SEATTLE — The time came, Craig Wilcox decided this summer, when he could finally let his son go.
Forty years old, he had spent more than half his life being a father, mentor and drill instructor, and the former BYU basketball player had come to realize that there was little more he could do for his child.
On the basketball court, anyway.
And so began the next phase of C.J. Wilcox’s basketball life. The University of Washington’s star junior owes almost all of his basketball acumen to his father — both from a genetics standpoint and also from countless hours of gym work — and yet there is one thing Craig Wilcox simply can’t teach him.
“I’ve never been a pro, so why would I … you know?” C.J. Wilcox’s father said last week, explaining why he encouraged his son to work with NBA players rather than dear old dad this summer.
“To me, that’s what it was about. He needs to listen to someone that is a pro, that knows what it takes to be a pro.”
While Craig Wilcox admits he never had the skills to make it to the NBA, he did have offers — seven of them, he says — to play professionally overseas following a three-year career at BYU in the early 1990s. That opportunity was tempting but wasn’t really all that realistic, based on one key factor.
“I had a choice: be a dad or play basketball,” said Craig Wilcox, who got his then-girlfriend pregnant as an 18-year-old senior in high school.
C.J. Wilcox, who turns 22 at the end of this month, has spent his entire basketball career learning from a hands-on father, who then steered him toward NBA players such as former teammate Quincy Pondexter this summer. Consider it the next phase of Wilcox’s basketball growth.
“He’s kind of passed it off, giving me to people who have different workouts so I’m not just doing the same stuff I’ve been doing,” C.J. Wilcox said.
Not that Craig Wilcox has washed his hands of the mentor role.
“He’s always going to be my first critic after a game, good or bad,” C.J. Wilcox said. “He’s always going to be the one to tell me what I did bad and what I needed to work on. He’s always sending me workouts after practice to stay shooting the ball well. So, he’s always going to be there.”
For Craig Wilcox, the sacrifice was about a lot more than just time on the basketball court. He took on the responsibility of being a father at a very young age, then gained custody for reasons he did not want to discuss. A native of Eastman, Ga., Wilcox left young C.J. behind in the care of the boy’s grandmother — while attending BYU from 1993 through 1995.
During Craig’s college career, BYU did a European tour that led to several offers, he said recently, and yet he decided to turn them down in order to raise C.J.
In 1995, when C.J. was 4 years old, his father brought him to Salt Lake City. Craig Wilcox was dating a woman at the time who would become his wife and, in Craig’s words, C.J. “only knows one mom.”
It didn’t take long before C.J. was wowing people on the basketball court, his father included. Despite a rather unconventional shooting stroke, C.J. Wilcox was a pure shooter at a very early age.
When C.J. was in the ninth grade, his father began putting together drills to help develop him as both a player and a young man.
“At the time, I didn’t see the NBA (in C.J.’s future) or anything,” said Craig Wilcox, who now lives in San Diego after raising C.J. with his wife of 16 years in Salt Lake City. “My goal was to teach work habits, work ethic. That was the most important thing at the time. I didn’t care what it was at the time — guitar, piano, being book smart — it was just about work ethic.
“We got going, and I was just like, let’s see what happens. The more and more I worked with him, I noticed: man, you can shoot the rock. Holy cow. I’d never seen anything like that.”
And yet the father knew that for his son to become the best shooter he could be, C.J. would have to revise a shooting motion that had served him well. Like many young players, C.J. Wilcox tended to shoot from his shoulder and was initially resistant to his father’s insistence on shooting from the forehead.
“He was so upset about me changing his shot,” Craig said. “He couldn’t throw it in the ocean for about a week. But we just did it over and over and over, until he didn’t know any other way to shoot it. Pretty soon, here he goes again.”
The drills continued over the years, well into C.J. Wilcox’s summers as a UW player. Craig Wilcox came up with ball-handling drills, sessions designed to improve C.J.’s driving ability and, most of all, workouts to perfect footwork. Without any substantial coaching background, Craig Wilcox devised the drills and tried to simulate game situations as he pushed his son, over and over.
Under his father’s tutelage, C.J. Wilcox has become one of the best shooters in college basketball. He’s scoring at 19.9 points per game at the moment, which a ranks him first on the Huskies, second in the Pacific-12 Conference and 27th in the nation. He has surpassed the 20-point mark in four consecutive games.
Despite working with NBA players for most of the summer, the younger Wilcox always will be all ears when it comes to the advice coming from a 40-year-old BYU product who never made it to the pros. That willingness to improve, Craig Wilcox said, is what has made UW’s leading scorer such a dangerous player.
“To this day, I still don’t think he realizes how good he is,” Craig Wilcox said. “Because he doesn’t think he’s all this and all that, he’s always looking to improve.”
Now the father of a 3-year-old son — C.J.’s half-brother — Craig Wilcox looks back at his first foray at parenthood as just what he expected it to be.
“I found out my girlfriend was pregnant, and I remember saying to myself: ‘Mom’s going to kill me,’” Craig Wilcox said. “But everything happens for a reason. I just wanted to be a dad.”