incredible solution. They are a small organization, and they are starting to do some work in the United States, but they are looking to get bigger and help more people and we work closely with them. I am an ambassador for them and I am very proud of the work they are doing.”
Thank you, again, to Philip for spending some time with me and reminiscing about the good old days! I hope you enjoyed this week’s Throwback Thursday, and as we head towards the weekend ... Cheers & GO IRISH!